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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Clue #6: When were you born?
What it may mean: Growing life spans 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.
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.
Clue #8: Is your weight normal — or are you only slightly overweight?/span>
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.
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. Eventually the telomeres become so short that cells stop dividing, a condition called senescence, creating the effects we recognize as aging in related tissue.
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.