Here’s some very good news for those of us hoping to stick around for a long, long time: Living into your 90s or beyond doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be spending most of those years enfeebled and frail.
According to an article on the “Secrets of the Centenarians” published in this week’s New Scientist magazine, “researchers who study the oldest old have made a surprising discovery that presents a less bleak vision of the future than many anticipate. It’s becoming clear that people who break through the 90-plus barrier represent a physical elite, markedly different from the elderly who typically die [at a younger age]. Far from gaining a longer burden of disability, their extra years are often healthy ones. They have a remarkable ability to live through, delay or entirely escape a host of diseases that kill of most of their peers.”
On their own
In fact, says the article’s author, Ed Yong, studies have found that a truly encouraging percentage of 90- and 100-year-olds (one-third in one study) live independently. It’s not that they don’t have some form of disability (such as osteoarthritis, which Wong notes “is almost universal”), but they seem to have escaped the kinds of illnesses that require intense, ongoing care.
“[C]entenarians and nonagenarians spend fewer days ill and bedridden than younger elderly groups,” reports Yong, “though the end comes quickly when it finally comes.”
Eighty-five percent of centenarians suffer from some form of dementia, he adds, but the dementia rarely takes its most common and often most debilitating form, Alzheimer’s disease.
Yet, notes Yong, brain autopsies of centenarians have revealed an intriguing paradox:
[T]he brains of the oldest old, who had shown no outward sign of dementia, are sometimes riddled with the lesions associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The basis of this resilience to Alzheimer’s is largely unknown. The simple fact is that many people who become centenarians seem able to tolerate damage that would significantly harm less robust individuals, and although many suffer from dementia as death draws near, most remain mentally agile well into their nineties.
Secrets to a long life?
The secrets to a long and healthy life aren’t all that surprising: “Gerontologists point to four key factors: diet, exercise, ‘psycho-spiritual’ and social,” says Yong, “so anyone aiming for a century should not underestimate the power of lifestyle — despite the odd centenarian who proudly claims to have smoked 60 cigarettes a day for decades.”
Having “good” genes, of course, also ups our odds of becoming wizened (but wise!) old codgers (and codgeresses?). But, according to a Scandinavian study involving 10,000 pairs of twins, that advantage kicks into high gear only after we pass the age of 60.
“Both identical and non-identical twins have largely independent odds of reaching a given age,” Yong reports. “Beyond 60, however, the odds of one twin reaching a given age are greatly increased if their co-twin has done so, especially if the twins are identical.”
So what does eventually kill the “oldest old”? Pneumonia, followed by other respiratory infections, accidents, intestinal problems and just plain “systemic wear and tear.”
Wear and tear, eh? Now, how do we avoid that?