You have two choices when pondering how—and whether—you will live a long, healthy life.
You can either apply the latest findings of longevity research to boost your odds. Or you can eat what you want, forgo health and wellness habits and figure it’s mostly genetics anyway.
Most of us choose a middle ground. We don’t throw caution to the wind, but we don’t limit our caloric intake and turn into diet-obsessed ascetics.
If your goal is making it to 100, more power to you. It’s a crapshoot. Only about 0.004% of the current global population has done it.
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These lucky few are not easy to categorize. Some regularly enjoy alcohol, fat or sugar (in moderation). Researchers theorize that daily routines—even seemingly unhealthy ones like eating a dish of ice cream every night—might provide a beneficial stability.
A positive attitude helps them wave off irritants and overcome setbacks. They don’t fret about what they can’t control. And they derive joy from everyday experiences like watering plants or watching clouds cross the sky.
“People who live longer tend to be optimistic and manage their stress well,” said Tom Perls, M.D., a distinguished professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. “And optimistic people tend not to be neurotic, where they internalize their stress rather than let go of it.”
Founder and director of the New England Centenarian Study, Perls marvels at the resilience of individuals who reach an advanced age. He notes that a surprising number of people who approach age 100 live productively despite serious health ailments. “About half of them have a history of aging-related disease like heart disease,” Perls said. “Maybe they had a stroke at age 85 or have a history of cancer or diabetes. What’s remarkable is how they’re still living independently in their mid 90s. Normally, such diseases would carry a higher mortality risk. But these individuals have a level of resilience that mitigates these diseases.”
Like most longevity experts, he also credits good genes.
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“Genetics is playing an incredibly strong role at the very oldest ages,” he said.
Perls offers a free online resource, the Living to 100 Life Expectancy Calculator, to help you assess your odds. After creating an account, you answer a battery of questions. The results include a life expectancy calculation along with personal feedback and recommendations.
For decades, we’ve known that good nutrition, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight can extend our lifespan. And it’s no secret that socially engaged folks with an active mind (keep doing those crossword puzzles) and a rosy outlook on life can boost their longevity.
Researchers are pursuing new theories to understand why some people live longer. One promising area of study involves cellular senescence.
Through the course of life, our cells sustain damage from disease, injury or stress. When we’re younger, the amount of these cells is low. But they linger as we age.
These so-called senescent cells do not die. Instead, they produce toxic substances that can spread to other cells in the body and impair their function. These senescent cells promote the development of many diseases of aging.
“It’s a very exciting field but it’s still very early,” said Nicolas Musi, M.D., director of the Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, part of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
Another area of interest involves biomarkers of aging. Using various tests and measurements, researchers seek to contrast one’s biological age from their chronological age.
“Different people appear to age at different rates,” said Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Washington in Seattle. “But we don’t understand why. So we’re developing biomarkers that are predictive at an individual level. These tools can measure the efficacy of different interventions that might be worth watching” to increase lifespan.
If someone’s biological age is 70 even though their chronological age is 60, for example, medical experts might suggest ways to slow their biological clock. Such interventions can include more exercise, better nutrition or even drugs that target an individual’s predisposition to disease.
“It can inform things you can do like how you exercise, what you eat or drink or what your optimum weight should be,” Kaeberlein said. “The biological aging process will impact optimal lifestyle changes.”