Aiming for Longevity? What You Need to Know

Overall, people in the United States are living longer. One in 6,000 people in the country are now reaching the age of 100, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging. In 2019, more than 100,000 people in the United States were 100 or older. That is triple the number who had reached that age in 1980. (Of course, the overall population of older individuals increased between 1980 and 2019. Nonetheless, proportionally there has been an increase in the number of people who reached the century mark.)

You may be like a good many individuals and have a desire to live a long life, to get as far as possible into the proverbial Golden Years as you can … with one caveat. You want to be healthy and well if you live into your 90s or even cross the 100-year threshold.

Common Traits of People With Exceptionally Long Lives

Scientists at Harvard Medical School, as well as at other institutions, have been studying women and men in their 90s and beyond, to try and ascertain what contributes to what fairly can be called an exceptionally long life. According to the National Institutes of Health, people who live into their 90s and beyond seem to live life vigorously and in a way that hampers the development or advancement of chronic conditions like:

  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease

These people typically are not:

  • Smokers
  • Obese
  • Emotionally stressed

Preventing Age-Related Frailty

A key to longevity of the really extended type is preventing age-related frailty – or at least limiting its extent and advancement. Having said that, you may wonder what exactly is meant by “age-related frailty?” We all see people that look frail. But what does it really mean to experience age-related frailty.

“Frailty is hard to define, but it’s really easy to spot. In general, it’s a state of increased vulnerability,” explained Courtney Millar, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Marcus Institute for Aging Research at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“It’s important to focus on frailty prevention and treatment, because it’s associated with so many of the factors that determine someone’s longevity,” said Millar, a co-author of a study on the subject, published online May 12, 2022, by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Despite the recognition that frailty is hard to define, some have attempted to do so with at least some degree of specificity. A general definition of age-related frailty is when there are declines in function across body systems, leading to increased risk for catastrophic health events.

There are two definitions of frailty, said Barbara Nicklas, professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest Medical School in North Carolina. One is when several body systems are functioning poorly. “Another is more about physical operation: low grip strength or muscle weakness, slow gait speed, a tendency to have lost weight, and a strong feeling of fatigue. One is how a person feels and performs, and another is how sick a person is.”

Not all older individuals experience age-related frailty. About 50 percent of people over the age of 85 are said to experience what medically is considered to be age-related frailty.

Develop a Healthy Diet by Age 20

Another new study suggests that young adults who begin optimizing their diets at age 20 by veering from typical Western fare to more whole grains, legumes, and nuts could increase their life expectancy by more than a decade.

Yet another study published in February 2022 by PLOS Medicine addressed the subject of earlier in life healthy dieting and longevity. The study concluded that people who start such dietary shifts, even at age 60, can still reap substantial benefits, increasing life expectancy by eight years for women. 80-year-olds could gain another three-plus years by shifting their diets.

“I’m certainly a believer that food is medicine,” Courtney Millar remarked. “And there’s some great evidence that dietary factors can improve longevity.” Siblings and children of long-living people are more likely to live beyond peers and remain healthier as they age, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Importance of Genetics

Genes certainly play some role in longevity, research confirms. A study published in May 2022, by The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences suggested that children of those who reach 100 carry a specific genetic footprint explaining why they are less frail than peers whose parents who did not reach the 100-year-old mark.

“My take is that it’s certainly a combination of lifestyle and genetics,” explained Courtney Millar. “Certain dietary factors and even exercise regimens can modify how our genes are expressed and contribute to what’s going on in our bodies. It’s a really important intersection of our health.” According to Harvard Medical School, studies in regard to the genetic and healthy lifestyle linkage are ongoing.

Importance of Positive Outlook

A recent Harvard-led analysis of approximately 160,000 American women linked positive outlook to extended life span. Published in June 2022, by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the research study analyzed data and survey responses from women who were 50 to 79 years old when they started in the study in the 1990s. The researchers tracked participants’ survival for up to 26 years. The results suggested that higher levels of optimism correlated with higher odds of living beyond 90.

About a quarter of the relationship between optimism and living longer may reflect health-related factors such as eating healthy foods, controlling weight, exercising, and limiting alcohol, explained research study co-author Dr. Hayami Koga. Koga is a researcher and doctoral candidate in population health sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The findings hint at the value of focusing on positive psychological factors as possible new ways of promoting longevity and healthy aging, Dr. Koga explained. “There’s some evidence that optimistic people are more likely to have goals and the confidence to reach them,” she added. “I think it drives people to be more confident and take actions that lead to better health.”