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Senior Health - Healthy Aging - Health For Seniors
Senior Health - Healthy Aging - Health For Seniors
Getting on the Road to a Long Life: Secrets of the Very Old

A centenarian living today saw eighteen presidents serve the United States through two World Wars, the civil rights and womensí liberation movements and the rise and eventual fall of Communism. If he worked on a farm, he saw the progression from horses to tractors, and a Model T tooted its way down the street. He is older than the Empire State Building, bubble gum and Mickey Mouse.

Can you image what you would get to see if you lived till 100? Houses on Mars? Flying cars? Your great-great grandchildren? Well, thereís no magic formula that can help you expand the limits of human age (not yet anyway), but you do have some control over your maximum life span.

"The average person has the ability to reach about 88." says Thomas Perls, MD, MPH, Director of the New England Centenarian Study, "but thereís a great deal of variation around that with the average person falling short about 10 years."

Reaching 88 is one thing, but in the 2000 census, over 50,000 Americans reported being a centenarian, 100-years-old or more. And this part of the population is the fastest growing in the United States. All these people must have done something right to keep their minds and bodies going strong for all those years. The New England Centenarian Study took a look at these very senior citizens to see what they had in common.

Good Genes To Power Your Motor
Extreme old age is very much connected to your genes. In one family involved in the study, for example, five out of nine siblings lived till at least 100 years of age. This family likely carried a genetic predisposition that lowered their risk of cardiovascular and other serious diseases.

Being born with two X chromosomes certainly helps, too, as 85 percent of centenarians are female. It is somewhat unclear why this is, but, according to Perls, the female secret to long life lies in menstruation. While only preliminary evidence exists, it is thought that iron levels are responsible; women tend to have lower iron counts than men because they lose a considerable portion of blood every four weeks or so during their period. Iron produces free radicals in the body, the element that drives aging. So, less iron means slower aging. Many centenarian women reported having a child after the age of 40, indicating they had a slowly aging body, possibly due to their increased number of menstrual periods that lowered iron levels.

So, how can a man compete with a woman? Well, Perls, for example, donates blood every eight weeks, in part to be altruistic, but also to lower the number of free radicals in his body. (He says that heíd do it every four weeks if he were allowed.) In one study, men that donated blood just twice a year had a 20 percent reduction in the formation of preoxidized lipids, the predecessor of artery-clogging plaque.

While there may be more women over 100, centenarian men have it better health-wise. Of all the centenarians, in general, men that live to 100 have better physical and mental conditions because they must be in particularly good health to live as long as women.

Routine Maintenance and Upkeep
Itís not all about your genes, however. You can have the best genes possible and still die quite early as it is estimated that genes are only 30 percent of the long-life equation. Most centenarians reported regular, moderate exercise and a healthy diet. The point is, even if you have no family history of heart disease, you can certainly clog your arteries and raise your risk for stroke and heart attack by eating fatty foods, smoking and not exercising.

And yes, some people can get away with smoking, others can get away with being a little bit overweight, but the more careful you are, the better your chances of reaching 100.

"Unlike the lottery, you donít always need to get all six numbers to win, itís variable, some people have to do everything right, and others can get away with a few things." Perls says.

Preventing disease is important, because it lessens hospital stays and allows you to stay active. Centenarians in this study were all generally healthy till at least 90 years of age. In fact, only 42 percent of centenarians had any age-related illness after the age of 80. And most suffer only from arthritis, which can be treated with medication, and cataracts, which are usually corrected by surgery. This changes the general belief that with age comes disease, loss of vitality and the need for assistance.

"Many people who get to this age have lived the majority of their life with good function. Itís a very optimistic view of aging." Perls says.

Taking Control of the Wheel
So what can you start doing now to expand your age limitations and join the most quickly growing portion of the population? Perls recommends that you stop smoking and eating so much red meat. If you are overweight, lose a few pounds. Lower stress and take an aspirin a day to lower vascular risk. Donate blood; even if the evidence for its health-benefits are not totally clear, it canít hurt. Exercise not only your body, but also your brain to delay the onset of age-related mental deterioration. Most importantly, treat your body well, thatís the vehicle that is going to get you down the road towards a long life.

"If you treat your body like a car and do everything you need for upkeep, you should be able to get it the 100,000 miles itís supposed to go." Perls says, "but if you mistreat it, itíll only go 70,000 miles."

And remember, even if you have a grandfather that lived till 120, itís not a guarantee for a long life.

"Maybe you were born with a Volvo [and have really good genes for aging]." says Perls, "but you can ruin a Volvo too."

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