SCIENTISTS SAY that there is a pattern to longevity that, to some extent, we can control. In Part One, we spoke about behaviour, attitude, family spirit and … smoking! But genes and other very relevant factors for longevity are not to be forgotten. This was proved by research carried out to discover the secrets of the oldest of the old on Earth.
The role of genes
Genetics were clearly critical to the long lives of centenarians. Jerry Friedman, a photojournalist who searched out 50 of the oldest of the old, reports: “It might skip a generation, but clearly the genetic component was in each of them. Each had siblings, parents or grandparents who had lived a century, or nearly so.” Disease prevention and screening, along with good health practices, can help to compensate for some of the not so good genetic characteristics.
“Scientists are getting closer to discovering specific genes that govern longevity,” says Robert Butler MD, director of the International Longevity Centre. “The intent is not to genetically produce people who live 100 years or more,” he tells. “The research is really about understanding the genetic component of longevity better, so that we can learn how it translates into healthier behaviour. Like changing your dietary habits and getting colonoscopies if you know you’re genetically predisposed to colon cancer. The best data shows that about one-third of longevity is due to genes.”
Exercise and long life
Exercise keeps body and mind in good shape. As we age, the body loses bone strength and lean muscle mass rapidly. After age 30, we lose around one third of a pound of muscle every year that is replaced by fat. This leads to brittle bones, balance problems and falls that send too many elderly to nursing facilities.
Studies have shown that, even among the oldest of the old, strength training can offset these problems, helping them to build muscle mass and stronger bones. Regular exercise also keeps the joints limber, the heart strong and weight under control. Plus, physical exercise can boost mental ability and mood because it triggers the ‘feel-good’ chemicals in the brain.
Most of those centenarians interviewed were born into a rural lifestyle where hard physical work was constant. This was probably 115-year-old Fred Hale’s secret to longevity. Being a rural postman, he rode his bike to work for 30 years. “He also kept a big farm going, by cleaning the barns, tending the hayfields, maintaining the roads during Maine winters, etc. It kept him healthy,” writes Friedman. “He can’t remember ever taking a pill in his life and, even after he retired, Hale kept up the exercise, spending his free time hunting and fishing.”
“He was such an amazing person; he really stuck out in my mind,” Friedman recalls. “He was as lucid as you and I, his memory was much better than mine and, considering the span of time it covered, Hale was even more impressive. There was virtually nothing he couldn’t answer.”
Friedman continues: “All those years of physical work didn’t prevent the inevitable. Hale took a bad fall and has spent the last year confined to a wheelchair in a nursing facility. Yet, he still plays cards, cracks jokes and watches the Red Sox!”
“I’ve enjoyed all my years, each one, even the recent one,” he told Friedman. Fred Hale’s words of wisdom: “You have one life to live, live it well, and don’t disgrace your family.”
Rural life also provided a healthy diet of fresh vegetables, fish, soy and grains, although none of the interviewed were ever big eaters, Friedman notes. Few centenarians have ever been obese. Studies have shown that restricting one’s food intake indeed can slow the ageing process. It seems to reduce oxidation of cells and increases cells’ resistance to stress, which may protect against various diseases like heart disease and cancer. Taking daily supplements of vitamin E and selenium, whose antioxidant substances are recommended for their effective combat of cell damage from so-called free radicals, helps prevent cancer, stroke and heart disease.
Investigate new challenges
They take advantage of new opportunities. “It’s true that exercising your brain is just as, or more, important than exercising your body,” Margery Hutter Silver, EdD, says. “Whether you retain your thinking abilities predicts much more than your physical condition, if you’re going to be able to remain independent. People can often compensate for physical disabilities with various devices and assistance, but if you don’t have mental acuity, it’s much more difficult.”
Keeping the mind active with new activities exercises different parts of the brain. Learn a new language, learn to play an instrument, write your autobiography, or volunteer. Such activities develop new connections within the brain, strengthening it, thus preventing any deficits from showing up in everyday functioning. Silver was moved by the fact that so many centenarians had excellent thinking ability: “It very much counters all the myths and common thinking that by the time you get to be 100, you’ll be demented.”
“Every spring, we pick up the newspaper and see that some 80 or 90-year-old has graduated from college. It’s never too late to start something new,” says Carl Eisdorfer, MD, director of the University of Miami Centre on Ageing.
“We all have multiple abilities and interests,” adds Robert Roush, EdD, MPH, a professor of geriatrics at the Huffington Centre on Ageing at Baylor University School of Medicine in Houston. “The key is to pursue them over the life course.”
The role of stress
They have dealt well with the stresses in their lives. Centenarians are better able to handle stress, reducing it more than most people. Studies have shown that the stress hormone, cortisol, dampens the body’s immune system, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and other life threatening health problems. Having a strong social support system offsets that risk – so do meditation and prayer, listening to music and getting a massage.
A strong spirituality is part of this coping mechanism, explains Eisdorfer. “We humans don’t deal very well with ambiguity and unpredictability, and faith gives us a sense of order and organisation in the universe. Studies show that having faith helps relieve stress, a belief that things will work out, that you will get help when you need it.”
Age is really a product of good health. “We have replaced the saying, ‘The older you get, the sicker you get,’ with the more accurate observation, ‘The older you get, the healthier you’ve been,’” says Perls.
If you take the lessons from the Earth’s elders, you too could live to 100 … and enjoy it!
Best health wishes,
Dr. Maria Alice
Consultant in General and Family Medicine
Director – Luzdoc International Medical Service Tel. 917 811 988