Living to 100:
"Keep Your Mind and Body Active,"
Say Aging Experts
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While genetics is clearly the primary factor, the environment, including your own lifestyle, is considered by experts on aging to play an important role in determining your life expectancy. Will your own children live to see the Twenty-second Century? Experts say, "The chances are rather good." Today, Centenarians - those who are age 100 or above - are the fastest growing segment of the population, followed by the 85 and over demographic. In the US, approximately three million of those in the 85-plus bracket can expect to become Centenarians. In the US, half a million Baby Boomers will probably live to be 100. What lifestyle secrets can be learned from those living a century or more?
Although long retired as an international economic consultant, Franz Wolf eagerly keeps up on world affairs
Around 1900, Americans barely survived what we now call middle age. Their average life expectancy was only 49. Today, with better care for seniors and much better public health, people in the US can expect to live until, on average, 80.
In the year 2000, if you want to live past 100, consider leaving North America. Longevity rates from the US and Canada lag behind Japan and most of Western Europe. Average lifespan for Americans and Canadians are 80.45 and 81.67 years, respectively, vs. 82.50 for British, 82.95 for Japanese, and 83.5 for French, according to US National Institutes of Health figures. By 2050, the average Japanese will live to be nearly 91, versus around 83 for Americans and 85 for Canadians. Regarding gender, however, for every man that reaches age 100, nine women survive to reach the century mark.
[ Editor's Note: These statistics are somewhat optimistic, according to the most recently-available demographic projections.]
Gerontologist Dr. Gene Cohen says "It's never too late to put one's mind into living longer."
ACTIVE BODY AND MIND
Health experts say the chief differences are North Americans' higher rates of heart disease, homicide, and lung cancer, problems often linked to lifestyle choices. The low-fat, high-fish Japanese diet is a major fact contributing to wellness there.
While longevity genes tend to run in families, experts like gerontologist Dr. Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., suspects that lifestyle matters as much as inheritance. "People are aging better than ever before," says Cohen. "The potential is much greater than people realize, and it's never too late to change." Research at Harvard University indicates that staying active with pursuits like walking, dancing, and even driving, tends to help people stay healthy, longer.
But exercising the mind may be the most important ingredient for staying younger, longer. Healthy oldsters documented in longevity studies like the New England Centenarian Study have a habit of keeping their minds alert with hobbies like reading, writing, and painting. "The newest secrets revolve around challenging your mind," says Cohen, a researcher at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Sized up against one's genes, an active mind "seems to be comparably effective in improving health outcomes and longevity. Similar to physical exercise, you want to sweat a little bit mentally." Wolf says commitment to family has brought him the most meaning in life
FAMILY IS FIRST
Franz Wolf''s life makes a case for living a life of moderation. What makes Wolf tick follows studies which reveal that spiritual connections and strong family ties can increase chances for survival.
"I didn't think about it, it just happened," says the Washington, D.C. Centenarian. "I didn't think about whether I-was or I-was-not going to be a hundred," admits Wolf, who fled Germany for America in 1936. Though he turned 100 in June 2000, Wolf hasn't followed any idealistic regimen guaranteeing longevity, though he doesn't smoke. During his European youth, Wolf was an avid snow skier, but he never resumed his passion in the US. He confesses, as an adult, he never dedicated himself to any sport nor to fitness.
But Wolf loved his work, a pursuit that consistently required mental agility. An economist, his work as an international government consultant also meant travelling the world. Since the days when he helped his father, an international egg trader, re-write correspondence, he's spoken several languages. He continues to keep up on world events with a daily newspaper.
More important than the invigoration of his work has been his deep devotion to family. As with other centenarians, he knows much loss, but has always refused to give up the fight against life's struggles At age 15, he lost to the battlefields of World War I extended family members to whom he was close -- a young cousin and an uncle. Wolf has three children, two boys and a girl. His wife, now deceased, is not only remembered by the legacy of their children and in stories and photographs, but also with a cancer foundation in Israel that is named after the couple. Says Wolf, "The most important experience in your own life? - Your relationship to your family."
This story originally aired on Wednesday, July 19, 2000.