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I'm a longevity expert who studies centenarians…

I'm a longevity expert who studies centenarians...

Americans strive to live healthily into old age. It’s what fuels the multi-billion dollar diet industry and keeps trendy dietary supplements flying off the shelves.

A large majority of Americans – around 77% – expect to live to be 100. But the truth is that the average American lives to be around 78 years old.

The relatively small population that does this is known as centenarians and their numbers are growing. In 2015, the world had more than 450,000 centenarians, more than four times as many as in 1990.

This growth is expected to accelerate, with projections suggesting there will be 3.7 million centenarians worldwide in 2050.

Genetics plays a large role in the likelihood of a person reaching 100 or even above the average. S. Jay Olshansky, professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told “There is an upper limit to human longevity…you can’t live long without gaining in the genetic lottery.”

But there are many factors that a person can adopt to help them extend their lifespan and lifespan – the number of healthy years lived. spoke to aging experts about what the lives of healthy centenarians have in common.

Centenarians are part of a community

Aging experts who specialize in the behaviors of centenarians have focused on the so-called blue zones, the regions of the world where people live the longest, consistently reaching the age of 100.

They include the islands of Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, Ikaria, Greece, as well as the city of Loma Linda in California and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Centenarians in these communities have strong interpersonal relationships, they are close to their families and feel they can trust their neighbors.

People with strong social connections tend to live longer and healthier lives. In fact, people with stronger social connections had a 50% increased probability of survival compared to those with weaker social connections.

A Harvard study spanning 80 years followed about 1,300 people to determine how early childhood experiences affect an individual’s lifespan and health throughout their lifetime. Those who had closer and warmer relationships with others lived happier, longer lives. Close personal relationships had a greater impact on delaying mental and physical decline than wealth and status.

Sardinians are always family, while in Okinawa the term “moais” is often used to refer to groups of five friends who have made a lifelong commitment to each other.

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Dr Dilip Jeste, a renowned neuropsychiatrist who studies aging at the University of California San Diego College of Medicine, told “Social connection has a greater impact on health and longevity than things like various diseases that we try to treat and control – hypertension, diabetes, smoking or obesity, et cetera.

“Humans are a social species. We can only survive if we have a sense of community and belonging.

In a hyper-connected world dominated by social media, connectivity might not seem like an issue. But millions of followers on Instagram or thousands of Facebook friends belie a real problem of loneliness that is pervasive in the United States. What people lack is a genuine and intimate interpersonal connection.

Dr. Mary Gallant, acting dean of the University of Albany’s School of Public Health, told ‘Social isolation and loneliness in the elderly put people at very high risk. of all kinds of negative mental and physical health outcomes. So being engaged in social activities, whether with friends, family, or others [is important.]’

They have a strong sense of purpose

A reason for being: Costa Ricans call it “plan de vida”, while Okinawans call it “ikigai”. In Sardinia, elders often take on the role of carers for children.

The inhabitants of the blue zones all have this in common. They live lives with intention and purpose.

Ikigai is considered such an effective tenant for healthy living that the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has included it in the official health promotion strategy. A 2008 study of more than 43,000 Japanese people found that having no ikigai was linked to a 60% higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

Having purpose and meaning in life has long been associated with longevity. People who believe their lives have meaning also have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

In a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers followed about 7,000 adults over the age of 50 and interviewed them using a questionnaire to rank their life purpose. The researchers assigned life goal scores based on participants’ responses and tracked them five years later.

They concluded that participants with the lowest scores for life purpose were twice as likely to have died as those with the highest scores.

Meanwhile, a 2016 meta-analysis of 10 separate studies involving a total of more than 136,000 people shows that having a purpose in life can reduce the risk of all-cause mortality by 17%.

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According to Dr. Jeste, many people find purpose and meaning through their work and retirement can compromise that.

He said: “Retirement is actually a big factor for many people, especially men. Because work defines the purpose of life and when you retire, or when you are forced to retire, the purpose goes like that.

“So they find other things to do, they volunteer more, or they can go back to doing some art they used to do when they were young.”

In this sense, sense of meaning and altruism go hand in hand. Service to others helps foster a sense of community in addition to purpose.

Dr. Carolyn Aldwin, director of the gerontology program at Oregon State University, told

“If you look at, for example, who gets PTSD after natural disasters, people who have reached out to help other people during natural disasters are less likely to develop PTSD because it’s helpful and meaningful, and their gives a sense of control.

“You can’t save everyone. But if you did your best to get people out of the rubble heaps, it really helps your own satisfaction with such a situation.

They are spiritual, not necessarily religious

In the Blue Zones, centenarians participate in spiritual practices that experts say instill a sense of groundedness and belonging.

Spirituality is not synonymous with organized religion, warns Dr. Jeste. Spirituality can take the form of being in communion with nature or performing acts of altruism.

He said: “An atheist can still be spiritual in the sense that he believes there is something greater, something we cannot see, hear or feel.”

Dr Aldwin told ‘On an individual level, we’ve done work showing that congestive heart failure patients, on average, who identify as highly spiritual live longer than those who don’t.

“So it helps to have a healthy lifestyle, yes it really helps to have a supportive community, but it also helps to be centered and grounded, and not to be knocked down by the stresses that we all go through. .”

Yet church membership is proven to create a strong sense of community, a proven factor for living in the hundreds.

A 2017 report of 5,449 middle-aged Americans (40-65) published in PLoS One found that after adjusting for age, gender, race, and chronic health conditions, followers were 46% less likely to die during the 14 years of follow-up. period compared to non-practitioners.

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The Loma Linda community is home to 21,000 people who are primarily Seventh-day Adventists, a religion that mandates a healthy lifestyle and acts of service.

In 2009, researchers from Loma Linda and Austin, Texas found that it was faith that boosted their healthy habits and emotional well-being. They were engaged with members of their community and were physically active. It also helps that they abstain from alcohol.

Americans now live 76.4 years on average, up from 78.8 years in 2019

Americans now live 76.4 years on average, up from 78.8 years in 2019

They practice stress management

Healthy centenarians typically maintain low stress levels through various practices, including a strong support system and plenty of daytime naps.

It’s no secret that this chronic stress produces progressive wear and tear on the body. Chronic stress has been shown to increase the risk of dementia, anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, and even a weakened immune system.

A particularly useful and anti-aging practice is called proactive coping, a forward-looking strategy that involves preparing for success by anticipating potential stressors and taking action in advance either to prevent them or to mitigate them. impact.

According to Dr Aldwin, this can mean saving money up front in case the car needs expensive repairs or refueling before a long trip so you don’t run out of fuel in the middle of the night on a Countryside road.

Older people are already good at coping proactively to reduce stress later.

Dr Aldwin said: “Stress management, being able to ignore little things, being able to organize a life structure that can reduce your exposure to stress, especially later in life, would be really helpful.

“A study was done many years ago on 80-year-olds in San Francisco, and they found that they did a lot of proactive things, like if they drove into town, they plotted routes where they didn’t have to. make a left turn, or if they’re going to travel, they go to the airport a day ahead to make sure they know what they’re doing and how to get there.

Having a realistic perspective on life stressors and how people react is equally important.

Dr Aldwin added: ‘It’s really important not to make mountains out of molehills.

“It’s better not to be stressed about something in the first place. Someone cuts off traffic to you, that’s a big deal, isn’t it? Your flight is delayed for half an hour because they have to fix something? Better they fix something than bring the plane down.

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