Many of these people would be considered poor by Western standards. Yet they consider themselves wealthy and satisfied.
Ninety percent of American centenarians are functionally independent for the vast majority of their lives—up until the average age of 92 years. Rather than the incorrect perception that the older you become, the sicker you get, these centenarians teach us that the healthier you've been, the older you get.
Many centenarian women have a history of bearing children after the age of 35 and even 40. A woman who gives birth after the age of 40 has a four times greater chance of living to 100 than women who do not. It's probably not the act of bearing a child in one's 40s that promotes long life, but doing so may be an indicator that the woman's reproductive system is aging slowly and that the rest of her body is just as healthy.
At least 50 percent of centenarians have close relatives or grandparents who lived to a very old age and many have exceptionally old siblings. Male siblings of centenarians have an 11 times greater chance of reaching age 97 than other men born around the same time, and female siblings have an eight and one-half times greater chance of achieving age 100 than other females born around the same time.
I think the most reassuring of the New England Centenarian Study (NECS) findings is that although the centenarians share certain characteristics, they are not all alike. In fact, they have a wide range of different characteristics—their ethnicity, spiritual beliefs, level of education (no formal schooling to postgraduate study); socioeconomic status (very poor to very rich); dietary patterns (strictly vegetarian to extremely rich in saturated fats) and exercise (none to daily).
More Than Good Genes Researchers tell us that the odds of living to 100 years of age are increasing every year. There are already many thousands of centenarians alive today, and at least half of them are well enough to live independently. There are about 50,000 people over the age of 100 in the United States alone—almost three times as many as there were in 1980.
Are they just blessed in the good genes department? Or is their health due to the way they live? Though scientists continue to debate the factors that are most likely to assist us in becoming centenarians, most now say that long life is not just a result of good genes.
Genes are important, but even more important are the decisions we make about a variety of daily lifestyle issues—eating, sleeping, diet, exercise, work, leisure and our relationships. Some experts believe that as much as 80 percent of what controls how long you or I will live is related to our lifestyle choices, not our genes.
Donna used to share with me one of her favorite quotes. It was from a poem Douglas MacArthur quoted: "You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair."
In Christ, we have faith given to us by the Lord, confidence in Him and His love. We are told to "fear not," and we have the ultimate and eternal hope that all of our physical aging will one day end. Hallelujah!
Walt Larimore, M.D., is one of America's best-known Christian family physicians. He is the author of God's Design for the Highly Healthy Person (Zondervan), from which portions of this article are adapted. He lives with his wife, Barb, in Colorado. Visit www.DrWalt.com for more information on this subject and many other health-related topics.
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