A Centenarian Lifestyle
By Lasell Village resident and neuropsychologist Margery Hutter Silver, author of Living to 100: Maximizing Your Potential at Any Age
Twenty years ago I was part of a cutting-edge study that examined the health of centenarians and, in particular, the prevalence of dementia in their age group, as well as their physical traits. The Study, led by Dr. Thomas Perls at Harvard Medical School, was a perfect fit for my background in geropsychology and neuropsychology. The results of the New England Centenarian Study became the basis for further study of aging.
The Centenarian study results, published in the book Living to 100, showed that more than a third of the 100-year-olds who participated had no dementia at their advanced age and that even though fewer men reached this age, almost all were intellectually intact. In addition, one of the centenarians showed no dementia symptoms on testing but had signs of Alzheimer's disease in his brain. This suggested he had a "cognitive reserve," created by continually challenging his brain.
Since then, genetic studies of centenarians have continued to support the idea that you must have special genes to live to 100, but I believe lifestyle also plays a significant role. The centenarian lifestyle can help us live longer and be healthier to the end of our lives. Spending time with 100-year-olds changed the way I looked at my own life. In my 60s, I suddenly became aware of how much life might lie ahead -and of how I wanted to find ways to live it to the fullest.
This has become particularly important to me now -- 20 years later -- and I often look back at my research to frame my life today.
Testing as part of our study showed that centenarians are masters at handling stress, but we also learned through conversations with them and their families that they had other health-enhancing lifestyle traits:
• Centenarians keep their minds active, as well as their bodies. One centenarian, at 103, was still writing and delivering scientific papers at professional meetings.
• Centenarians use humor to cope with stress and illness.
• Centenarians have a positive attitude. They are people who see their glass as half full.
• Centenarians have strong social ties-to families and friends.
• Centenarians are adaptable. One of the centenarians who had low vision figured out that with the strong light of a dental visor, she could read for several hours each morning.
• Centenarians are not smokers. Some centenarians drink alcohol moderately, some don't drink at all, but none drinks excessively.
• Centenarians do not follow special diets. They come from different ethnic groups and eat different foods, but there are no obese centenarians. They are moderate eaters.
Key lessons from centenarians included the idea of staying healthy -- both exercising and eating properly. I embrace these ideas today. But most importantly, I have discovered how important it is to challenge my mind in order to build new neural connections to keep my brain healthy. This knowledge was the primary factor in my decision to move to Lasell Village-and life here has lived up to my expectations. What the Village offers--academic courses, exercise classes, compatible and interesting neighbors to socialize with-- all of these foster healthy physical and mental aging.
My research has both enlightened me and helped me stay focused on being the healthiest I can as I age. I may not have the genes to live to 100, but I can try to live the rest of my life in good health, with an active mind.