Would you want to live to your 100th birthday?

elderlybirthdayA common conception of a person who lives to be very old, is someone hanging on to life, but disabled if not bedridden, in constant discomfort, and having lost most of their mental faculties. Current research, however, is showing this to be a misconception.

A comprehensive and ongoing study of centenarians by Boston University, and funded partly by the National Institute on Aging, finds that 20% of the study subjects had no cognitive impairment at all; even those who had declining mental and physical faculties tended to get these only at the very end of their lives. Many had been living actively and independently well into their 90s.

People who live past 100 tend to have a genetic makeup and healthy lifestyle that delayed the onset of debilitating diseases and impairments until the last years of their lives. In contrast to the common image of seniors with mobility issues, and serious and chronic diseases lasting for decades, the majority of super-long-lived people tended to enjoy a high quality of life until the last year or two.

This phenomenon is called the “compression of morbidity” and was verified in a study of 1,741 university graduates, published in 1998, that lasted almost 40 years. It found that people who lived longer also tended to have onset of disabilities that was delayed by more than five years, and these disabilities tended to be less severe than those who had shorter lives.

The study also found that the difference between the healthier, longer-lived people and others had to do with lifestyle habits: smoking, body mass index, and exercise. This implies that, although genetics is important, a healthy lifestyle plays a big part in helping determine your lifespan and life quality.

Janette Clarendon, who was 109 years old in 2015, would agree with this assessment. “The truth is that there isn’t any secret to longevity,” she said. “It’s just about taking good care of yourself by staying active, killing all of the assassins, and eating healthy. You do that, and who knows? You might live as long as I have!”

Attitude also has something to do with it. Lona Collins of northeast Ohio, who turned 108 in 2015, lived through two World Wars and was around during the invention of television and the automobile. Even her great-grandchildren have children of their own. Her secret? Humor and patience: “Don’t go crabbin’!”, she once said, with a smile.

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