Secrets of centenarians

Canadians born today may live to nearly 81-years-old on average, according to a new report by Statistics Canada. The life expectancy in this country reached 80.7 years between 2005-2007, up from 78.4 a decade earlier.

And while women are still living longer, men are catching up. The largest gains, the report said, were by men with an increase of 2.9 years to 78.3. For women, life expectancy rose by 1.8 years to 83.

There is also good news for people 65+. According to the report, a 65-year-old man can now expect to live an additional 18.1 years on average in 2005-2007, an increase of two years from the previous decade. A 65-year-old woman could expect to live an additional 21.3 years, up by 1.3 years.

Older people are also healthier in general than in the past, demographer Alain Bélanger, a professor at the National Institute of Scientific Research in Montreal told the CBC.

“Most of the gains in the past were due to gains against infectious disease,” Bélanger said. “But now most of the gains are due to success against diseases that are affecting older people such as heart disease and cancer.”

Gains in life expectancy in older Canadians over the past decade accounted for about 70 per cent of the increase in life expectancy at birth.

Growing membership in the centenarian club

The number of people aged 100 or over is also on the rise, according to the latest census information. The number of centenarians jumped about 22 per cent from 2001 and 50 per cent from 1996. There are currently about 4,635 people over the age of 100 in the country, the report stated.

By 2031, it is estimated the country will have 14,000 centenarians.

What do centenarians have in common?

While centenarians can vary widely in terms of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, years of education and patterns of diet, they tend to have some characteristics in common, according to the Boston University School of Medicine’s New England Centenarian Study (NECS), the largest comprehensive study of centenarians in the world. The study found that:

— Few centenarians are obese. And in the case of men, they are nearly always lean.

— A substantial smoking history is rare.

— Centenarians are better able to handle stress.

— Many (30 per cent) experience no significant changes in their thinking abilities, disproving the expectation by many that all centenarians would suffer from dementia. (See Brain boosters and Hip at 100.)

— Many centenarian women gave birth after the age of 35 and even 40. A woman who naturally has a child after the age of 40 has a 4-times greater chance of living to 100 compared to women who do not. (Bearing a child in one’s forties may indicate that the woman’s reproductive system is aging slowly and that the rest of her body is as well.)

— Centenarians may have a strong family connection for longevity. At least 50 per cent of centenarians have first-degree relatives and/or grandparents who also achieve very old age, and many have exceptionally old siblings.

–And many of the children of centenarians (age range of 65 to 82 years) appear to be following in their parents’ footsteps with marked delays in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and overall mortality.

The study also found that people who live in certain geographical regions are more likely to live longer. In North America, for example, there may be a “centenarian belt” extending from Minnesota to Nova Scotia. (Nova Scotia has twice the prevalence rate of centenarians compared with New England.) Researchers speculate that such clustering could be due to a so-called founder effect — that is that many of these centenarians could come from ethnic backgrounds (e.g. Celtic, French/Acadian, Scottish) that predispose them to extreme longevity.

Tips for aging well

While good genes can help you live a longer life, a healthy lifestyle is also important, medical experts say. Here are 7 basic — but important — tips for healthy aging from The Mayo Clinic.

Eat well. A number of studies have shown that a healthy diet can help you live longer and better. Select foods that are nutrient dense, meaning they have lots of essential nutrients in proportion to their calories. These would include whole grains, fresh vegetables and fruits and legumes.

Keep physically active. The benefits of a regular exercise program are many: weight control, improved blood circulation, increased muscle mass, greater flexibility, more endurance and improved balance. Most experts advise to try for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.

Use sun protection. Sun exposure is responsible not only for much of the skin damage associated with aging, but it puts you at risk for skin cancer. (See Sunbeds and skin cancer.)

Limit alcohol. While moderate drinking may deliver some healthy benefits, having too much alcohol can be risky. So just how much is ‘moderate’? According to the Mayo Clinic, men who take more than two drinks a day — and women who take more than one — put themselves at increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, some cancers and liver and pancreatic diseases. Too much alcohol can weaken your immune system, affect your cognitive abilities and increase your risk of falling.

Avoid tobacco use . Smoking is linked to various cancers, as well as to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and lung disease. (Read these tips for quitting smoking.)

Stay socially connected and intellectually curious . Having strong ties to family and friends can reduce stress and keep you healthier. (See The health benefits of friendship.) And be sure to give your brain a regular workout with classes, hobbies, reading and other mind-challenging activities to better maintain your memory.

Get regular medical exams and preventive health screenings . Despite a high level of awareness about the benefits of routine screening, too many people still don’t do it, experts say. Be sure to schedule regular medical exams – many diseases are treatable when detected early.

(For more, see The keys to a long and healthy life.)

Calculate your life expectancy

How long can you expect to live? The Life Expectancy Calculator on is based on findings from various studies of centenarians and other longevity research. For a Canadian version, click here.