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Centenarians a Model for Aging Well

Centenarians are people who live to be at least 100 years old. Today, one in 26 of the baby boomer population is now expected to live to be 100. When the New England Centenarian Study at the Boston University School of Medicine began in 1994, the prevalence rate of centenarians was one per 10,000; in 2010, centenarians occurred at a rate of about 1 per 6,000, making the old-old one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population.

The New England study began with subjects in the Boston area and now includes other countries, making it the largest comprehensive study of centenarians in the world. Thanks to this research we have reliable information on why people live long and healthy lives, but there are still many unknowns.

The evidence shows that centenarians represent an excellent model of aging well. This population delays disability towards the end of their very long lives, at an average age of 93 years. In 2010, there were about 80,000 centenarians in the U.S. – 85% of them are women and 15% are men. Among supercentenarians (age 110 plus), the female numbers increase to about 90%. Supercentenarians occur at a rate of about 1 per 7 million, and there are 107 of them in the New England worldwide study.

The New England study results give us the predictors as to why people live to be age 100. Education, religion, ethnicity, diet, and wealth seem to have little bearing on living to be old-old. Here are some of the factors that do matter:
• Weight: Few centenarians are obese. In the case of men, they are nearly always lean.
• Smoking: Substantial smoking history is rare among centenarians.
• Stress: A preliminary study suggests that centenarians are better able to handle stress than the majority of people.
• Healthy Brains: The study also discovered that Alzheimer’s disease was not inevitable. Many centenarians have very healthy appearing brains.
• Late Child Bearing: Many centenarian women have a history of bearing children after the age of 35 years and even 40 years. A woman who naturally has a child after the age of 40 has a 4 times greater chance of living to 100 compared to women who do not. This may be a sign that the woman’s reproductive system is aging slowly and that the rest of her body is as well.
• Genetics: At least 50% of centenarians have first-degree relatives and/or grandparents who also achieve very old age, and many have exceptionally old siblings.

Interviews with centenarians have fostered advice as to how they made it to 100 plus, which includes: keeping a positive yet realistic attitude throughout one’s life; exercising the mind as well as the body; and maintaining a light alcohol or no alcohol regimen.

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This article doesn't get into the "happiness factor" in older age. I'd like my readers to get a well rounded view of how to be both healthy and happy in older age. Many things happen to us that can cause stress and sadness. It is important to have a strong support system.

Please share some ways you have built a solid support system for yourselves.

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After talking to a woman who is 95 and living alone, I realized that one of the secrets to her success was not dwelling on her age but rather on making each day special. How can each of us do that?

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I know for myself, I now am more proactive in making my plans and don't wait for someone else to make plans for me. Sometimes doing this takes me outside of my comfort zone or are things I never thought to do before - especially the little things. But they make a huge difference in my day.

For example, if I feel like having a pizza but I'm home alone and don't really feel like going out, I order it anyway and have it delivered. I pick out a favorite movie or music sound track and sit down and enjoy my pizza! I freeze the rest for another time.

I've learned to do all kinds of things that make me happy, some big and some small. About once a month, I take a turn calling my friends and family members long distance that I haven't talked to in awhile. I email them but sometimes just hearing their voice(s) makes me feel good all day.

What kinds of things do you do that make you happy as you age? Let's share them with others!


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