Living to be 100 requires a fair amount of luck, it's true. But people who make it past the century mark also share some healthy habits that we could all benefit from. Here's what we know centenarians have in common.
If you have at least one parent who lived to 95 or older, you have a better shot at a healthier (and presumably longer) life yourself, a 2017 study published in The American Journal of Cardiology found. Researchers reported that subjects with at least one parent living past age 95 had 29 percent lower odds of having hypertension, 65 percent lower odds of having a stroke, and 35 percent lower odds of having cardiovascular disease than those whose parents died before age 95. That held true even when—and here's the surprising thing—there were significant differences in social-economic status, physical activity, diet, and other lifestyle habits. "They were no more likely to eat low fat and only a small number were vegetarians," says Sofiya Milman, MD, director of human longevity studies at the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, New York. While only about 25 percent of longevity is related to genetics, that fraction seems to be the driving force behind how far those lifestyle habits (the remaining 75 percent) can take you.
Longevity is complex. "Multiple genes are related to how long we live," says Dilip Jeste, MD, distinguished professor of psychiatry and neurosciences and director of the Sam and Rose Stein Institute on Aging at University of California San Diego. He's also part of a team studying residents in Cilento, a region in Italy where the elderly live exceptionally long healthy lives. "In other words, if you have genes for certain types of fatal cancers, then the other genes that promote longevity may have less of an influence." To hit the centenarian jackpot, an array of genes needs to be working together in your favor, but "there's a lot more under our control than we think," he adds. For example, take a set of twins with genes that predisposed them to lung cancer. If one smoked and one didn't, the smoker would be 5.4 times more likely to develop lung cancer than the other, thus significantly hurting his chances at longevity. Find out the 12 things your mother's health says about you.
Chalk this up to those longevity genes. "Many centenarians get age-related diseases, such as cancer, at a much later age," says Dr. Milman. In a joint study between Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Boston University School of Public Health, she and a team of researchers found that the age at which their centenarian subjects experienced certain diseases were delayed between 18 and 24 years. So could escaping serious illnesses by the time you reach 100 be an indication that you've got some more good years ahead of you? Perhaps. In a 2008 issue of The Journals of Gerontology, researchers who examined supercentenarians (age 110 and older) found that most were independent in terms of daily life activities at the age of 100 and few were in nursing homes or other forms of assisted living before the age of 105.
Physical activity throughout life, including your senior years, is associated not just with good health, but longevity as well. A National Institutes of Health study reports that just 2.5 hours of moderate activity a week could extend your life by 3.4 years. It turns out, some of the regions around the world with standout longevity are close-knit communities in rural areas. For these folks, work is often more physical than a desk job, and they're probably not spending hours in a car every day. The Okinawa Centenarian Study, which followed residents of the Japanese village that boasts one of the world's highest centenarian ratios, notes that regular physical activity throughout most of the centenarians' lives (in conjunction with other healthy habits) allowed them to have "impressively young, clean arteries." They didn't lift weights or run 5Ks; they simply made fitness part of their lifestyle, whether it was taking strolls or tending to the garden. And in Villagrande, Sardinia, where men live about as long as the women (which is a rarity—typically, women outlive men), researchers attribute their day-to-day physical activity—most were shepherds in this mountainous region—to the men's impressive longevity. These are 15 more science-backed signs you could live to 100.
Places brimming with 100-year-olds have an unspoken custom: Eat mindfully. "I'm stuffed" is just not something you'd hear at the table. They also tend not to eat alone and instead share their meals with family and friends, notes Dr. Jeste. In Okinawa, for example, elders may even say, before a meal, "Hara hachi bu," a Confucian concept that means "eat only until your stomach is 80 percent full." The upshot? The elderly Okinawans consumed about 1,900 calories a day throughout their lives. Americans often devour twice that amount. Why is that a problem? It seems that over-eating over-stresses our metabolic systems, while calorie restriction (as long as we get the necessary nutrients) is associated with lower levels of oxidative stress, inflammation, insulin sensitivity, and other conditions that speed up the aging process. In fact, as authors of a joint Harvard-Salk Institute paper write, "At present, calorie restriction remains the most robust [i.e., evidence based] strategy for extending health and lifespan in most biological models tested."
The diets of these regions populated with healthy older people are different, but what they do have in common, says Dr. Jeste, is what they don't eat. "You don't see a lot of high-fat or high-sugar foods." For example, in Sardinia, the Mediterranean diet prevails; it's rich in fish, fruits, vegetables, and healthy oils, all typically locally sourced. This is also true in Cilento, which boasts a diet especially rich in olives and rosemary. While Western foods have infiltrated Okinawa in recent years, its diet traditionally consists of only a little fish and pork, and plenty of vegetables, beans, tofu, seaweed, and complex carbohydrates, particularly purple and orange sweet potatoes. Add these other anti-aging foods that could add years to your life to your grocery list, too.
In areas with higher-than-usual concentrations of centenarians, seniors are often an integrated part of their community. For some, church provides that connection. In Loma Linda, California, the only Blue Zone town (locations around the globe known for longevity and good health) in the United States, the seniors are Seventh-day Adventists; in Sardinia, they tend to be devout Roman Catholics. Religion encourages its believers to carve time during the week to go to church, which is not only a chance to strengthen their connection to God but to mingle with family and friends. As centenarian women interviewed in the Sardinia study repeatedly mentioned, it's their ties to their family and God that's kept them alive and kicking for so long.
Maintaining quality social bonds, whether with fellow parishioners, family, or friends, have been linked to better health, while social isolation has been associated with an increased risk of inflammation in adolescents and worsened hypertension in old age. Studies published in the Journal of the American Heart Association and Cancer have also associated a strong social network (of the real, as opposed to virtual, kind) with better recovery from disease, including breast cancer and heart attack.
It's probably not a coincidence that in areas with an unusually high number of centenarians, the culture is one that truly respects the elderly. In Sardinia, seniors are part of everyday society, not shuttled off into retirement and nursing homes. As a child of an elder interviewed in Cilento told researchers: "We always come to our father. He is still our point of reference and an example for us, for the way he takes things."
Part of the advantage of living in a rural, close-knit community is that you have open land, perfect for gardening or strolling. You can walk to a neighbor's house (or even to work or run errands), and the air is fresh and clean. It's pleasant. And while Loma Linda, California, is hardly a rural village, it's populated by Seventh-day Adventists, who specifically promote getting outside in their official manual: "…we live intelligently in accordance with health principles of exercise, respiration, sunshine, pure air, use of water, sleep, and rest."
Why is being outside so helpful? "Multiple factors come into play," says Dr. Jeste. While some may partly credit vitamin D from sunshine for lengthening life, he believes that other factors may have more to do with it. "When you're outdoors, you're being active," he says, whether you're gardening or walking to or from somewhere. "You're also looking at trees and nature. You're more apt to interact with other people than feeling isolated. All this can promote happy feelings." That, in turn, promotes a positive outlook on life. (Here are 10 surprising ways gardening is one of the healthiest things you can do.)
In Blue Zone areas, the town elders keep busy, whether that means going to a family gathering, taking care of their great-grandkids, or, in the case of a northern Okinawan village, taking part in a culturally cherished craft. As researchers for the Okinawa Centenarian Study write, "Traditional basho-fu weaving helps these older women maintain an active engagement with life as healthy and productive members of society, a role that has been culturally sanctioned and has taken on moral importance in Japan's rapidly aging society." They found that 78 out of the 94 women (age 65 or older) they surveyed were involved in the production process of this highly revered (and marketed) craft in some way, whether it was washing the fibers, spooling, dying, or weaving. A 101-year-old subject, who still took part by spooling, told them, "They [the basho-fu network] still need me. Not so many of us do the spooling any more. Just the old ones like me."
Dr. Jeste, who found similar attitudes with the centenarians in Southern Italy, believes that this feeling of purpose makes matters less stressful when challenges inevitably arise. "When they believe they need to be here for their family, children, land, or some other purpose, they're less likely to give up," he explains.
The habits and surroundings of centenarians vary from country to country, but the one specific thing that they have in common is their positivity. When difficult situations arise, whether it's the death of a loved one or illness, they're resilient, they adapt, and they stay optimistic. This optimism is evident in centenarian studies around the world. A 2016 study of Ashkenazi Jewish centenarians suggests this positivity works in conjunction with higher levels of self-perceived health, which seems to have protected centenarians from depression and perhaps other diseases. And when you avoid disease, you have a better chance at a good, long life. Don't miss these 50 easy habits that will help you live longer.