The Six Characteristics of Reaching Age 100

Catherine is a 98 year old grandmother of six and great grandmother of 10. She hopes to live for another couple of decades to see her great grandchildren graduate from college, get married, and have children of their own. No one in her family has lived past 93, so she already considers herself lucky to be nearly 100. She has her wits about her, walks every day, and chats with neighbors and friends about current events and world news. She feels healthy, but worries that genetics are not on her side when it comes to longevity. Does it really matter, though?

The world is currently home to 573,000 centenarians (persons over 100 years old), and this number is expected to increase to around 3.2 million by 2050. The United States has the most centenarians, with an estimated number of about 97,000. Japan follows, with an estimated 79,000, and is also home to the “official” oldest living person in the world, Kane Tanaka, at age 117.

Researchers are trying to determine what exactly contributes to extreme longevity. According to a recent study, when it comes to living to 100, good genes help but don’t tell the full story, which is good news for Catherine in our example. Environmental factors have a significant impact on the likelihood that you will reach 100, suggests a new study conducted by scientists at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

Washington State University Study Identifies Social and Environmental Factors of Healthy Aging and Longevity

“Environmental factors make up 65% to 80% of your health and could determine whether you reach the ripe old age of 100.” That’s the key takeaway of a recent study published by researchers at Washington State University, who analyzed mortality data on 144,665 seniors who died at age 75 years or older. Their findings lead to the conclusion that certain environmental conditions were more likely to be found among people who lived to be 100 years of age, as follows:

Neighborhood walkability: A neighborhood’s “walkability” is directly related to access to public transit, healthy food, healthcare clinics, and other community hot spots. More walkable areas allow people to walk and bike for transportation and recreational purposes, which has the dual effect of helping them save money and increase the amount of exercise they get. Previous studies have found that people who live in communities with more walkable areas and parks have lower BMI values and a 30% greater rate of physical activity.
Educational attainment: Previous studies have suggested that higher education levels are strongly associated with lower mortality. This is likely the case because higher academic achievement has been linked to better employment opportunities, better knowledge of health resources and behaviors, and better access to healthcare and management of health problems.
Marital Status: This finding is surprising! Compared with married older adults, those who were widowed, never married, or were divorced were more likely to become centenarians (in decreasing order of likelihood). These findings differ from decades of previous scientific findings, which generally support the theory of “marriage protection,” the idea that being married is associated with greater social connectedness, which has also been independently associated with later mortality. However, unlike many of the other studies, this study specifically focused on people over the age of 75. The researchers theorized that their findings might be partially explained by the fact that strained marriages may be a cause of harmful stress and diminished health outcomes, and that widowed, divorced or unmarried people may not have to face the negative health consequences of unhealthy marriages.
Socioeconomic status: It’s not surprising that people who lived in areas of greater deprivation were less likely to become a centenarian; on the other hand, those who had higher socioeconomic statuses were more likely to live to an older age. Socioeconomic factors that increased the likelihood of a person becoming a centenarian included income, being able to afford health interventions, and having more and better social connections.
Being a woman: In line with decades of previous research, this study found that women are much more likely than men to live to 100 years old.

Living among the working age population: Centenarians were more likely to be found in communities where higher percentages of the population were of working age. Urban areas are more likely to have younger populations and more labor force participants, which suggests higher educational attainment (meaning higher income) and improved socioeconomic conditions among those people. Higher percentages of the working age populations correlate with greater availability of work, easier access to services and programs, and a preference for a more active lifestyle.

Where You Live Can Help Determine How Long You Live

The Washington State University Study offers evidence to suggest that where you live determines how well you live, which plays a big part in determining how long you live. Think about where you live. Does your community have green space? Do you use it? Can you walk or bike to a grocery store, a train, or bus station? Will your next paycheck go straight to bills or can you put a slice aside for leisure and savings?

As you can see, environment is important when it comes to living longer. There’s no doubt, though, that it’s still wise to focus on the health factors such as eating healthier foods, getting more exercise, and improving your relationships. Lifestyle is also thought to play an important role in extreme longevity. Much has been said about the largely fish-based diets of the Okinawans in Japan, and the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. Extra weight puts you at risk for heart attack, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases that can shave years off your life. Try to stay trim, or at least to eat well. Consume fruits and veggies and cut down on salt, fat, and sugar. The National Council on Aging offers helpful tips, guidelines, and videos here.

Do You Want to Live to 100 Or More?

Last year, Fairfax County, Virginia was ranked number one in life expectancy, so perhaps you do live in the right place for a long, happy, and healthy life. Remember, though, as you are eating healthy, exercising, and minimizing stress to maximize your longevity, it is also a good idea to plan for your future and for your loved ones. Our firm is dedicated to helping protect seniors by preserving 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 who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, please call us to make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation:

Elder Law Attorney Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Law Attorney Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Law Attorney Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Law Attorney DC: 202-587-2797

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