Sarah Wilson celebrated her 100th birthday in 2002. Still involved in family and religious activities, she maintains many close personal relationships. At her retirement center, Sarah keeps a sign on her door: "I need your company more than my sleep. Please wake me." Researchers say that Sarah's connections with people may be a major reason she's in such good shape.

People like Sarah Wilson are living to be 100 or older and are still in good mental and physical health. These people provide researchers with a gold mine of data about healthful aging.

Centenarians: A Fast-Growing Group

The number of people aged 100 or over residing in the United States has doubled since 1990, and is 16 times the number of centenarians in 1950.

Shattering Myths

Many centenarians are remarkably robust. The New England Centenarian Study (NECS), initially a collaboration between Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, now moved to Boston University Medical Center, has found that:

  • One quarter of the 169 study subjects—all of whom were at least 100—were completely free of any significant cognitive disorders and even surpassed the research interviewers on some mental tests.
  • Fifteen percent still lived independently in their own homes.
  • Some still held jobs.
  • Medical expenses for centenarians are significantly lower than for those in their sixties and seventies.
  • Most are uncommonly healthy until the very end of their lives.

Conventional wisdom says people inevitably decline into worsening health and senility when they reach their eighties, nineties, and beyond. In reality, centenarians, 80% of whom are women, are actually healthier as a group than people 20 years their junior. They have somehow managed to weather the stresses of life and avoid major threats like heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease.

Good Genes, Stress-Resistance, and Determination

Researchers are beginning to understand how centenarians reach this amazing milestone. In their book describing the NECS, Thomas Perls, MD, and Margery Silver, MD, point to characteristics shared by most of the 169 people they studied:

  • Good longevity genes
  • Emotional resilience—ability to adapt to life's events
  • Resistance to stress—excellent coping skills
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Intellectual activity
  • Good sense of humor, including about themselves
  • Religious beliefs
  • Strong connections with other people
  • Low blood pressure
  • Appreciation of simple pleasures and experiences
  • Women tend to have borne children after age 40
  • Zest for life
  • Don't currently smoke or drink heavily
  • Many play musical instruments
  • Follow an anti-inflammatory diet that has been linked with longevity (eg, Mediterranean diet)

Some Are Genetically Privileged

If any of your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings have lived to extreme old age and if your family has a low incidence of diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and heart disease—congratulations! You are considered to have optimal anti-aging genes and have a great chance to make it to 100 if you take reasonable care of yourself.

Tips for a Longer, Healthier Life

"The average person is born with strong enough longevity genes to live to 85 and maybe longer," Dr. Perls believes. "People who take appropriate preventive steps may add as many as ten quality years to that. The vast majority of baby boomers do a terrible job preparing for old age," he continues. Many consume high fat diets, smoke, drink excessively, and don't exercise.

We have great potential to extend our lives, researchers say, if we just take care of ourselves.

Tune Up Your Attitude

  • Reduce stress—Try meditation, exercise, or yoga. You can learn to modify your responses to negative situations even if you can't change your basic personality
  • Stay connected with other people—Social support is vital and maintaining close relationships is associated with better physical and mental health.
  • Cultivate optimism—A Mayo Clinic study shows that optimists live longer and have better health, because pessimism may lower immune system responsiveness and enhance tumor growth. Good news: an excessively pessimistic outlook on life is changeable. Brief programs can change your thinking about life events and lower the risk for physical illness and even death.

Watch Your Diet

  • Emphasize fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fiber, and polyunsaturated fats.
  • Avoid cholesterol, saturated fat, and hydrogenated fat (red meat, egg yolks, fast food burgers, and fries, etc), which are linked to heart disease, breast cancer, and prostate cancer.
  • Avoid refined sugar and excessive calorie intake.
  • Avoid processed foods and those supplemented with high fructose corn syrup.
  • One glass of red wine a day still appears to lower the risk of heart disease.
  • Drink green tea, which has antioxidants that may fight cancers.
  • Consider taking antioxidant supplements like vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium. But if you choose this path, be sure to follow the medical literature on vitamin risks.
  • Consider supplementing your diet with omega 3 fatty acids.

Exercise: Even a Little Helps

Many of the centenarians in the NECS had lived in second and third floor apartments of three-family houses. This afforded them a perfect opportunity for daily weight-bearing exercise—walking stairs—which builds muscle mass.

Just 15-30 minutes a day of walking or bicycling is enough to gain longevity benefits and reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. Resistance exercise—for example, walking up stairs or hills—guards against loss of muscle mass and benefits the heart. Exercise also provides a sense of well-being and helps maintain an agile and alert brain.

Use Your Head

According to the NECS researchers, retaining cognitive capacity "most often determines whether people can attain extreme old age while remaining active." Here is a sampling of mental workouts that can keep the brain razor-sharp as you age:

  • Crossword and jigsaw puzzles
  • Playing bridge
  • Learning foreign languages
  • Playing musical instruments
  • Learning dance steps
  • Writing
  • Sports, including yoga and tai chi
  • Taking classes
  • Traveling
  • Memory training
  • Experiencing the new and unfamiliar

Floss Your Teeth!

You heard right. Flossing may help prevent heart disease. The last of Dr. Perls' pearls cites preliminary evidence that inflamed gums release substances into the bloodstream that cause clogged arteries. Whether or not it will help you live longer, flossing keeps your gums healthy, prevents tooth loss, and—with all those shining teeth—gives you a nicer smile, too.