10 Surprising Clues You'll Live to 100

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About one in 10,000 people seems to be a "slow ager" who lives to 100 -- sometimes even in spite of bad health habits, like smoking or exercising little, according to new research. Will you be among them? You won't know if you're among the genetically predisposed for sure, of course, until those 100 birthday candles are lit. But researchers are discovering more and more clues as to who's on his or her way.

Clue #1: How many elderly relatives are on your family tree?

What it may mean: You may have longevity genes.

At least half of all those who reach 100 have a parent, sibling, or grandparent who has also achieved very old age (90-plus), according to the New England Centenarian Study at the Boston University School of Medicine, which studies 100-plussers to unlock secrets of successful aging.

A 2002 study by the center's director, geriatrician Thomas Perls, found that male siblings of centenarians have a 17 times greater chance of reaching their 100th birthday than other men born around the same time; female siblings are 8.5 times more likely to hit 100 than other females also born around the same time.

Other studies have found that exceptional aging is often clustered among multiple first-tier family members, supporting a genetic link. Having siblings, parents, and grandparents who make it to 100 seems to be a much stronger indicator than counting cousins and other more distant relatives.

Clue #2: How fast and how far can you walk?

What it may mean: You're in good condition for the long haul.

Faster walkers live longer. University of Pittsburgh researchers crunched numbers from nine different studies including almost 35,000 subjects ages 65 or older. The result: For each gait speed increase of 0.1 meters per second came a corresponding 12 percent decrease in the risk of death.

The average speed was 3 feet per second (about two miles an hour). Those who walked slower than 2 feet per second (1.36 miles per hour) had an increased risk of dying. Those who walked faster than 3.3 feet per second (2.25 miles per hour) or faster survived longer than would be predicted simply by age or gender.

A 2006 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that among adults ages 70 to 79, those who couldn't walk a quarter mile were less likely to be alive six years later. They were also more likely to suffer illness and disability before death. An earlier study of men ages 71 to 93 found that those who could walk two miles a day had half the risk of heart attack of those who could walk only a quarter mile or less.

Clue #3: Do you have a lot of people in your life?

What it may mean: Social engagement is a key lifespan-extender.

Countless studies have found that social isolation is bad for your health, while having friends and social engagement is good. One of the more surprising findings in The Longevity Project (a book about an eight-decade study of 1,500 subjects all born around 1910) is that religious women lived longer -- primarily, as it turned out, because of the social connectedness of their faith-based lifestyle. That is, they worshipped with others, joined committees, and engaged in social outreach, from clothing drives to soup kitchens.

"There was a clear, similar trend among people who had civic engagements, were active in their communities, volunteered, and otherwise stayed connected, whether with families, friends, or coworkers," says Leslie R. Martin, a professor of psychology at La Sierra University in Riverside, California, who's the coauthor of The Longevity Project.

More clues that you could live to 100

Clue #4: Are you a woman?

What it may mean: Odds are more in your favor from the start.

Sorry, fellas. In 2010, there were 80,000 centenarians in the U.S.; 85 percent of them were women, and only 15 percent were men.

It's not entirely clear what's causing the disparity. Theories include the protective role of female sex hormones and menstruation, lower rates of cardiovascular disease for women, and higher smoking rates among men. Men also have higher rates of car accidents and suicide.

The survival gap is gradually narrowing, however, possibly because women are living lives that are conventionally male in terms of stress and poorer health habits, especially smoking.

One bit of good news for men: Those who do reach the century mark are, on average, healthier and more functionally fit than their female counterparts. Women survive medical catastrophes better than men but with more disability.

Clue #5 (for women only): Did you have a child after age 35?

What it may mean: This is possible evidence that you're a slow ager.

Popular wisdom holds that late-life babies are tougher on a mother's aging body. If so, that graying hair mixed with newborn pink or blue reflects a silver lining: According to the New England Centenarian Study, a woman who naturally conceives and bears a child after the age of 40 has a four times greater chance of living to 100 than women who don't. Moms who give birth naturally at 35-plus also make it to 100 in larger numbers than younger counterparts.

It's not the act of bearing a child late in life that extends lifespan, however. Researchers instead believe that being able to conceive and give birth in your late 30s or 40s is probably an indicator that your reproductive system is aging slowly -- and that therefore the rest of your body is likely to be aging slowly, as well.

Clue #6: When were you born?

What it may mean: Growing lifespans give younger people an edge.

A 2011 report by the British Department for Work and Pensions estimated life expectancy for citizens at various ages, providing a snapshot that Yanks can learn from, too.

A British girl born this year has a one in three chance of living to 100; a 2011-born boy has a one in four chance. If you're a 20-year-old woman, you have a 26.6 percent chance; a 20-year-old man has a 19.5 percent chance.

The average 50-year-old woman in the U.K. has a 14.6 percent chance of seeing 2061, the year of her diamond-anniversary birthday; just over one in 10 of her male counterparts will still be around then.

And if you're 99 now? You have a whopping 67 percent chance of seeing another year.

Clue #7: Do you worry -- but not too much?

What it may mean: There's a "healthy" worry level.

It sounds like a punch line: "Be afraid, be very afraid -- but not too much!" So-called "catastrophizers" -- Eeyore-like personalities who fret about impending doom, see the glass as half-empty, and are harshly self-critical -- tend to die sooner, according to psychology professor Leslie R. Martin of La Sierra University.

On the other hand, a moderate amount of anxiety and worry is associated with a 50-percent decreased risk of death in any given year, she says. Moderate worriers tend to be less impulsive, take fewer risks, have less risky hobbies, and plan for alternatives, which may all be protective without adding a negative health impact.

More clues that you could live to 100

Clue #8: Is your weight normal -- or are you only slightly overweight?

What it may mean: You have better odds of reaching 100 than if you were obese.

A surprising 2011 Albert Einstein College of Medicine study of 477 adults ages 95 to 112 found that these solid-gold agers had no better health habits overall than a comparison group born at the same time that had been studied in the 1970s. One difference: Those in long-lived group were much less likely to be obese.

Both male and female centenarians in the study were overweight at about the same rates as those in the shorter-lived group. But only 4.5 percent of the long-lived men and 9.6 of the women were obese, compared to 12.1 percent and 16.2 percent, respectively, of the younger-lived controls. ("Normal weight" is a Body Mass Index -- or BMI, a measure of height in proportion to weight -- in the range of 18 to 24; "overweight" is 25 to 30; over 30 is "obese.")

This finding echoes other studies showing the greatest risks of death among those who are obese or underweight at age 65 (BMI under 18.5), compared to those of normal weight or slight overweight. A 2011 study at Loma Linda University in Southern California found that men over age 75 with a BMI over 27.4 lived nearly four years less than those with a lower BMI. For women over age 75, a BMI over 27.4 led to a two-year shorter lifespan. Studies of centenarians show that men who reach 100 are almost always lean (more so than women).

Luckily, this clue is one you can control. "Since you can't be sure if you'll live to 100, I wouldn't take the chance of ignoring the lifestyle interventions that we know will at least put you in the half the population who die after age 80 -- starting with watching weight and being sure to exercise," says the senior author of the Albert Einstein study, Nir Barzilai, director of the college's Institute for Aging Research.

Clue # 9: How long are your telomeres?

What it may mean: Many people who live to 100 have a hyperactive version of an enzyme that rebuilds telomeres.

"What-o-meres?" you ask. Telomeres are protective DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes that gradually shorten as cells divide. (Pioneering telomere researcher Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California-San Francisco compares them to shoelace caps.) Eventually the telomeres become so short that cells stop dividing, a condition called senescence, creating the effects we recognize as aging in related tissue.

Scientists are still unraveling the key role telomeres seem to play in aging, cancer, and other biological processes, but this much is clear: The longer your telomeres, the more time you're apt to have left. A 2010 Italian study reported that cancer-free people with shorter telomeres were more likely to develop cancer within ten years than those with longer telomeres, for example.

Some studies show that removing chronic stress, not smoking, and eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can improve telomere length. Those centenarians with hyperactive telomere-making apparatus can probably thank their genes, though.

New blood tests are now being marketed directly to consumers, purporting to predict longevity based on telomere length. But critics caution that there aren't standards for measuring telomere length and that there can be such variability in telomeres that it's hard to predict much of anything from a sample.

Clue #10: Are you a positive person?

What it may mean: Emotion influences health, which influences aging.

Some studies have shown that an upbeat attitude about aging adds years. But long-term studies conducted at the Stanford Longevity Center show that emotions, more than attitudes, may be the biologic mechanism at work, says Laura Carstensen, the center's director.

"What's the mechanism at work here? Feeling upbeat about your life means you experience less stress, which in turn affects cortisol levels, which can affect health," she says. Stanford researchers periodically assess 19 different emotions in subjects randomly polled over 1 week at 5-year intervals. Having more positive emotions than negative ones is associated with living longer.

Carstensen is a firm believer that while "slow agers" clearly exist, there's more to their stories than lucky genes. "There's mounting evidence that genes play a role in longevity, but genes play a role in almost everything," she says. "They don't express themselves in vacuums -- there are very complex interactions between genes and lifestyle." So all that advice on how to live to 100? Can't hurt to heed it.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

9 months, said...

Do old people with more muscle than other people their age live longer?

over 3 years, said...

We live, I am sad to say, in a society where things often get 'thrown away'..even older people..long before the time is due. I see elderly neighbors, and it is obvious to me that NO ONE is looking in on them, stopping by, calling..they are neglected. Period. On the other hand...I discovered as my friend Joe started to really decline that the law states, "an elderly person has the right to refuse help - even if that refusal hastens his or her demise." (!!) A perfectly idiotic law. And Alz is making that a game changer. Because, your 'independent family member/neighbor' might be leaving a pot on the stove and causing a fire, thus the local Engine company must come and douse it..is endangering the entire building. And a good neighbor of ours was removed to a nursing home after the third fire, by order of the management Board. Truly, as I observe my elderly colleagues and family members I know each is unique, and although the factors in play for every person are different, some have one person in the family circle shouldering everything. Some have a circle of involved people. But support groups are there, and a friend found a church group that began to help out, along with referrals to home aides and eventually, assisted care. It is truly exhausting and depressing to come home after a day of paying bills, cleaning up, and going head to head with someone who outright balks at your kind help. And often by the time the person needs it, it is too late for them to even understand and reflect that they DO. Take care of yourself as you struggle and deal with a situation like this. Reach out for help. And while we're about it... put your dimwit, selfish family members on notice, those who 'keep meaning to go and see Aunt Hepzibah/Dad/Grandmom', to get off their butts and help!. I see inequities like this every day; and am not the least bit shy about speaking up. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and no way should one person carry the load for all, especially when caring for an elderly loved one with serious dementia, and related medical challenges. The unintended consequence of living longer can sometimes be dementia. Not all people remain active, engaged and clearheaded, dear Lord - would that it could be so. Bless the folks who are fortunate enough to mountain climb, and do it all..right up to the very end.. And bless those who are not so lucky, and lastly, those steadfast folks who must care for them!

over 3 years, said...

Great article. I would also add volunteering - doing something for others

over 3 years, said...

Well, I've got a mixed bag of factors; this indicates, I suppose, that I probably won't make it to 100, but I'll at least make it to my next birthday (Feb 19) at which time I'll be entering my 74th year.

over 3 years, said...

my Nan was a solitary person and lived to 97 years of age, my mum walked fast everyday, had loads of friends was out every weekend and died at 57. So you can't tell by what your family has been through it is the individual that counts.

over 3 years, said...

If this article is correct, I think I'm good for 100 plus!

almost 4 years, said...

Great article that gets you thinking. I put a link to it on my blog, FotoDialer.blogspot.com.

almost 4 years, said...

I loved it! It told me I'm good for the long haul!

over 4 years, said...

Well, I wonder how old I will end up being? My Mother passed away a few months after she turned 90 years old (her parents both died in their late 60s), and Dad is 92 now and starting to fail - his parents passed away at 90. One of my siblings has heart problems (2nd heart surgery at 55). One has survived a very rare cancer (Thymoma), and the other I don't know much about his health. I'll change what I can, but like some of the other posters, I only want to live as long as I am useful. Once I'm a power drain, let me go!

over 4 years, said...

Helpful, somewhat, but how can you be a positive person when there is so much negative around you when you are caregiving a person with dementia?

almost 5 years, said...

Great article, Thank you,

about 5 years, said...

I only want to live until my usefulness is gone....be it 75 or 100 . After that, let me go or give me something to do do even if it's shelling peas or licking stamps. A doctor once said: "The secret to a long, HAPPY life is to get up every day with something to do." We cannot control things like dementia or disease, to a large degree, but have the kindness to find a caring place to take care care of your loved one so you can visit often but have a life of your own. There are many caring places, I have worked in one and know of others - just do your research and your part to oversee their care if you can't. My mother-in-law lived to be 100 in her own home with round the clocks sitters like the Queen of England and was robbed of her valuables and self respect - all because her two sons could not do the right thing and put her in a nice place nearby. I do not want to live to be 100 like this. Who does? Life is not meant to be extended by a number, but by dignity. Once that is gone, you might as well be dead. No more articles about living to be 100!

about 5 years, said...

Your great...no complaints here. Keep up the good work & educating us!

about 5 years, said...

not thanks

over 5 years, said...

Ric's wife is helping people who help to whatever extent they can when they are needed. Imagine every day that you woke up with a depressed person who would not do anything to help yourself and actively resisted living with you because she wanted to be in her own home. She doesn't help. She doesn't go anywhere, she doesn't like anything and she hates me. I have enough grief to carry with my daughter's pulmonary embolism at age 36, my son's terminal illness, my husband's kidney transplant that is rejecting and my father's death from prostate cancer and my mother's death from breast cancer. I do not have the emotional resilience to carry someone else's grief and sour puss every moment of the day. Nor will my mother-in-law consider going to counseling to pop her giant zit of misery. My simple message is this: I cannot continue to do it all for everyone. I am caving in myself. And the only way my mother-in-law has made it to 97 is because I have done all the care, cooking, cleaning, working to supplement our depleted savings, washing her clothes, changing her diapers and getting nothing in return but a kick when her son, my husband, is out of the room and then she tells me I hit her. His undivided loyalty needs to be with me. And I simply can't do this any more. My neighbors have moved out. My children live 20 hours away by car. There is NO backup. My husband WON'T pay for respite care. I cannot leave her on the floor if she falls at night. I don't know how to make it any clearer. Is she "living to 100?" Yes, she will. Will I? No, I won't. Again, one of the indicators of longevity is the support system that takes the stress so the elderly patient can survive.

over 5 years, said...

To Caring Community and the authors who wrote this initial article: When you wrote about the factors that enable people to reach 100, you forgot to include that most of that goes to being cared for by caregivers who lose out on their own longevity to provide care under stress. That's how I got into answering here instead of at resource articles. Your article needed some indication of ongoing support. Centenarians do not take care of themselves.

over 5 years, said...

Well, one thing is certainly true: age, and just plain living, brings us through may experiences. We all face challenges: poverty, illness, loneliness, the steady erosion of independence - I see this daily, when I visit my seniors. Each has a story to tell, and each has weathered some appalling personal crisis. The death of a loved partner, reduced financial circumstances, growing frailty. These are indeed realities of being elderly in our society. So, I don't know what to say about the 'bad part of getting older'.. pessimism about one's state, and future may in some cases be justified. But for my people, all of whom have multiple reasons to feel lousy the moment they get out of bed in the morning - they actually don't choose to DO that. They are involved in life, and I let them natter away at me, while I prepare coffee, mop, clean out their fridge, help them with the grocery list. And I suspect that that may be a clue to Mary (90) Joe (89) and my Mom, Lucille (90) still chugging along, and showing no signs of slowing down. I am, as some know, just a 'whippersnapper' of 64 myself, but when we had the fire at our building, these so called 'doddery' oldsters were calling up, taking time, comforting ME!! Their reassurance, wisdom and perspective (one senior neighbor of mine remembers the Holocaust) kept me from losing my mind. Do they sometimes feel angry, or put-upon? Sure enough. But they're still alive and, facing things head-on. Another clue? While I truly savor my moments of repose and calm, I am no fool to think they can last 24/7. I take my older friends 'vinegar in the greens' points of view as something that frequently comes in quite handy in the real world. And that 'tude may also prolong life.

over 5 years, said...

Hello All, Thank you for your comments. The focus of this article is what clues can indicate living 100-plus years. If you would like to discuss your caregiving journey and connect with other caregivers on an ongoing basis, please visit our free online support groups at http://www.caring.com/support-groups. Also, for all comments you post anywhere on Caring.com, please abide our site terms of use, community code of conduct, and privacy policy: http://www.caring.com/about/terms One key guideline to keep in mind: Differences of opinion are welcome, as long as they're presented respectfully. Personal attacks are never allowed. If your comment doesn't fit within the site terms and guidelines, it will be removed. Please contact our team if you have any questions of concerns (use the blue Feedback tab, "contact us" link at the bottom of Caring.com pages, or email moderators AT Caring.com). Thank you.

over 5 years, said...

To all those hoping to live to be 100, be very, very careful what you wish for because it might come true and you might not like what it brings.

over 5 years, said...

For further hints I suggest reading LOST HORIZON, by James Hilton, and Conway's conversation with the High Lama, who is well past the age of 100. Moderation in all things, a philosophy of work balanced with spirituality. Not always possible in our high tech world, I grant you - but there are may leaves from the Lama's worldview that can work for us, and give us a very wise perspective on ways to navigate through life's troubles, and challenges. Of course in the case of Shangri La, these people live away from all the hurly burly, but I often open the book, and gain insights from the way they view and approach the stresses of life. And, of and by itself it's also a wonderful read, even though it was written in the 1930's just as the WW2 Axis wheels were cranking in gear. Hilton's book nevertheless contains timeless, heartwarming insights that touch... and can teach us all a thing or two!

over 5 years, said...

One last observation about my own comments. I was initially trying to warn caregivers to set up backup before they get stuck with all of the responsibilities, sharing with siblings or adult children or respite care. But I got into the abyss of venting because I am literally moving out in a week or so and nobody, especially an overburdened caregiver like you or anyone else, needs to hear bad news when they are seeking hope.