With so many tragic deaths in Hollywood the past few months, Billy Joel's song, "Only the Good Die Young" never seemed more poignant. Watching Patrick Swayze and Farrah Fawcett lose their public battles with cancer makes me wonder - what is the secret to living a long life? What are the tricks from those who beat Father Time at his own game? This week I decided to explore the "centenarians" - people living to be over 100 years old, for clues to resiliency and joie de vivre. Last week, the world's oldest living person, Gertrude Baines, died in Los Angeles, at age 115. She was a lesson in resiliency, and should be considered a national treasure.
Baines was born in 1894, and grew up in Georgia- the daughter of a slave, and lived under Grover Cleveland's administration, and Jim Crow segregation laws. I am sure she has seen hardships that make the recession and the health care debate look like a walk in the park. She received her 15 minutes of fame when she voted for Barack Obama for president. On her 115th birthday, her greatest health complaint was some arthritis in her left knee.
While her story is amazing, Gertrude's status as "supercentenarian"- being over 110, is going to become more and more common, as living to be 100+ is not longer reserved for the select few. With our medical advances, the number of centenarians is expected to reach the one million mark by 2030. 85% of our centenarians are women, and 15% are men.
According to the New Scientist, those who break through the barrier of age 90 are the "physically elite." They somehow escape a full range of diseases that kill off their peers, and enjoy relatively good health. Only 4 per cent of centenarians die of cancer, compared with 40 per cent of people that die in their fifties and sixties. Curiously, centenarians have remarkably low rates of Alzheimer's.
Supercentenarians - people like Gertrude Baines, who are aged 110 or over - are even better examples of aging gracefully.
"As a demographic group, they basically didn't exist in the 1970s or 80s," says Craig Willcox of the Okinawa Centenarian Study in Japan. "They have some sort of genetic booster rocket and they seem to be functioning better for longer periods of time than centenarians."
A comprehensive study of those born in 1905 who are still alive, showed over one third of them were entirely self sufficient. The New England Centenarian Study (NECS) showed that even the supercentenarians - 40% of them, are able to look after themselves even after age 110. Clearly with so many "eldest of the old" managing on their own for nearly a century, one of the keys to resiliency is independence.
Gerontologists point to four key factors for living a long life: diet, exercise, "psycho-spiritual" and social as key elements to survival. Thomas Perls, who heads the NECS, believes that up to 70 per cent of longevity is due to non-genetic factors (New Scientist, 3 June 2006, p 35). The old fashioned ways; simple foods, faith in a higher power, and close friends, will take us a lot farther down the road than promotions at work.
According to the National Centenarian Awareness project: resilient Centenarians are known to have positive attitudes, an adventurous love of life, strong will, a keen sense of humor and an ability to renegotiate life when necessary. It is not enough to rely on good genes, or good circumstances, to enjoy a long and happy life. Often these elders withstood tremendous adversity, and learned positive coping skills that set them apart from the rest.
Here are a few "Resiliency Tips" for any age:
* Never Stop Learning and Growing - - engage the mind by reading books, doing the NYTimes crossword puzzle or make a goal to learn a new hobby every year. Life long learning is one of the highest valued elements of resilient people.
* Eat the Old Fashioned Way- very few, if any centenarians were ever obese, and most are accustomed to hard physical activity. Eat foods that are unprocessed as much as possible.
* Be a Doer and not a Complainer- Help a friend, take that class, and take small steps forward every day to manage a challenge. That stubborn attitude keeps the dangerous tide pool of complacency at bay.
* Simple Pleasures- Hobbies are not just moments of wasted time - leisure is vital to our health. Whether it is woodworking, knitting or bird-watching, the simple pleasures is time well spent.
* Well, Um, Sex!- My father-in-law is 101. One of his only medical maladies is a benign condition that makes his hands shake- making it difficult to hold a cup or small objects. When offered medication to help correct this problem, his doctor explained the usual list of side effects. One of them was erectile dysfunction. Needless to say, he refused the medication - and my 87 year-old-mother-in-law nodded her head in absolute agreement. An active sex life is a blessing and a gift you can take to the grave, baby.
Do you have any "wise elders" in your life, or know any centenarians? What are their special qualities that contribute to their longevity? Love to hear your stories. Feel free to click on the "Become a Fan" to receive weekly updates of this column, and you can follow me on Twitter and Facebook.