Centenarian Studies

Why do some people live to 100+? Is it down to lifestyle choices, to our genes or to something else? 

More and more people are living to 100. This includes 13,780 in the UK in 2013. 

And one in three British babies born today is now expected to live to 100.  

Is it all in our genes?

Studies have shown that exceptional longevity (reaching 100+) is linked to a certain gene, apolipoprotein E (ApoE). This is a protein that transports fats, such as cholesterol and triglycerides, around the body. Our bodies need both cholesterol and trigylcerides to function normally but too much of either increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

No one has the same ApoE code. You inherit different ones from each of your parents. However research suggests that certain combinations contribute to exceptional longevity.

Large scale research in the US concludes, ‘Genes play a critical and complex role in facilitating exceptional longevity. The genetic influence becomes greater and greater with older and older ages, especially beyond 103 years of age.’

However, the way our genes are expressed may be influenced by our environment and our lifestyle. This is the emerging science of epigenetics. For example our mother’s diet and lifestyle during pregnancy may influence how long we live in good health, even if it may not be enough to help us live to 100. 

Does gender matter? 

Women tend to live longer than men. The New England Centenarian Study revealed that 85% of centenarians were women. Recent statistics showed there were 586 women centenarians for 100 men of the same age in 2013 in the UK.

Reports have also shown that women who have children naturally later in life are more likely to live to be a centenarian. It is thought that having a child later in life is a sign that the reproductive system and, therefore, the rest of the body is ageing slowly.

What about a healthy lifestyle? 

Keeping yourself healthy is always important but centenarians may be more committed to living a healthy lifestyle: 

  • Very few centenarians are obese. In fact, according to a major US study, most men are quite lean and nearly all have never smoked.
  • A healthy lifestyle (physical activity and not smoking) is one factor that helps maintain good health as we get older. That’s according to an 18 year study of adults age 75+ in Sweden. The study also suggested that participation in at least one leisure activity and a social network also helped.
  • Physical exercise is also a route to mental stimulation and social opportunities. Interviews with Canadian centenarians revealed how important they felt that this was for successful ageing.

As we report elsewhere on Age Watch, Loma Linda in California is an interesting case study. A combination of exercise, vegetarian food, not smoking, eating nuts, social support and church attendance are believed to help explain why they tend to live 4 -7 years longer than other Californians.  

Is it the way you are? 

  • A positive approach to life seems a common trait amongst centenarians. This suggests that personality is a key factor in longevity. Having a purpose in life was mentioned as a factor by Canadian centenarians interviewed by researchers.
  • Centenarians seem to be able to handle stress better than most people. It is likely that this can slow down aging, as being adaptable can help you manage stress better.
  • The Longevity Project suggests that being conscientious is the key to a long life. The hypothesis is that conscientious people are less prone to leading risky lives. They also seem biologically predisposed to live longer (possibly due to different levels of the chemical serotonin in the brain – believed to affect our mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep and memory). And they ‘find their way to happier marriages, better friendships and healthier work situations’ with all the attendant health benefits. 

Is it the world in which they lived? 

Are the centenarians today coming from a generation of people who lived with fewer comforts and less exposure to the potentially harmful effects of modern technology?

  • Born in or before 1915 they came into a world with few cars on the roads – although often with high levels of industrial pollution
  • Our modern day wireless devices all emit microwave radiation and there are reports that heavy mobile phone use can possibly increase the chance of developing illnesses, such as brain cancer.
  • Perhaps more important, we live in what some health experts have described as an increasingly obesogenic environment. Calorie dense fast food, sugary drinks and snacks are available all around us if we live in cities. Physically demanding occupations have largely been replaced by work sitting down. And where people would once have walked (for instance to school as children) cars are increasingly used. 

Do you really want to live to 100? 

Centenarians will live beyond many of their friends, family and even children. So this can be potentially isolating and lonely. 

However, many centenarians attribute their life span to maintaining close ties with people, suggesting again that personality is an important factor. 

Conclusion 

You can’t do much about the genes you inherit or your gender, two key factors when it comes to living to 100. 

However, you can increase your chances of living longer in good health through: 

  • A healthy lifestyle (not smoking, physical activity and a healthy diet)
  • A positive approach to life, being conscientious and managing stress
  • Building and maintaining social networks 

First published August 2011. Reviewed and updated by Emma Juhasz, March 2015. Next Review date May 2017.  

Okinawa - Centenarians

Centenarians

New England Centenarian Study

Danish Centenarian Study (2009)

Tokyo Centenarian Study (2006)

Sicilian Centenarians (2012)