If you live in a town with a population of ten thousand people, statistics show that there are about two centenarians out there living life– many to the fullest! That’s around 55,000 people who have made it to their 100th birthday in the U.S. alone.
The census report from 2014 gave us a few more insights on just who these unique “super agers” might be. Interestingly, four out of five are women, and 90 percent were married at some point in time. More than half have at least a high school education and fifteen percent have a bachelor’s degree or above.
Zilpha is 101 years old and lives on her own in a house she designed herself. She still drives, gardens and does her own plumbing. Milton, a former art director and employee of Walt Disney Studios, continues to paint and draw at 101 years old.
More well known centenarians include the artist and composer Irving Berlin and Queen Elizabeth I, who both lived 101 years. Famous couples include Bob and Delores Hope. While Bob was an iconic entertainer, Delores also sang and was known for her charitable work. Bob and Delores lived to 100 and 102 respectively.
Speculation abounds when trying to discern what characteristics set these seniors apart, but it is generally accepted that longevity is 20-30 percent genetic.
After the age of 65, the impact of those genes we carry is magnified. There is clear evidence that certain lifestyle choices bode well for living long and healthy, but many cases exist of those who made lifelong “bad” choices and lived to 100 to tell everyone about it.
There are areas around the world where the average age in a region is disproportionate to the surrounding areas. The Greek island of Ikaria is dubbed the “island where people forget to die.”
So what are some of the variables that keep popping up when scientists study centenarians?
Longevity genes. Half of those who reach the age of 100 have a first degree relative who also lived to 90 plus years. There are multiple genes being studied around the world in an attempt to find those responsible for longevity. In addition, researchers have found that super agers have longer telomeres. What are telomeres, you ask? Let’s just say that individuals who have a hyperactive form of a particular enzyme are able to protect themselves genetically. Their cells continue to divide like they did when they were younger for much longer.
Social Connectivity. Researchers with the Longevity Project found that religious women lived longer. Further study showed that connectedness with their faith-based lifestyle kept them going. Also, those who were engaged in their communities, volunteered, and participated in activities with families and friends showed similar positive results.
Worry in moderation. Those individuals who lived a life not “sweating the small stuff” seemed to live longer and happier lives. The ability to know how to size up a situation and give it its due diligence is crucial. In addition to the lower stress levels, these individuals are less impulsive, which leads to fewer risky behaviors and hobbies.
So, what’s next? In 2013, Google announced the launch of Calico. This venture is challenging the thinking on health, well-being, and aging.
Another gene sequencing race is on called Human Longevity. Researchers plan to build the largest DNA sequencing operation to help find answers to the mysteries of long life.
Lastly, Silicon Valley got in on the aging game, and has offered the Palo Alto Longevity Prize to anyone who can show that they were able to reverse one sign of aging, or increase lifespan by 50 percent in the laboratory.
What to do in the meantime? Eat healthy, exercise, stay connected and worry less. While this sounds like advice so often given, it can be hard to follow year after year.
For inspiration, check out the One Hundred Project, where photographer Sally Peterson took portraits of 100 people who lived past their 100th birthday.
Morgan, Kendall (Spring 2015) Rocking the Ages, Genome
Spencer, Paula (n.d.) Living to 100, Retrieved from Caring.com
Exner, Rich (4/9/2014) 55,000 Americans are 100 years old; facts and figures about centenarians, Retrieved from cleveland.com