September 29, 2011

Will You Live to Be 90 Years Old? Maybe Even 100?

I’ve got a handful of friends who share the same birthyear: 1918. Now into their 94th years, they first had to survive the scary flu epidemic that ravaged our country at the end of World War I, when they were newborns. They’ve lived through all the years since – so many changes in the world! – and continue to enjoy active and interesting lives. I’m inspired by their spunk and engagement with life.

Ever wonder if YOU’LL make it to 90? A Swedish study may help provide a few clues. Researchers followed the lives of a group of men born in 1913, evaluated their health in middle age, and then waited to see what happened… and who survived. Interestingly, the study’s results don’t point to genetic attributes. The men who survived into their tenth decade shared these characteristics:
  • They did not smoke. OK, maybe that one’s a no-brainer.
  • They drank small amounts of coffee.
  • They enjoyed good socio-economic status.
  • They were capable of working hard – physically – at age 54.
  • They had low cholesterol at age 50.
Sure, it’s good to know that mom and dad lived long lives, and bequeathed to us their gift of longevity. It’s more comforting for me to know the control I have over my own life. I feel pretty good about the list above. And I’m glad I stopped smoking two to three packs a day when I was in my early 30s. I think the majority of my friends in the 1950s and 60s DID smoke, and many kept smoking in spite of the dire warnings from the Surgeons General that made the news – and started appearing on cigarette packages – about half a century ago.

As those nonagenarians stay healthy and keep on going, the centenarian population keeps rising, too. Estimates indicate that in 2000 there were about 180,000 people alive on the planet at least 100 years old. Ted Fishman, in his book Shock of Gray, suggests there will be about 3.2 million centenarians worldwide in the year 2050.

Given my Parkinson's and prostate cancer, I'm sure I won't be joining the centenarians. Frankly, that doesn't bother me. The 93-year-olds I know are doing surprisingly well physically, and even better mentally. But they are definitely the exception. I've emphasized with my family, my regular doctors, and my power-of-attorney that it's the quality -- not length -- of life that matters most to me.
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