Old age is a time of life defined by loss of vigor, increasing frailty, rising disease risk and falling cognitive faculties. Add to that the unavoidable matter of the end of consciousness and the death that draws closer and closer. It’s the rare person who can confront the final decline with flippancy or ease.
Humans are pikers in life spans compared to some other species. Jeanne Calment lived to the age of 122 years, 164 days, becoming the oldest recorded human who ever lived. She died on August 4, 1997, in Arles, France, where she had lived her entire life.
But compared to some other species, her life was short. Bowhead whales are thought to be the longest-living mammal with an estimated life span of more than 200 years. And a clam dredged from the ocean off Iceland in 2006 carried growth lines on its shell indicating it had been around since 1499. That was enough time for 185,055 generations of mayfly, which live as little as a day, to come and go. Neither clam nor fly gave a thought to that mortal math.
Humans, as far as we know, are the only species who spend their life knowing death is coming. Globally, the average life span for humans is 71.4 years; for a few lucky people, it may exceed 100 years.
Humans have made at least some progress. Life expectancy in the U.S. exceeds the global average, clocking in at just under 79 years. In Canada, it’s a bit longer at 81.9 years. In 1900, U.S. life expectancy was just over 47 years. The extra decades came courtesy of vaccines, antibiotics, sanitation and improved detection and treatment of a range of diseases. Advances in genetics and in our understanding of dementia are helping to extend our lives still further.
A recent Yale University study found that in a group of 4,765 people with an average age of 72, those who carried a gene variant linked to dementia – but also had positive attitudes about aging – were 50% less likely to develop the disorder than people who carried the gene but faced aging with more pessimism or fear.
The study suggests there may be something to be said for aging less timidly, as a sort of happy contrarian who argues when you feel like it, plays when you feel like playing. Maybe you want to pass up the quiet of the country for the churn of a city. Maybe you want to drink a little, eat a rich meal, have some sex.
“The most important advice we offer people about longevity is, ‘Throw away your lists,’” says Howard Friedman, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and co-author of The Longevity Project. “We live in a self-help society full of lists: ‘lose weight, hit the gym.’ So why aren’t we all healthy? People who live a long time can work hard and play hard.” Under the right circumstances, it increasingly seems, so could all of us.
She’s hardly the only senior who loves city living. In the U.S., 80% of people ages 65 and older are now living in metropolitan areas, and according to the World Health Organization, by 2030, an estimated 60% of all people will live in cities. You may lose a little sidewalk speed and have to work harder to get up and down subway stairs, but cities increasingly rank high on both doctors’ and seniors’ lists of the best places to age gracefully.
Every year, the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging (CFA) ranks the best metropolitan places for successful aging, and most years, major cities sweep the top 10 spots. That’s not surprising since cities tend to have strong health systems, opportunities for continued learning, widespread public transportation and an abundance of arts and culture.
Some studies have found that friends are more important to the elderly than is family. Just as the primacy of family has been oversold as a key to long life, so has the importance of avoiding conflict or emotional upset. Shouting back at cable news is no way to spend your golden years, but passion, it turns out, may be more life-sustaining than apathy, engagement more than indifference.
In a study published by the American Aging Association, researchers analyzed data from the Georgia Centenarian Study, a survey of 285 people who were near or beyond 100 years old, as well as 273 family members and other proxies who provided information about them. The investigators were looking at how the subjects scored on various personality traits, including conscientiousness, extroversion, hostility and neuroticism.
As a group, the centenarians tested lower on neuroticism and higher on competence and extroversion. Their proxies ranked them a bit higher on neuroticism, as well as on hostility. It’s impossible to draw a straight line between those strong personality traits and long life, but the authors saw a potential one, citing other studies showing that centenarians rank high on “moral righteousness,” which leads to robust temperaments that “may help centenarians adapt well to later life.”
At the same time that crankiness, judiciously deployed, can be adaptive, its polar opposite – cheerfulness and optimism – may be less so. Worried people are likelier to be vigilant people, alert to a troubling physical symptom or a loss of some faculty that overly optimistic people might dismiss. Friedman and his collaborator, Leslie R. Martin, a professor of psychology at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., base their book on work begun in 1921 by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman, who recruited 1,500 boys and girls born around 1910 and proposed to follow them throughout their lifetimes and, when he died, as he did in 1956, to have successors continue the work. Friedman and Martin have been two of those successors, and they’ve learned a lot.
“Our research found that the more cheerful, outgoing children did not, for the most part, live any longer than their more introverted or serious classmates,” says Friedman. “Excessively happy people may ignore real threats and fail to take precautions or follow medical advice.”
One tip for long life that is not coming in for quite so much revisionist thinking is exercise. Adding even a small amount of movement to daily life has been repeatedly shown to be beneficial, for a whole range of reasons. “Exercise likely works through several mechanisms,” says Dr. Thomas Gill, director of the Yale Program on Aging. “Increasing physical activity will improve endurance; it benefits muscle strength and balance and reduces occurrence of serious fall injuries. It also provides a benefit to psychology, by lifting spirits.” A 2016 study found that elderly people who exercised for just 15 minutes a day, at an intensity level of a brisk walk, had a 22% lower risk of early death compared to people who did no exercise. A 2017 study found that exercising even just two days a week can lower risk for premature death. Researchers from McMaster University in Canada even found that breaking a sweat for just 60 seconds may be enough to improve health and fitness – as long as it’s a tough workout.
Healthy eating may have a lot more wiggle room than we’ve assumed. If there’s such a thing as a longevity diet, there may be more on the menu than seniors have been told. “It really is an issue of moderation,” says Peter Martin, a professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, who runs an ongoing study of centenarians. Martin notes that while most centenarians eat different but generally healthy diets, one consistent thing he has picked up from work with his 100-plus crowd is breakfast. “They rarely skip breakfast,” he says. “It’s often at a very specific time, and the routine is important.”
Alcohol has its place, too. An August 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that light to moderate alcohol use (14 or fewer drinks per week for men and seven or fewer for women) is associated with a lower risk of death compared to people who don’t drink at all. If you’re a nondrinker, that’s no reason to start, and if you drink only infrequently, it’s no reason to drink more. Still, among the more than 333,000 people in the study, light and moderate drinkers were 20% less likely to die from any cause during the study period compared with their completely abstemious peers.
There may be no truly healthy centenarians – you can’t reach 100 years without getting worn out and banged up along the way. But there are independent centenarians and happy centenarians and centenarians who have had a rollicking good ride. The same is true for people who will never reach the 100-year mark but make the very most of the time they do get. The end of life is a nonnegotiable thing.