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How to Become a Centenarian

This is our final set of extracts Professor Perls' book "Living to 100". It contains some of his
proposals for making the best of the genes dealt you, so that you have a better chance of
reaching 100, too.

The achievements of centenarians demonstrate that it is possible to avoid accelerating aging,


and there may well be genes that slow down aging. Centenarians are pioneers who have
shown us the horizon of the human life span, and how to get there. But the prospect of such
longevity presents an important challenge: Are people ready to do the work now to expand
their healthy years, compressing their time of ill health into a very short period at the end of
their lives?

Active minds, exercise, sensible eating habits, and rewarding social relationships play a part
in keeping brains functioning well. These were just part of our centenarians' lifelong
lifestyles. Adopting a centenarian lifestyle now can help you take advantage of your potential
to live a long life and cope with the dramatic social changes that will affect all aspects of life
-- social, economic, and cultural.

Preserve your cognitive abilities

Centenarians preserve their cognitive function by engaging in mental activities that are
interesting to them. Crossword puzzles (verbal functions), bridge (memory functions), and
intricate jigsaw puzzles (visual-spatial functions) can help keep the mind sharp.

You can go beyond a daily "brisk brain walk" through the New York Times crossword puzzle
and do mental strength training. Reading challenging books, learning foreign languages, or
practicing a musical instrument can expand neuronal networks and build up functional reserve
that will help compensate for aging changes. Even learning new dance steps can exercise the
brain. In the Hawaiian city of Hilo, we met a remarkable group of elders who learned,
practiced, and performed the traditional hula dance in a state-funded program. The intricacies
of the beautiful complicated arm and hand movements that told a story were a challenging
mind-building exercise. In addition, these elders enjoyed physical exercise, socializing, and
the privilege of being the "wise ones," passing along tradition to the younger generation.
These fortunate people glowed with health and well-being.

Activities that require coordination between multiple brain regions, like dancing, painting,
learning a new language, certain sports, and particularly making music, produce multiple
benefits for the brain, and make it more resistant to trauma and chronic damage as time goes
on. Playing an instrument requires one to simultaneously read, listen, memorize, perform
complicated manual activities, and in some cases innovate. This kind of complex activity
gives the whole brain a workout and strengthens links between different brain regions. There
is also a valuable relaxation component associated with playing familiar pieces that may
reduce the impact of emotionally stressful situations.

Late-life learning

Learning never has to stop for anyone. Formal late-life learning can help preserve thinking
abilities, and many older people are already doing this: Harvard recently granted a bachelor's
degree to an 89-year-old woman. Adult education opportunities are numerous, and at least a
third of American universities offer college and graduate level courses specifically for people
over 65.

Guided autobiography

Several of our centenarians were hard at work or had recently completed their autobiographies
when we met them. Autobiography is the essence of self-expression and lies at the core of all
art forms, and there is no reason to wait until becoming a centenarian to begin. Writing an
autobiography stimulates the mind by forcing one to integrate one's beliefs with past
experiences and thus find meaning in life. Keeping a journal may serve the same function. It
is among the most accessible forms of creative thoughts, and it is part of life review, which is
a natural component of psychological development.

Originally conceived by psychologist and gerontologist James Birren, "guided autobiography"


is a group activity facilitated by a professional leader. The group provides feedback and
support in facing biographical material that is painful to write about.

Here are some themes from Birren to start with:

• Major transitions in life. Write about leaving home, going to college, fighting in a war,
having a child.
• Your family. This could include your family of origin, and your current family. Note
your family history, traditions, tragedies and triumphs.
• Your major life work or career. This may be professional work or homemaking,
whatever your primary focus has been.
• Your sexuality and intimate relationships. Write about your current love life and past
experiences.
• Your friends and other social relationships. Describe who these people are, why
they're important to you, and their special qualities.
• The role of the arts in your life. Have music, art, and literature been important to you?
Do you write, or play a musical instrument? Are reading, listening to music, and going
to museums important parts of your life?
• Your experiences with death. Has someone close to you diet? How did that affect two?
What are your needs at that time? What were the needs of others close to the
deceased? Were they met? How?

[The full list, given in professor Perls' book, has a total of 13 items.]

Exercise

Active lifestyles contributed not only to our centenarians' overall health but to their alerts and
agile minds. People can exercise almost all their lives. Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese program of
meditative movements, can be performed by people of almost any age or physical ability
level. It has moderate steady aerobic effects, uses all the muscle groups, and builds flexibility.
With its slow, repetitive motions, this form of exercise also has the effect of decreasing
emotional stress and anxiety.
Stress reduction

Centenarians are natural stress-shedders. This contributes to their longevity in part by


improving their cognitive health, since anxiety and depression have significant negative
effects on brain function.

People who have difficulty dealing with psychological stress, in particular, should use stress
reduction techniques, such as meditation and exercise, to cope with problems. For those who
struggle with high levels of stress, [there exist] intensive, monitored programs that teach stress
reduction techniques, such as progressive relaxation, and physical-mental exercises like yoga.
Biofeedback, which teaches people to control physiological stress responses, is another
alternative to anti-anxiety medications, which post physical risks as well as cognitive side
effects. Some insurance plans now cover non-medical stress reduction programs if they are
prescribed by a physician.

The physiological effects of failing to deal properly with stress cannot be discounted. Just as
stress affects physical functioning, so it diminishes the efficiency of the brain. Stress can
exacerbate mild cognitive problems and eventually impair everyday functioning. Over the
long run, sustained stress has even more dire consequences, causing actual damage to brain
cells. With age, hormones called glucocorticoids, which are secreted by the adrenal glands in
response to stress, play a role in the loss of neurons in the hippocampus, the seat of memory
in the brain. Studies of animals and humans have shown that non-medical interventions such
as guided imagery and yoga, which emphasize psychological work as a route to psychological
health, effectively influence the production of glucocorticoids. Herbert Benson, director of the
Mind/Body Medical Institute, has demonstrated that circulating levels of stress-related
hormones drop with the use of relaxation exercises.

The Living to 100 Life Expectancy Calculator©

An early and consistent investment in diet and lifestyle can lead to additional years of good
health and later life. We designed the Life Expectancy Calculator© to translate what we've
learned from studies of centenarians and other longevity research into a practical tool for
individuals to estimate that longevity potential. Better scores indicate a reduced risk of
disability toward the end of life. Of course, no one can guarantee either continued health or
longevity. However, everyone should be aware of the factors that increase or decrease
mortality and disability risk. Some of these are under individual control, and people who want
to live longer, healthier lives should try to fashion that lifestyles accordingly.

Centenarian lessons for AGEING

Here, in summary, are some of the most important things we've learned from centenarians so
far:

Attitude. Centenarians rarely consider their age a limitation -- how a person feels about aging
is key to his/her ability to thrive. Older people can take advantage of opportunities and
possibilities that may not have been available to them previously.
Genes. The vast majority of people have genes that allowed them to live to at least 85 years
old. Take advantage of these genes; don't thwart them. Good health practices will help you
make up for at least some of the genetic differences between you and centenarians and
maximize the disease-free portion of your life.

Exercise. With older and older age, resistance training becomes increasingly important for
maintaining strength and muscle. Increased muscle tissue burns fat more efficiently, reduces
your heart disease risk, and markedly enhances a sense of well-being.

Investigate new challenges. Keep your mind active with new and different activities to
exercise different parts of your brain. Take advantage of opportunities and possibilities that
may have not been available to you previously, such as a second career, volunteer activities,
musical instruction, writing, or travel.

Nutrition. Emphasize fruits and vegetables in your diet, and minimize meat, saturated and
hydrogenated fats, and sweets. Eat moderately in order to avoid obesity. Supplements your
healthy diet with the antioxidants vitamin E (400-800 IU daily) and selenium (100-200 mcg
daily).

Get rid of stress. Centenarians naturally shed psychological stress. Humor, meditation, Tai
Chi, exercise, and optimism are some of the important ways to manage your stress