We investigate both the simple and scientific ways we can all continue to buck the trend and live well beyond “expectancy.” Read our 12 easy strategies to live to 100 and thrive while doing so.
Living to a ripe old age has many meanings. For someone born 100 years ago, it most likely meant making it past 50. Over the years that have followed, that figure has jumped: someone born in 1940 could expect to live to 62, while someone born in 1961 could look forward to hitting 68. What? 68? It just so happens that quite a few of us who were born in either 1940 or 1961 expect to live much longer than that. So, what gives?
In Canada, the average life expectancy for males born in 2012 is 80 and for females 84, according to the World Health Organization in its World Health Statistics 2014 report.
“The United Nations and other government organizations expect this trend to continue,” says Zoomer contributing expert Dr. Zachary Levine. “As people live longer, they also remain vital and productive for many more years than previously.”
According to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Americans 85 and over are that country’s fastest growing group of older adults. Statistics Canada notes similar findings: in 2006, more than half a million Canadians were aged 85 and older, a 25 per cent increase from 2001. Moreover, 22 per cent more were hitting the 100-year mark than did five years earlier.
Researchers at Harvard found that among a test group of 2,357 men in their early 70s who were followed for 25 years or until death, about 40 per cent survived to age 90. The odds, once you’re a nonagenarian, are in your favour, with some scientists estimating a one-in-nine chance you’ll make the century mark. The U.S. Census Bureau says that by the time the boomer generation reaches 100, there will be more than four million centenarians in that country. And ladies? According to experts south of the border, at 95, the fairer sex’s life expectancy is 21 per cent higher than that of a man’s. The same trends have been found right here at home.
That said, observes Levine, we all want to live longer – as long as we can still enjoy our lives and families. “Much of the improvement in life expectancy over the years has been as a result of improvements in nutrition, public health and medicine,” he continues. These include decreasing maternal and newborn mortality rates, adding vaccination programs, antibiotics and clean, uncontaminated drinking water.
1) Train Your Brain
Medical research has brought hope for many people facing the ravages of age, but nothing has been quite as exhilarating as the promise of keeping your mind sharp into your 80s or even 90s.
Over the past few decades, neuroscientists have learned that the brain can be trained to route around injury, disease or just plain aging. What’s more, keeping the mind keen is predicated more on mental exercise than on surgery or drugs. The bad news is that it requires a lot of exercise.
Scientists once believed certain regions of the brain were permanently responsible for speech, visual capability, reasoning, empathy and so on. They understood children’s brains to be “plastic,” shaped effortlessly by environmental input. With age, those brains were thought to become “hard-wired,” the ability to generate new neural pathways dropping off after childhood, with the little capacity carried into adulthood quickly fading. If the brain were damaged, it would be a matter of coping with the loss, not fixing it.
More recent research, including PET and MRI brain scans, has revealed that new neural connections and even new nerve cells are generated throughout life in a process called neuroplasticity. More than 100 billion neurons (“grey matter”) can sprout and form new synapses, where two nerve cells connect, if the brain is properly motivated, say, by learning new skills. If engaging this ability to learn, older people are almost as capable as children of creating measurable changes in the way their brains are organized.
One of the greatest obstacles for older people, says Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, is mental laziness. “With age,” he says, “most people tend to go on automatic pilot,” doing things the same old way without changing. A natural process called “synaptic pruning” starts to work against the older brain, strengthening frequently used synapses and weakening or eliminating unused ones.
He likens it to developing a muscle: “You have to go at it day after day.” In other words, use it or lose it. To this end, Merzenich’s company, Posit Science (www.positscience.com), where he is chief scientific officer, is developing brain therapies, including a brain fitness program called InSight, a series of computer games and puzzles designed to improve such brain functions as visual acuity and field of view, memory retention and more rapid responses for drivers.
2) Get Gardening
Nature versus nurture? We’ve all heard that scientific query, but its application here is completely different. In gardening, there is no “versus” – both nature and nurture work in tandem to allow the bond between humans and Mother Earth to conjure its magic.
During the United Nations’ International Year of Older Persons in 1999, Health Canada partnered with the Canadian Wildlife Federation and created the Golden Gardens Program, where seniors were asked to plant wildlife gardens in their communities. Experts noted several results: seniors had an excellent opportunity to remain or become physically active; the gardens themselves improved the wildlife habitats surrounding schools and parks; and involving seniors and youth really does help to bridge the generation gap and strengthen social networks within those communities.
Well-being. At the forefront is horticultural therapy (HT), which, according to the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association, is “a formal practice that uses plants, horticultural activities and the garden landscape to promote well-being.” HT is based on practices developed more that 60 years ago, in which many hospitalized veterans of the Second World War were rehabilitated, in part, through the use of gardening and horticultural activities.
3) Lift to Last
Jim Karas, founder of Jim Karas Personal Training and author of three international best sellers – The Business Plan for the Body, The Cardio-Free Diet and The 7-Day Energy Surge – worked as a fitness contributor on ABC’s Good Morning America while helping co-host Diane Sawyer lose more than 25 pounds. Recently, he took time to tell Zoomer why those weights gathering dust in the basement might be your key to lasting fitness.
Evan Rosser: Why is it important to incorporate strength training into our fitness programs, especially as we age?
Jim Karas: Let me take this one step further: every fitness program should begin with strength training, not cardio. Vast bodies of research prove that strength training provides as much heart health – and sometimes even more – than classic cardio. After the age of 20, we all lose one-half to seven-tenths of a pound of muscle a year. As women approach menopause, that rate doubles, and after the age of 70, almost all people lose three pounds of muscle a year. Strength training may determine whether an individual leads a dependent or independent lifestyle after the age of 70. Only strength training reverses age-related muscle loss.
Muscle is the body’s most metabolically active tissue. It burns between 22 and 36 calories per pound each day. The primary reason most people suffer a diminished metabolism is because of loss of muscle. Strength training enables you to build muscle. Excessive cardio may even diminish muscle. Never, ever do that.
ER: How can strength training lessen the symptoms of age-related conditions, such as arthritis and osteoporosis?
4) Stretch it Out
Tales of Indian yogis – yoga experts who practise a regular regimen of exercise postures, deep breathing and meditation – who lived for hundreds of years are part of yoga’s centuries-old legend. By following yoga’s principles of self-mastery, yogis are said to gain valuable knowledge about the body and the prolongation of life. Today’s yogis also believe that yoga can relieve what ails you, a belief backed by medical studies that substantiate health benefits beyond general fitness.
“Yoga gives you the ability to help control the body systems that make you age,” says Eion Finn, a popular 43-year-old Vancouver-based yogi, surfer and “blissologist.” Finn has been spreading the message through six DVDs, including The Blissology Project, featuring six vinyasa flow yoga routines and daily meditations (www.blissology.com). “I’ve been practising yoga for 20 years; with every year, I feel better and younger,” he says. “I look at my early 20s as my old years.”
YOGA’S LONGEVITY SECRETS
Why is yoga so potent? “Name a body system and yoga makes it function better – provided you do with proper awareness and knowledge,” says Finn.
Strengthens the entire body. The deep, precise stretching gently brings bones and muscles back into optimum alignment, he explains. Taut tissue, ligaments and tendons can now stretch further. The posture known as the spinal twist helps maintain the spine’s flexibility and strength.
With weight-bearing poses such as the downward-facing dog, there is an electric charge that goes through the bone that actually stimulates bone growth and strength, adds Finn.
Meditation may help you live longer. A three-month study of people staying at a meditation retreat found that they showed higher levels of an enzyme called telomerase, which is associated with the longevity of immune cells. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, did not show that meditation extends life, only that it may increase the activity of an enzyme that is associated with longevity. Research is ongoing.
5) Go For Mushrooms
Good Reasons to Eat More:
1. Foods low in sodium and high in potassium, like mushrooms, have been shown to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, the No. 1 cause of death for Canadians. One portabella mushroom has as much potassium as a banana.
2. The only vegetable that naturally contains vitamin D, as our bodies convert a compound called ergosterol found in the fungi into vitamin D. Recent research has linked the vitamin to much disease prevention – vitamin D supplementation studies show lowered incidences of colorectal cancers, lower risk of Type 2 diabetes and reduced occurrences of rheumatoid arthritis.
3 High levels of the antioxidant l-ergothioneine, which helps protect the body against free-radicals, boosts immunity and fights inflammatory responses like arthritis.
6) Get the Blues
Dr. David Suzuki calls the blueberry “Canada’s national plant.” This colourful gem also packs a nutritional punch. Vitamins A and C and polyphenols (particularly flavonoids) in the berry hold much of its health-regulating powers, due to high levels of antioxidants, which help control LDL (bad cholesterol) and protect our vascular system, says Wilhelmina Kalt, PhD, food chemist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “Flavonoids may also reduce vascular inflammation related to atherosclerosis.” Some of the best blueberries in the world come out of Quebec and Atlantic Canada every August. Wild, or low-bush, blueberries have more antioxidants than their high-bush relatives; those grown in Newfoundland have even more antioxidant power thanks to unpolluted water, soil and air.
1. May support cardiovascular health, helping keep blood pressure in check and fighting atherosclerosis, the thickening of artery walls. Key is the berries’ ability to control oxidative stress, diminish arterial constriction and relax blood vessels, say researchers at the department of food science and human nutrition, University of Maine.
2. May reduce risk of Type 2 diabetes, which is more common in adults over 50. The berries contain bioactives which, say researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center of the Louisiana State University System, increase insulin sensitivity, a key factor in preventing this type of diabetes.
7) Know Your Colours
Alpha-carotenes, found in yellow-orange and dark green produce such as carrots, tangerines and spinach, are potent antioxidants that lower the risk of death from: 1 cancer, particularly of the upper digestive tract and lung; 2 cardiovascular disease; 3 Type-2 diabetes, more common in adults over 50. —AM
8) Eat to Fight
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, our diets are instrumental in the fight against cancer. In fact, the society states that through healthy lifestyle choices, approximately 35 per cent of all cancers can be prevented. “Even small changes to what you eat and how active you are can make a difference to your risk of cancer,” says Salima Allibhai-Hussein, senior manager, prevention, Canadian Cancer Society, Ontario Division. Here, seven cancer-fighting foods taken from Superfoods: The Healthiest Foods on the Planet by Tonia Reinhard.
1. A diet high in cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli and bok choy, has consistently been linked in both human and animal studies to a lower risk of lung, breast, stomach, ovarian, bladder, prostate and colorectal cancers.
2. Tomatoes are high in lycopene, which has been linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer. It’s better absorbed when tomatoes are cooked. Eating cooked tomatoes has been associated with a lower risk of multiple myeloma, a plasma cell cancer that eventually affects bone.
9) Sweeten the Deal
A team of researchers from the University of Rhode Island has found that pure Canadian maple syrup contains a host of antioxidant compounds, which may help to fight cancer and inflammation. In addition, polyphenol compounds found in the syrup were shown to inhibit enzymes involved with the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar, which could potentially help manage Type 2 diabetes.
10) Brush Up
“It is very important to keep your teeth and gums as clean and healthy as possible,” says Toronto-based dentist Dr. Jordan Soll. Extensive scientific research has linked oral health to overall health and suggests that gum disease can contribute to many age-related ailments, such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke, respiratory disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Yet, according to a recent survey, most Canadians do not observe proper oral health routines, with 35 per cent not brushing and a whopping 92 per cent not flossing.
One study out of the University of Buffalo linked heart disease and stroke –two of the three leading causes of death in Canada – to dental health. It showed that heart attack victims had higher numbers of bacteria in their mouths compared to healthy volunteers.
11) Hit the Pool
Are joint pain, limited strength or mobility, or even osteoporosis interfering with your ability to exercise? Swimming is an ideal way to stay active at any age. It’s also a great form of rehabilitation for those recovering from stroke, surgery or injury. Check out the book Swimming for Exercise by Greg Whyte for tips and programs. —AM
12) Say Yes to Sex
Can sex have a positive effect on longevity?
We know from current research that sexual interest and activity for both men and women continue throughout the life cycle, unless there are mitigating factors. Chronic health problems, for example, can decrease both interest and capacity. Some of the more common health issues that directly affect sexual function are heart disease, diabetes, hormone deficiencies, the side effects from both prescribed and over-the-counter medications and substance abuse. We can add to this a number of psychological problems, which are thought to account for up to 40 per cent of men’s erectile difficulties. Our hormonal, vascular and neurological systems have a major impact on how we conduct our sex lives as we age and the adaptations we have to make to continue to have a satisfying sexual experience.
The issues noted above can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Problems with sexual arousal, desire, function and capacity can serve to make both men and women feel inadequate and consider themselves as poor sexual partners. This directly affects their willingness and capability to engage in sexual relations. Men should understand that as they age, there will be changes in their sexual arousal and relations. These changes will not be the same for all men and will vary as the aging cycle continues. Some men may experience male menopause, or andropause, where levels of the hormone testosterone change, and this has a direct effect on libido. This may lead to a gap developing between desire and arousal and the ability to have sexual relations. Therefore, although the desire to have sex and the pleasure received from sexual activity continues well past 60 and into old age, its functions may change and new forms of sexual intimacy will have to be experimented with.
With regard to chemical releases at orgasm, any activity that increases the dopamine levels in our biochemistry will stimulate pleasure, energy and activity. So, good sex cannot hurt in whatever form it is practised – it should increase intimacy and well-being, and that does help to increase longevity.