Pauline, a local resident in Marin County, CA had turned 113. The local senior center she attended was celebrating her birthday along with many others. She was easily the oldest person in my county and one of the oldest in the entire U.S. She’s alert, active, healthy and happy. Is it some magical run of good luck? Or was she an example of how to age in a healthy and purposeful way?
Aging has been studied for countless years by thousands of scientists, medical researchers, sociologists, universities, and others to find out the “secrets” of aging well and living long. Multi-million dollar grants are given to top researchers in the field. Big Pharma is always developing medications intended to slow aging, or reverse dementia but they don’t. We still get old. 6.5 million people in the U.S. are estimated to have Alzheimer’s disease. That statistic omits the many who have not been diagnosed or who do not seek a doctor’s input with memory loss and loss of cognitive ability to manage independently.
How is it that some people navigate longevity so well while others suffer many age-related chronic illnesses and struggle along through the last years of life? One helpful book on this subject is The Blue Zones (2008) by Dan Buettner. He undertook an interesting journey to visit people in four places in the world with the most long-lived folks in them and to explore what they did that would account for their exceptional, healthy lives. I read it with fascination, as the differences in people of the same chronological age who are so dissimilar in how they age has always been of interest to me.
Dan Buettner had face-to-face interviews with many centenarians who were doing quite well. There was much common ground among the four zones he visited with the longest-lived people. The book is worth reading. I am not summarizing it here. Rather, I am sharing my personal most important takeaways from it.
The first is that the things most of us know about maintaining good health are true for the longest-lived too: what they eat, how they exercise and what they avoid. All the elders studied ate healthy diets free of pesticides, animal fats and artificial additives. They would be called “heart healthy” diets here. Another factor in common was the active lifestyles all of them led. They worked in their homes, with families, in the fields, within their communities, and all engaged in some form of daily very regular movement. It was either built in to the way they lived (a shepherd, for example, walking and climbing daily) or it was some form of necessary regular activity in one’s day plus a regular exercise program they did to maintain health. None led a sedentary lifestyle. They did not spend hours sitting around, watching TV or being on a screen, as too many of our own elders do in the U.S.
There were many additional lessons to be learned from the healthy centenarians profiled in the book. Two other most important takeaways for me were the importance of family to these elders. Their lives included daily engagement with family, with focus on sharing meals, being together for visits and fun. The younger generation accepted and took in the elders when they grew less independent and cared for them to the end of their lives. There was no thought of assisted living in an outside home nor of nursing homes. Finally, I saw the importance of social interaction among the oldest old in these zones. All of the individuals interviewed had regular contact with friends and age-mates in the community. Some met every day at a certain time with their friends while others had regular contact through their religious organization or other less formal ways of congregating. None lived in isolation as so many of our elders in this country do.
These centenarians are models for what seems contrary to the way many of us age here. In this society, as reflected by what I see consulting with adult children at AgingParents.com, many family members are scattered across the country from one another. Aging parents live at a distance. Some people are active but most find that aging limits what they can do physically so they give up doing much, if any exercise. A walk around the block is no comparison with how much movement is built in to the lifestyles of th healthy centenarians in the book. Those elders are moving around for a large part of their days.
Pauline, beloved and respected by many, passed away at age 113. She was an excellent model for what Dan Buettner studied in his book. She did not live on an isolated island without large cities. She was here in suburbia with all the things facing her that we also see: fast food places, endless electronics, opportunity to be a TV addict, etc. She was widowed with no children but she remained deeply engaged with family and friends, never socially isolated. She had a “chosen family” to help her when she needed it. She maintained a healthy weight, ate a good diet, exercised a lot and did her own housework. Pauline was not just “lucky”. She made healthy choices every day of her remarkable life. Longevity genes may be only about 30% of how our aging is determined. The rest is up to us.
Each of us, too, has choices as to how we go about our everyday lives. If we want to have a long “healthspan” as compared to our lifespan, we need to fully, purposefully commit to it. And it is not so easy. It takes thought and action and overcoming our internal inertia. It takes assuming that we, and not doctors in our lives, will determine most of how things go for us, rather than expecting anyone to fix us. We may have to slow down as we age but we can certainly keep moving. Wouldn’t it be nice to live out our final decades happy and active just as remarkable Pauline did?