"There are many more ways to be attractive than to be beautiful. "
-- William Landay, Mission Flats

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Is Longevity in Your Future?

       The world is awash in studies on longevity. Perhaps the most famous are those from Dan Buettner who identified several "Blue Zones" around the globe -- in places like Japan, Greece, Italy -- which boast unusually high numbers of centenarians. Buettner credits the longevity of these people to moderate exercise, healthy social connections, strong family ties, and mostly vegetarian diets with a moderate amount of alcohol.

     But what about here in the United States? I ran across a 2020 study from Washington State University that analyzed the elderly in the state of Washington. The researchers identified a number of factors associated with longevity -- and a few that aren't. Their conclusions were derived from a somewhat narrow study of 144,000 people, age 75 and older, in just one state. But it's reasonable to think that the results apply to the rest of us as well.

     Less than 2% of us reach the ripe old age of 100. However, because of advances in medicine and public health, the number of centenarians is projected to increase dramatically, from less than a million today to an estimated 3.7 million in 2050. Still, social and environmental factors -- not the latest surgical techniques -- are the main determinants of healthy aging, which is defined as "the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age."

     So here's what the Washington researchers found:

     Race and gender. Women are more likely than men to live to see 100. White people are more likely to reach 100 than African Americans. However, Hispanics and Asians have lower mortality rates compared to both African Americans and white Americans at all ages, and thus have the best chance to cross the centenarian goal line.

     Neighborhood. Living in a walkable neighborhood has "a strong positive correlation" with the likelihood of living to 100. Walking, a healthy activity in itself, is associated with lower body mass index and other measures of health. But also, people in walkable neighborhoods typically have access to public transit, medical facilities, healthy food and other helpful goods and services.

   Education. Previous studies have linked higher levels of education with better health and lower mortality. But this study actually found the opposite: "education was found to be negatively associated with becoming a centenarian." The authors speculate that the finding may apply specifically to the older population they were studying. In other words, it's possible a higher education increases your chances of making to age 75 -- because of better employment opportunities and a healthier lifestyle associated with higher socioeconomic status (such as not smoking, better diet, less risky behavior). But if you've already made it to 75, then education doesn't seem to matter anymore.

     Marital status.  Compared to married older adults, those who never married or were widowed, divorced or separated were more likely to become centenarians. This also flies in the face of some previous research which has identified a "marriage protection" for older people due to greater social connectedness, less self-destructive behavior, and the healthier habits generally found in married people. But this study found that the marriage protection seems less relevant among older people. Why? They may have became widowed earlier in life; hence stress associated with the trauma is long gone. The study also included more women, who suffer less negative effects from the break-up of a marriage than men. Additionally, some people still married may be experiencing a strained relationship which can take its own toll on health.

     Socioeconomic status. People who live in middle and upper middle-class areas are more likely to reach age 100 than those who live in poor areas. A higher income is associated with all kinds of advantages, including closer and stronger social connections, as well as healthier lifestyle choices and better access to medical facilities, parks and recreational activities and many other social services. 

     Population. The study found clusters of healthy older people in urban, higher socioeconomic areas, but very few centenarians in rural areas of the state. The researchers concluded that these communities, with more younger working people, enjoyed more government support, greater availability of community organizations, better access to transportation and health care services -- all factors that separately influence longevity and the chance of become a centenarian. 

     What does all this mean for us? Many of the factors that determine our longevity, such as race and gender, are beyond our control. But lifestyle matters a lot. We can exercise more, eat healthier diets, develop stronger social connections -- not so much to improve our chances to live to 100, but more to support "the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age."

23 comments:

Kevin from Virginia said...

Very interesting post, Tom. Several of the findings are counterintuitive but it seems to me the main point is spot on: that lifestyle choices, which we control, can make a big difference. Overall, pretty much good news!

Olga said...

I was surprised not to see family history as a factor.

ApacheDug said...

Very interesting! Well, neither of my parents made it to 64, but maybe I'll live a bit longer. I'm single, live 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and my dentist, barber, hardware store, bank, library, supermarket--I walk to all of them. Thanks Tom, this made me feel a little more hopeful today about things.

Sheila said...

How interesting! My grandmother lived to 103 and walked everywhere in her smaller town. She checked a bunch of the other boxes, too.

DUTA said...

ן wrote a little post on the Blue Zones and Dan Buettner in april 2016.
That was my concluding paragraph:
"What I first have in mind is not the possibility of being a centenarian, but rather the prospect of living a life free of pain, disabilities,and dependence, that usually come with old age.

Arkansas Patti said...

Interesting. I have a few plusses and an equal number of minuses according to those stats. I have all ready outlived both my parents and all grandparents but one who made it to 93.I'd better break out the walking shoes and the salad bowl if I want to out live her.

Rian said...

I'm not sure that becoming a centenarian is my goal, but having a healthy happy 'few years that I have left' certainly is. I've already outlived my siblings and my dad. My mom lived to be 94, but those last few years (with Alzheimer's) she wasn't happy. So I guess I'd go for quality and not quantity. But I agree with Patti and need to do more walking...

Tom said...

Yeah, I agree, I think for most of us the main interest is not just to be old, but to be as healthy as possible in old age -- meaning that we're relatively mobile, pain-free and connected to the world. I do think the people from WSU have given us a few insights that might help us accomplish that. Good luck to everyone!

Jeanette Lewis said...

I remember reading that Loma Linda, California was a blue zone. a large group of Seventh-Day Adventists were identified as living long lives due to a lifestyle based on moderate exercise, mostly vegetarian diets, and strong community/social ties.
Most of us strive to live a long life -- with the proviso that the years are accompanied with good health.

Janette said...

I follow the Loma Linda study a bit more. Interesting.
II have no desire to make it to 100. Saying that, Mom is now 91, her sisters are 93 and 95. Her brother lived to 90. All were extremely active in their 50&60’- tennis and swimming. Three out of four are larger people...ok obese. Two did Moderate drinking and smoking. Two didn’t. My uncle went to university after the War. The women did not. Thinking if I’ve got the Clark gene, and can keep from being run over, I can be around for a long time. They had one sister who died at 60, but she was on early types of birth control and smoked. Sadly passed of blood cancer after breast cancer. .
Not surprised education did not play a key, since higher education( especially for women) 80 years ago was much more rare. I wonder if the city thing would be today because of air pollution.

gigi-hawaii said...

My father died at age 87 and my mother at age 99. Who knows when I'll pass?

Wisewebwoman said...

It's all about quality isn't it. Quantity is great if you have all the marbles and good mobility.

These studies don't take in many factors like daily practises of yoga, meditation which all help, I would think.

The death of a child has an enormous impact which I've seen in my own family and in the lives of friends. A huge impact on overall health.

XO
WWW

Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com said...

Hi Tom! I love posts like this because you raise some very important questions that I think all of us should be asking ourselves. Things like: What does longevity mean to me? What does it look like in my life? Am I living in ways that help or hurt my longevity? etc. etc. And last but not least, how long do I really believe i will live and why? I ask my mother when she was about 65...my age now if she wanted to live to be 100 and she said no. I remember being shocked. Why not? She actually died at 73 of cancer and Alzheimer's and looking back I think that in her shoes I would have left even earlier given the circumstances. When we buy a car we hope that it will last as long as we want and need it. And if we take care of it, chances are good it will last that long. But let's face...as you mentioned on my blog. "Man plans and God laughs." Meanwhile, let's just keep rowing down stream. ~Kathy

Bethany @ Happily Loco said...

Very interesting. I do think, if nothing else, that lifestyle impacts quality of life. I recently lost a great deal of weight, and I immediately noticed that my knees stopped hurting and I had more energy. Maybe it won't help me make to to 100, but it will make the ride to it a lot more pleasant! :-)

carol cassara said...

I think stress is a really big part of all of this.

Rita said...

What does all this mean for us? Move to Washington state.

Tom said...

Carol, I agree. Many of the markers for an early grave (forgive the bad pun) such as poverty, loneliness, discrimination, are associated with a lot of stress. On the plus side, retirement usually brings a lowering of stress levels ... so we've got that going for us.

Diane Stringam Tolley said...

Wow. So many findings were definitely NOT what I expected, Tom! Interesting!

Barb said...

As others have said, I know that I've fallen off a bit on the health eating and walking path lately and know that needs to improve.i also need more brain food literally and figuratively.

Rebecca Olkowski said...

I think that being in a walkable area is certainly a factor. There seem to be many very old people in NYC for example. I have sat with a centenarian over a period of years. He's an actor who is now 106 and still going strong. He was eating a chicken leg, corn on the cob, and drinking Sangria at a party we attend. He quit playing tennis at 99 and the stories he tells about old Hollywood are amazing.

Linda Myers said...

I see the "diet and exercise" recommendations often, and also community connections. We live in a retirement community in Tucson for half the year and the community connections are fabulous - much more so than in Washington, where I have lived for the last 35 years. The drier climate also makes the normal arthritis of aging easier to tolerate.

My parents died at 57 and 86, so I expect I won't live to 100. My goal is to be healthy and relatively pain free up until the last day of my life, whenever that happens. But, you know, "diet and exercise" are sometimes just a goal, rather than a practice.

Meryl Baer said...

I should be happy! Although I should walk more. We live in a walkable neighborhood. My mother-in-law's mantra - she died at 90 - was everything in moderation.

Kay said...

My husband keeps trying to get me to exercise more, but I'm afraid, I'm bad. I guess I need the social aspect to get myself to exercise, but with the pandemic, it's hard. I think our diet is relatively good since again, my husband keeps close watch. Thank you for the warning, Tom. I'll try. I'll try.