Harry Rosen, 103, is charmer, according to The New York Times. He enjoys dinner out every night, often in fancy Manhattan restaurants, almost always ordering fish and enjoying conversations with other diners. When most of us envision a very long life, it’s that kind of vitality and engagement we all want.
Researchers call people like Harry Rosen "Super Agers". They reach "old old" age with the physical and cognitive health of people much younger. “A great example of a super ager is Dr. Ellsworth Wareham,” says Dan Buettner, whose Blue Zones project studies some of the longest-lived communities in the world. “He’s 98 years old and lives in the "blue zone" of Loma Linda California.” Ellsworth performed open-heart surgery until he was 95. “He is often looked to for advice from the other surgeons at the hospital. His hands are steady and his vision is good.” Loma Linda is famous as the home of Seventh-Day Adventists, many of whom (including Wareham) are vegans, and they tend to live 4 to 7 years longer on average than other Americans.
Living Better, Not Just Longer
The point of being a Super Ager isn’t just to live a long time — it’s to live a long, healthy life. “We have to age, but we can, to some extent, add years to life, and to a far greater extent, add life to years,” says David Katz, M.D., director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and author of the new book Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well, with Stacey Colino. “Living well is being able to keep doing the things you love to do. Aging well is preserving the capacity to live well — right up to the end.”
So how do you get to be a Super Ager?
It’s Not All In Your Genes
If your mom or dad is 95, bravo. You’ve got a leg up in joining the Super Ager club. But genetics is a surprisingly small part of the picture. Research at Boston University School of Public Health has found that genetics only accounts for 20 to 30 percent of the reason people live to be 86 or older. The rest is your lifestyle.
Top 6 Habits
What lifestyle habits have been shown to increase your likelihood of being a Super Ager? “Eating well, being active, not smoking, getting enough sleep, dissipating stress, and sharing love,” says Dr. Katz. “After that, everything else is vanishingly less important. I call these: feet, forks, fingers, sleep, stress, and love.”
One interesting point: Being an “ideal weight” isn’t on Dr. Katz’s list. It’s not that he thinks weight isn’t important, but that it’s primarily a function of exercise and good diet — factors we can control. In his book, he mentions the EPIC study that showed that men and women (35 to 65 years old) who adhere to four lifestyle factors were 80 percent less likely to develop a chronic disease over about the next eight years.
The four factors:
“The top three are clearly not smoking, eating optimally, and being active,” says Dr. Katz. “Weight control tends to result from eating well and being active, so while it’s on the list, it’s an effect as much as a cause of vitality.”
A Younger Brain
At Northwestern University, researchers in the “SuperAging” are studying men and women in their 80s and 90s whose brains have much more mass related to attention and learning than most people their age. In essence, they have younger brains — and bodies.
How to achieve it? “It’s the same list,” says Dr. Katz. “It's not just the ankle bone that's connected to the shin bone; it's the mind connected to the body. We can't really take care of either without taking care of both. A healthy, vital lifestyle cultivates a healthy, vital mind. Dementia is, for the most part, as preventable as heart disease.”
The beauty of the elements of a healthy lifestyle is that they tend to work together. “Each of these tends to help reinforce the others," says Dr. Katz. "For example, sleep well, and you have more energy to exercise. Exercise, and you tend to sleep better. Get out there with your vitality, and it's easier to meet and interact with other people and cultivate those social bonds. And around it goes, in an upward spiral leading up to the best possible life.”
It’s Never Too Late!
If only you had started at age 20, eh? Not at all. There is clear evidence that healthy habits in your 50s and 60s increase your chances of a longer, healthier life — but that’s just the beginning. “It is never too late to derive the benefit of lifestyle as medicine,” says Dr. Katz. “Studies show benefits even in the 9th decade.”
Pay It Forward
Want a little more motivation? “Here’s another important consideration: Don't be selfish,” says Dr. Katz. “Pay it forward! It's not just your own health in play here — it's that of the people you love. If you 'disease-proof' yourself at 60, your grandchildren will be looking on. They will learn from your example, and will have a better chance at the long, vital life you wish for them. I have five children, and have seen first hand the impact my own parents' (in their 70s) very active lifestyle and robust good health has on their worldview. It's powerful medicine! So you will benefit whenever you start — but you will also be paying it forward.”
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.