Secrets to Living Longer from Centenarians

A growing number of Americans are living to age 100 and beyond. In the U.S., the centenarian population has grown 65.8 percent over the past three decades, from 32,194 people who were age 100 or older in 1980 to 53,364 centenarians in 2010, according to new Census Bureau data. In contrast, the total population has increased 36.3 percent over the same time period.

A recent study, “Demographics and Health Care Use of Centenarians: a Population-Based Cohort Study,” was published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. It is among the first to examine centenarians in a large geographic population and the healthcare services they receive.

The population-based study of centenarians was conducted in Ontario, Canada, and used an estimated 1.8 million individuals 65 years of age and older. There were 1842 people in the group over age 100. This study found:

  • The number of centenarians in the city of Ontario increased from 1069 in 1995 to 1842 in 2010, a 72.3% increase during this period.
  • During the same time period, the 85-99 year age group increased from 119,955 to 227,703, an 89.8% increase.
  • Of the 1842 centenarians, 6.7% were 105 years or older.
  • Women represented 85.3% of all centenarians and 89.4% of those 105 years or older.
  • Preventive drug therapies were frequently dispensed.
  • In the preceding year, 18.2% were hospitalized and 26.6%were seen in an emergency department.
  • More than 95% saw a primary care provider and 5.3% saw a geriatrician.

Understanding centenarians is important to inform strategies to improve the delivery of health services for many individuals who will approach or achieve this milestone in the future, the authors note.

What is it that keeps centenarians humming along decades longer than average? In recent years, results from studies of centenarians have begun to offer answers, and it looks increasingly like there’s no simple cause that confers extreme longevity. So, why not let some centenarians tell you themselves? See below for some telling quotes from centenarians (or those who are close):

  • “Mind your own business and don’t eat junk food. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated, work hard, and love what you do”– Besse Cooper, 116 (died Dec. 4, 2012)
  • “Have a good appetite, lots of friends, and keep busy.”– Bonita Zigrang, 108
  • “My longevity is attributed to my long happy marriage. We did everything together. She was perfect in my eyes”– Gardner Watts, 98
  • “Never run out of responsibility; if you don’t have one, find one. Find a cause and knock yourself out for it. It will enhance your brainpower, interest in life, and keep you alive longer. I’m alert because I work. Virtue is its own reward.”– Alyse Laemmle, 96
  • “Take it easy, enjoy life, what will be will be. Sleep well, have a Bailey’s Irish Cream before bed if you have a cold–you will wake up fine the next morning.” – Helen Mulligan, 101
  • “Don’t fight the day, just let it be. Get up and be positive. Avoid any and all drama; I don’t get involved with silly minutiae or difficult personalities; people respect me for that.” – Gussie Levine, 100
  • “Try to understand the kind of person you are and accept who you are; but if you want to improve your situation, change it. Keep your eye on the stars and try to succeed at what you want to do.”– Hilda Berner, 97

Who are the oldest living centenarians? The U.S. based Gerontology Research Group keeps a list. Learn more here.

Not surprisingly, few centenarians are obese and few smoke or drink. Most seem skilled at handling stress and find ways to process problems quickly, brushing them away rather than dwelling on them. A study of centenarians from the state of Georgia found they were more emotionally stable, extroverted, conscientious, and active in the community than their shorter-lived peers.

When looking at centenarians, keep in mind that life span in the United States is not necessarily matched by increases in “health span,” or time spent living in good health. Longer life spans have been accompanied by a tremendous increase in the disease burden due to Alzheimer’s disease (source: Institute of Medicine study). Alzheimer’s is now the number 12 cause of disease burden in the US, and the forth leading cause of death. Its impact on health has become much more severe over the course of two decades; the number of years of life lost prematurely because of Alzheimer’s increased by 392 percent—far more than any other disease. Other wealthy countries have witnessed similar but not as dramatic increases.

Luck and genetics play roles in longevity, of course, but you can’t control that. If you want to better your odds of hitting 100, focus on what you can do, like eating healthy, exercising, and cutting down on stress. As you are taking care of yourself and enjoying your life, it is also a good idea to plan for your future and for your loved ones. Our firm is dedicated to helping protect seniors preserve dignity, quality of life, and financial security. If you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning, or Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one, such as your mother-in-law, who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, call us at our Virginia Elder Law Fairfax office at 703-691-1888 or at our Virginia Elder Law Fredericksburg office at 540-479-1435 to make an appointment for a consultation.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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