Silly calling this post “How to Live to 100.” It’s not really fair. Without any question, the absolute best way to ensure you live to 100 years old is….

…be 99 years old! If you’ve made it to 99, you have a 67.6% chance of making it to next year, according to a 2011 UK government study. On the other hand, 99 also means you have a 1 in 3 chance of kicking the bucket before your next birthday, so don’t get too excited.

Almost 100 year old witches

“We’ll only need 2 cups next, for our centennial.”

Better than being 99 years old is being born yesterday. While you may be more susceptible to scams and rip-offs, you will stand a nearly 30% chance of reaching 90, according to the same study. And it is much less likely that you will kick the bucket in your first year. In general, the later you can put off being born, the better, as “those born in 1991 (aged 20 in 2011) were 6.0 times more likely to reach age 100 than those born in 1931 (aged 80 in 2011).” The younger the better, as our health care and living standards improve. The earlier you are born, the less chance you have of reaching 100, at least until you hit the magical age of 85. At 85 years old, your odds of reaching 100 start to pick up again, after reaching a nadir of 7.2% at age 84.

“Great,” you say. “Tell me something that I can do something about.”

OK. In a minute. Because the next best chance of reaching 100 is by having good genes:

Researchers estimate that 25% of variance in life span comes from genetics and the rest from environmental factors, including diet and exercise. But genes may be more determining in cases of extreme longevity. “For most of us, it is 80% environment and 20% genetics, but for centenarians it is probably 80% genes and 20% environment,” says Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Got that? The older you get, the more your genes matter  (pretty much the opposite of your college academic record).

Now that we have isolated the 2 overwhelmingly most important factors that decide whether you will live to 100, let’s move on to the scraps and see if there’s not a little something we can do. Admittedly, this is pretty much equivalent to hoping your seat position and a helmet will save you in an airplane crash. They probably won’t, but we’ll have to make do with the choices offered.

Man at 100th birthdayThe Little You Can do to Ensure Your 100th Birthday

The obvious choices are diet and exercise, right? This would seem to be common sense, but just to muddy the waters, let’s ask the scientists…

Researchers at the University of Cambridge in England followed 20,000 middle-aged men and women in England for 11 years and found that nonsmokers with the healthiest eating and exercise habits at the outset had a 14-year-life-expectancy edge over the people with the worst habits. This followed a 2001 Loma Linda University finding that Seventh-Day Adventists who kept good habits lived to an average age of 88, versus 78 for those who behaved less well.

Researchers at the Pacific Health Research Institute in Hawaii who followed 5,820 Japanese American men for 40 years found those who avoided risk factors such as obesity, heavy drinking, smoking and high blood pressure in middle age had a 69% chance of living to be 85, versus just 22% for men with six or more risk factors.

A 1998 Finnish study looked at 16,000 twins, both fraternal and identical, and found that those who exercised regularly had 44% the risk of death of their sedentary siblings over a 17-year follow-up period.

Ah, so healthy eating habits, avoiding excessive alcohol and tobacco, and exercising regularly lead to a longer life? Uh…maybe:

Lifestyles of the old and healthy defy expectations

Einstein researchers find centenarians just as likely as the rest of population to smoke, drink and pack on pounds

August 3, 2011 — (Bronx, NY) — People who live to 95 or older are no more virtuous than the rest of us in terms of their diet, exercise routine or smoking and drinking habits, according to researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.

Their findings, published today in the online edition of Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, suggests that “nature” (in the form of protective longevity genes) may be more important than “nurture” (lifestyle behaviors) when it comes to living an exceptionally long life. Nir Barzilai, M.D., the Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert Chair of Aging Research and director of the Institute for Aging Research at Einstein, was the senior author of the study.

Dr. Barzilai and his Einstein colleagues interviewed 477 Ashkenazi Jews who were living independently and were 95 and older (95-112, 75 percent of them women). They were enrolled in Einstein’s Longevity Genes Project, an ongoing study that seeks to understand why centenarians live as long as they do. (Descended from a small founder group, Ashkenazi Jews are more genetically uniform than other populations, making it easier to spot gene differences that are present.)

The elderly participants were asked about their lifestyles at age 70, considered representative of the lifestyle they’d followed for most of their adult lives. They answered questions about their weight and height so that their body mass index (BMI) could be calculated. They also provided information about their alcohol consumption, smoking habits, physical activity, and whether they ate a low-calorie, low-fat or low-salt diet.

To compare these long-lived individuals with the general population, the researchers used data from 3,164 people who had been born around the same time as the centenarians and were examined between 1971 and 1975 while participating in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES I).

Overall, people with exceptional longevity did not have healthier habits than the comparison group in terms of BMI, smoking, physical activity, or diet. For example, 27 percent of the elderly women and an equal percentage of women in the general population attempted to eat a low-calorie diet. Among long-living men, 24 percent consumed alcohol daily, compared with 22 percent of the general population. And only 43 percent of male centenarians reported engaging in regular exercise of moderate intensity, compared with 57 percent of men in the comparison group.

Ah, then…well, never mind.

Actually, none of this is new. If you’ve read any obituaries of particularly old people (they all die eventually), you will notice a myriad of bad habits. Imagine living to be 120 and having Good habits or bad habitsto listen to people every day telling you that your bad habits will send you to an early grave. We are all assaulted with daily advice. “Do this, don’t do that.” And then later to be told that actually it’s better to do that and not do this. At least until the next study comes out and we’re told it’s all wrong again.

I could tell you to pick and choose from the above studies, but we know at an instinctive level what to do. Our natural IQ tells us that drinking to excess, smoking and overeating are unhealthy. But then, how do we explain the research from Einstein? Well, there was this:

The research did find, however, that overweight centenarians tended to have lower rates of obesity than the control group. Although male and female centenarians were just as likely to be overweight as their counterparts in the general population, the centenarians were significantly less likely to become obese: only 4.5 percent of male centenarians were obese vs. 12.1 percent of controls; and for women, 9.6 percent of centenarians were obese versus 16.2 percent of controls. Both of these differences are statistically significant.

So, they’re not quite so fat after all. And then this:

“Although this study demonstrates that centenarians can be obese, smoke and avoid exercise, those lifestyle habits are not good choices for most of us who do not have a family history of longevity,” said Dr. Barzilai. “We should watch our weight, avoid smoking and be sure to exercise, since these activities have been shown to have great health benefits for the general population, including a longer lifespan.”

The crux of this is “those of us who do not have a family history of longevity.”

In other words, those with the good genes will live a long time no matter what crap they dump in their body. If that makes you jealous, well you can just tell yourself that their long lives will be filled with fatigue and discomfort brought on by poor lifestyle choices. (Of course, that may not be true, but we need to take our Schadenfreude where we can get it.)

Those of us with worse genes need to make extra efforts to reach the 100 year finish line. Imagine we’re all 6-foot tall basketball players. We’ll have to try much harder to overcome our much taller competitors on the court, while many on them can just cruise along and still score.

That said, there’s also something to be said for enjoying life. (In fact, there may be a lot. 20% of those over 100 in the Einstein study credited their long life to a positive attitude, while most though their lifestyle habits had little to do with it.) Now, the following is purely anecdotal, but I have noticed over the years where supposed paragons of health and virtue have died quite young. And, remember the comment about those in their 11th and even 12th decades of life with bad habits. Let’s look at a few of those who mastered control of their health and diet. They are quite well know, and had several followers. Yet, if your goal is to reach 100, wouldn’t it make sense to follow the advice of those who actually got close?

health guruThe Health Gurus Who Didn’t Quite Make it:

Euell Gibbons – One of the earliest modern era proponents of natural diets. In the 1960’s, he became famous with his book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” which, despite the God-awful title, went on to become a best seller. He was a particular proponent of eating wild plants. He died when he was 64.

Bruce Lee – I’m almost afraid to mention him, lest he wills himself to return from the grave to kick my ass. But it has to be said. He had phenomenal control of his mental and physical state, as well as his diet. “Intense” doesn’t begin to describe it. Nobody questioned his fitness, yet this ultimate specimen of physical perfection dropped dead at the embarrassingly young age of 32.

Jim Fixx – The runner who became a health guru, touting the benefits of jogging, died at age 42.

Dr. Robert Atkins – This proponent of low carb diets died of head injuries resulting from a fall outside his clinic at age 72. What makes this odd is that medical reports were said to have shown that he suffered a heart attack and congestive heart failure before his death. Whether these were the result of the fall or the cause of it is unknown, but it is known that he survived a previous heart attack just a couple years earlier. 72 isn’t all that young, but it’s a long ways from 100.

Jack Lalanne – Lived to age 96. We’ll give him credit for getting close. His diet had almost no meat, no sugar or processed foods, and was heavy in raw vegetables and fruits.

People Who Died Too Old to Remember Their 100th Birthday

Jeanne Calment  ate a kilogram of chocolate per week (about 17 Hershey chocolate bars). She lived to the ripe old age of 122. She was reportedly neither athletic, nor fanatical about her health. She smoked, though not a lot, and liked to drink port wine regularly.

Sarah Knauss enjoyed “nibbling on milk chocolate turtles, cashews, and potato chips.” She apparently had a special affinity for chocolate. (There we go again… a trend.) She lived to age 117.

Gertrude Baines – Her regular diet included bacon and eggs. She lived to 115.

Walter Breuning – Died as the oldest American-born male at 114. He was a lifelong cigar smoker except for between the ages of 103 and 108, when he quite because they were “too expensive.” He ate a hearty lunch and breakfast, both with coffee, but stuck with a bit of fruit for dinner. He also practice calisthenics until the end.

How 100-Year Old Folks Generally Eat

To get a more general idea of how centenarians eat, there have been several studies. A few are covered here:

Old Russians

Most centenarians had generally good health. Almost 60% of the centenarians had performed manual labor in the past (who knew Siberia could have a silver lining?). They drank small amounts of alcohol irregularly. Several of the centenarians smoked in the past. Before the age of sixty, fewer people than at present snacked between meals. Sweets both now and in the past were preferred products- however, in the past sweets were rarely eaten by centenarians. At the present time centenarians more often ate yogurt, skim curd, fish, lean meat products, plant oils and sweets. The changes in eating habits were probably caused by civilization changes. Source

Old Japanese

japanese food…centenarians were similar to the control subjects in their consumption of dairy products, sweets, and fruit. However, their intake of cereals, meat, fish, and fatty oils was less than 60% that of the control, which indicates their preference for soft and sugary foods. The pattern of dietary practices of centenarians in 1981 was similar. Although the total food intake of centenarians amounted to 60% of the control in 1995, energy intake per kilogram of body weight averaged over 30 kcal. As to dietary trends, centenarians in 1981 ate more cereals, eggs, algae products, and legumes than did their 1995 counterparts. This finding seems to reflect a generational difference in dietary habits.  Source

More Old Japanese (Clearly there’s something here. Those in Western Japan and Okinawa are especially long lived.)

…they consumed a low-calorie, highprotein diet. More surprisingly, the proportion of animal protein to total protein intake in
centenarians was much higher than that in the general population (Fig. 4). These data indicated a diet almost opposite that of a vegetarian
diet. When data collection was limited to centenarians with good memory function, we found that their eating habits before the war were
similar to those of the general population, indicating that these centenarians altered their eating habits after reaching their middle 70s...(it’s not too late!)

In the 1993 survey, 52% of centenarians replied that they exercised, and 43% of them replied that they exercised daily.
Specifically, “walking” was predominant for both men and women, followed by “field
labor/weeding/caring for plants”, “gymnastic exercise”, and “work”. Compared with centenarians who had no regular exercise, centenarians who engaged in regular exercise were
better in activities of daily living (ADL), showed more interest in hobbies, associated more actively with friends, and had eating habits that were improved from those in middle age.
…63.8% of male centenarians and 93.2% of female centenarians were never smokers. However, 30.7% of males and 6% of females were past smokers, and 5.6% of malesband 0.8% of females were current smokers.

With regard to alcohol consumption, 45% of males and 77.6% of females were never drinkers, whereas 31.1% of males and 14.9% of females were past drinkers, and 21.9% of males and 5.8% of females were current drinkers.
Thus, habitual drinking was more common than habitual smoking…  Source

 Old Americans

Centenarians consumed about 20 – 30% more carotenoids and vitamin A from foods. They also consumed breakfast more regularly and avoided weight loss diets and large fluctuations in body weight. Lastly, centenarians tended to consume more whole milk and yogurt, and were less likely to avoid dietary cholesterol.
Source

Now, where does that leave us?

Don’t worry, be happy. Be active. Don’t overeat too much (a little is OK). Enjoy your chocolate and your bad habits. Enjoy booze and food in moderation. Eat fresh, unprocessed foods, as well as raw fruits and vegetables. Get your protein. And enjoy each day as it comes. If you start to get nervous in your 70’s, you may still benefit from a few dietary changes. And, remember, no matter how good your genes and your habits, you might get run over by a bus tomorrow.

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