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What Can We Learn from People Who Live to Be 100?
You and I are mere youngsters compared to the more than 100 people in New England who have passed their 100th birthdays and are participating in the New England Centenarian Study (NECS), a joint project of Boston Medical Center and the Harvard Medical School, founded and directed by geriatrics expert Thomas T. Perls, M.D., M.P.H. The study, which started in 1994, is the first comprehensive investigation of the world's oldest people.
While the research does seem to indicate a link between genetics and longevity, lifestyle also plays an important role in both the quality of life and the quantity of years. As one expert has said, 'It's not just your genes; it's what you do with them.' In presenting the findings of their research, Perls and colleague Margery Hutter Silver, M.D., make it clear that even if you don't have the 'extreme age' gene, it is possible to live a full, long, healthy life by following the examples of those who have done just that. 'We look at aging as an opportunity rather than a curse,' says Perls.
In their book, Living to 100, Lessons in Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age, Perls and Silver describe several centenarians who have reached extreme old age in good health, exploding the myth that aging has to be associated with disease and deterioration.
What do all centenarians have in common? Well, for starters, they don't set out to become that old; they just live one day at a time and enjoy it. The following section lists what else they share.
Best Ways to Live a Long, Healthy Life: Do What Centenarians Do
According to the New England Centenarian Study, people who have passed their 100th birthdays may have the genes to help them, but they also have lifestyles that are remarkably similar:
• Healthy centenarians stay connected with others of all age groups and involved in their communities.
• They keep physically active with regular, daily exercise. They bake and cook for family gatherings, go to the office and play golf. One woman, 101 years old, has a habit of reading while riding a stationary bicycle.
• They continue to use their brains throughout their lives. Many experts recommend learning new skills as a way to keep the brain functioning. Try a new language!
• They have learned how to handle stress and the many losses that happen on the way to 100.
• They use humor to cope with difficult times. 'He who laughs, lasts,' says Perls.
• They find meaning in some kind of spiritual practice and seem to take a lively interest and joy in everything around them.
I would add to this list that the extremely old people whom I have met in my practice are self-sufficientthey remain living independently as long as possible, they adapt well to challenges, they have good sleep habits, regular bowel movements, and prefer outdoor activities and fresh air. Centenarians focus on living each day as it comes instead of on living a long time. Being old is not different from being youngexcept in one important way: People fail all the time at being young, making lousy decisions and not learning anything new. Old people, by contrast, have made at least some good decisionsotherwise they could not have survived so long.
Centenarians are not always nice; some are cantankerous and ornery. Most of them have been married, and most have been widowed. But after their losses, they grieved and got over it. Most are womenmany of whom, interestingly, have borne children after their fortieth birthdays. The most prominent trait that centenarians have in common, though, is their self-sufficiency. Many eschew pills, unless they are absolutely necessary.
The Importance of Resilience and Hardiness
Twenty-five years ago, psychologist Salvatore R. Maddi, Ph.D., asked himself: 'Why do some people suffer physical and mental breakdowns when faced with overwhelming stress while others seem to thrive?' At that time, Dr. Maddi was studying creativity. 'I was learning that creative peoplesuch as artists, writers, musicians or theatrical professionalsare always looking for new experiences and new answers to questions,' says Dr. Maddi. Other people, by contrast, become debilitated and even ill in response to stressful changes in their lives.
Dr. Maddi's interest in people's different responses to stress spurred him to take his research in a new direction, and he began looking for a sample of highly stressed people. He found them at Illinois Bell Telephone (IBT), where he was working as a consultant. 'Due to the 1981 deregulation of the telephone industry, IBT downsized from 26,000 employees to just over half that many in one year,' says Dr. Maddi. 'The remaining employees faced changing job descriptions, company goals and supervisors. One manager reported having ten different supervisors in one year.'
Dr. Maddi and his group evaluated the IBT employees during a landmark twelve-year study. On a yearly basis for the six years before the deregulation and downsizing, Dr. Maddi and his research team used complex and in-depth psychological and medical measuring tools to study more than 400 supervisors, managers and executives at IBT. After the downsizing, they were able to continue following the original study group on a yearly basis until 1987.
'We found that about two-thirds of the employees in the study suffered significant performance, leadership and health declinesincluding heart attacks, strokes, obesity, depression, substance abuse and poor performance reviewsas the result of the extreme stress in their workplace,' says Dr. Maddi. 'However, the other one-third actually thrived during the upheaval, despite experiencing the same amount of disruption and stressful events as their co-workers. These employees maintained their health, happiness and performance and felt renewed enthusiasm.' The differences between the two groups prior to the upheaval led Dr. Maddi to identify the concept of hardiness.5 'The research revealed that those who thrived during stressful times had maintained three key beliefs that helped them turn adversity into an advantage. We call these beliefs 'The Three Cs of Hardiness,'' says Dr. Maddi. According to his research, hardiness moderates the relationship between stress and illness and can act as a 'buffer' against stress-related illnesses, even when people have inherited vulnerability to such illnesses.
Dr. Maddi's Three Cs of Hardiness: Commitment, Control and Challenge
Three hardiness attitudes, which Dr. Maddi calls 'The Three Cs,' increase resilience and hardiness. They may also lead to a longer, healthier life. These three attitudes are commitment, control and challenge. Dr. Maddi points out that later studies show hardiness to be roughly two times as effective in decreasing the subsequent risk of illness as social support and physical exercise.
Commitment. The commitment attitude leads people to strive to be involved with people, things and contexts rather than being detached, isolated or alienated.
Control. The control attitude leads people to struggle to have an influence on the outcomes going on around themselves, rather than lapsing into passivity and powerlessness.
Challenge. The challenge attitude leads people to learn continually from their experiences, viewing acute and chronic stresses, whether positive or negative, as opportunities for new learning. Hardy people do not 'play it safe' by avoiding uncertainties and potential threats. Rather, they are motivated by challenges to learn how they can grow and change for the better.
Most important for our purposes, Dr. Maddi's research and extensive clinical work demonstrate that you can learn to acquire and use hardy attitudes, even if you were not born with a hardy disposition. Hardiness training programs enhance performance, leadership, stamina, mood, and both physical and mental health by giving people the courage and capability to turn adversity into advantage.
Healthy to 100 Tip
George Bernard Shaw once said, 'Youth is wasted on the young.' Why is that so? Because young people live in the future, with all their dreams and plans, and they don't see the wonderful life around them. Don't give up your dreams and your plans, but live today and enjoy the here and now. You never know how much future you will have.
You might still want to achieve some long-cherished goals, but it doesn't have to be all toil and sweat. Reaching 100 is not a competition. You have nothing to prove. By grace, you may one day get therebut it is not worthwhile if you didn't have fun on the way. Relax and take one day at a time.
'Don't Fence Me In': A Portrait of Jinny
If you are curious about what resilience and hardiness look like, meet Jinny, who describes herself as an extrovert. 'I like to connect with people. In Jungian terms, I like to imprint myself on my environment.'
Here is Jinny's environment: She lives alone with two golden cats in a sunny apartment with pots of herbs and plants thriving on window ledges; a treadmill (for when she can't get out to exercise); a study lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves displaying her passions for gourmet cooking, Jungian psychology, art, music and architectural history; and paintings, wall hangings, prints, sculptures, maps and drawings from all over the world, gathered in her travels. 'I have met almost all the people whose art I have,' she says. 'I would have loved to have known Rembrandt, but I can't afford him anyway.'
Jinny spends her summers in a rental cottage in Maine, swimming regularly in the frigid ocean. 'It is very stimulating,' she says. 'I can spend about fifteen minutes thrashing around and come out looking like a cooked lobster. I believe seawater is therapeutic: The ocean is the mother of us all.' During the summer, she also works out three times a week at a nearby health club.
During the spring and fall, Jinny walks twenty-five minutes every week to her community garden plot. (She sold her car long ago and walks or takes public transportation everywhere.) On this early spring day, she has just planted her peas, lugging forty pounds of topsoil in a grocery cart up the hill. When she first got the garden ten years ago, she spent eight hours 'double-digging' down eighteen inches to aerate it. 'I did it in two-hour shifts,' she says. This spring, as usual, she will fertilize it with cow manure and topsoil as well as with minerals and fertilizer that she orders during the winter. When she needs help with transportation, a friend with a neighboring plot drives her. 'She offered to be my chauffeur if I'd be her gardening guru,' says Jinny. This year, she plans to grow her usual crops, including rhubarb, herbs, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, lettuces, beets, carrots, onions, arugula and tiny wild strawberries.
Did we mention that Jinny was born in 1915? No matter. It hardly seems relevant. 'I guess I'm still a child at heart,' she says. When interviewed three years ago, she was already planning her ninetieth birthday party: 'It will be a dance party with a jazz combo,' she said at the time. 'Stick around.' This year, Jinny had the party she had been dreaming of, with not one but two jazz combos, and plenty of dancing and food for all of her friends and family.
Full of as much vigor as ever at ninety, Jinny is still swimming and gardening. She has regular shiatsu massages and osteopathic treatments, practices yoga and continues her twice-weekly workouts at a Pilates studio. 'All of this keeps things moving and aligned,' she says.
When she's not moving her body, she coordinates volunteers at a local university's 'Learning in Retirement' program, where she also co-teaches a course in analytical psychology and takes classes. She listens to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio and cooks herself a gourmet dinner most evenings. 'Last night, I made golden beets with beet greens, a mélange of red peppers, okra, zucchini, onion and garlic, cooked in olive oil, served over gemelli pasta,' she says. 'I also like lamb and pork, but mostly fish.'
Jinny has had only two major health problems in her long life: 'When I was in my sixties I had pneumonia, and it took me about a year to get my energy back,' she says. 'Then my knee began bothering me when I was eighty-three, and I needed to use a cane. An arthroscopy didn't help, so I had the whole joint replaced. After a few months, I was better than ever!'
Divorced twice and the mother of two, Jinny has been an amateur actress and a faculty wife, and has traveled extensively, living for a time in Costa Rica during World War II with her first husband and two small children. After her first divorce, she lived with her children in Washington, D.C., managed a bookstore and sold real estate. During and after her second marriage, she lived in Illinois and New York City, studied fine arts at NYU, became certified as a graphologist (handwriting expert) and began what was to become a lifelong study of Jungian psychology at the C. G. Jung Foundation. She also became director of a committee providing service and information to United Nations delegations. 'All of my life, I have refused to be tied down,' she says. 'Don't fence me in.'
©2007. Alexa Fleckenstein, M.D and Roanne Weisman. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Own Your Health : Healthy to 100. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.