Supercentenarian Secrets: Living to 110+ Years Old

Dayna Dye

Supercentenarians are men and women aged 110 or older. Although estimations of supercentenarians living today run as high as 600, the number who have been validated is significantly lower. Nevertheless, validation of the existence of supercentenarians—dead and living—proves that it is possible to survive for at least a decade beyond 100.1

“We have all heard stories of cigar-chomping hundred-year-olds who drink copious amounts of vodka (or other spirits) and can climb hills or swim laps faster than most fifty-year-olds,” write Bradley J. Willcox and colleagues in a review titled, “Secrets of Healthy Aging and Longevity From Exceptional Survivors Around the Globe.” “Such hardy, long-lived individuals have been a fascination of society since recorded history. Unfortunately, finding individuals who fit this robust description—and who possess valid birth certificates—has proven elusive.”2

What do supercentenarians have in common?

It’s a well-known fact that women tend to live longer than men, and among supercentenarians, the difference is even more pronounced. Of the 31 validated supercentenarians alive as of November 4, 2019, 30 are women. And among 49 supercentenarians whose current status could not be accounted for (the majority of whom reside in Japan), 48 are female.1

A study of 32 supercentenarians reported in 2006 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that while osteoporosis and cataracts were common, the group had a very low incidence of vascular diseases, including a history of heart attack and stroke.3 Seven subjects were being treated for high blood pressure and just eight had been treated (successfully) for cancer. Diabetes, which currently affects 9.4% of the U.S. population, affected only one subject (3% of the study population).4 The authors of the study noted that “A surprisingly substantial proportion of these individuals were still functionally independent or required minimal assistance.”3

A recent study that compared white blood cells known as lymphocytes and monocytes in seven supercentenarians and five healthy control subjects revealed a significantly higher amount of CD4 cytotoxic T lymphocytes among the supercentenarians. “Our study reveals that supercentenarians have unique characteristics in their circulating lymphocytes, which may represent an essential adaptation to achieve exceptional longevity by sustaining immune responses to infections and diseases,” authors Kosuke Hashimoto and colleagues conclude.5

Supercentenarians Diet

The intake of plant foods is evident in the lives of people who survive to 100 and older. In fact, many of them were farmers.6 In Okinawa, Japan, an area of the world known for exceptional longevity, root vegetables (mainly sweet potatoes), green and yellow vegetables, soybean-based foods and medicinal plants are traditional dietary staples. Characteristics of the Okinawan diet, including a high intake of unrefined carbohydrates, moderate protein intake and an intake of fat that consists of more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (particularly omega-3) and less saturated fat than typical Western diets, are shared with other healthy diet patterns, such as the Mediterranean, DASH and Portfolio diets.7

The significant number of Japanese individuals among supercentenarians suggests that regular intake of fish, which is a major protein source for many Japanese people, might be a factor contributing to their longevity. A meta-analysis of 12 prospective studies that included a total of 672,389 participants concluded that the intake of 60 grams of fish per day was associated with an average 12% reduction in the risk of mortality during the studies’ follow-up periods in comparison with never eating fish.8 And in a study that included 9,957 octogenarians, 9,925 nonagenarians and 8,908 centenarians, a high frequency of fish and seafood consumption was associated with a 26% lower risk of death during follow-up compared to having a low intake.9

The association between frequent fish consumption and long life may be due to the high amount of omega-3 fatty acids in many types of fish and their anti-inflammatory effect. A study that included participants in the Tokyo Oldest Old Survey on Total Health, Tokyo Centenarians Study and Japanese Semi-Supercentenarians Study that included a total of 684 centenarians and semi-supercentenarians (centenarians between the ages of 105 and 109 years), 167 pairs of centenarian offspring and spouses, and 536 community-living very old (aged 85 to 99 years) found that, out of many potential factors involved in successful aging, lower inflammation scores predicted capability and cognition in semi-supercentenarians better than chronologic age or gender.10

Okinawa, Loma Linda, California, Nicoya, Costa Rica, Sardinia, Italy and Ikaria, Greece have been named Blue Zones: areas of the world with the highest confirmed percentage of centenarians. Fava and black beans, soy or lentils form the basis of most Blue Zone diets. Eating in moderation is another Blue Zone dietary practice, which suggests that some supercentenarians may have benefitted from mild calorie restriction in addition to avoiding the negative health impact of obesity.11

Jeanne Calment, who lived to the age of 122, reportedly consumed a lot of olive oil, chocolate and red wine—all of which are high in polyphenol compounds.

However, there’s still significant variation in the diets reported by supercentenarians. Some consume less healthy diets, which indicates that other factors are also involved in longer life.

Supercentenarians’ Healthy Habits

A study conducted in 2,872 pairs of twins born during 1870 to 1900 determined that only 26% of male longevity and 23% of female longevity was due to genetic factors, suggesting that how well we live is mainly responsible for how long we live.12

Among shared factors, long-lived people of the world engage in lifestyles that require movement. They may garden and perform housework and yardwork. Maintenance of physical independence at 100 years of age is a strong predictor of becoming a supercentenarian.13

Supercentenarians have a sense a purpose, ways to manage stress, belong to a faith-based community, commit to their spouse, children, parents and other family members and have lifelong friends.11

How Many Supercentenarians in the US?

Of the 31 validated supercentenarians living at this time, seven reside in the U.S.1 Four hundred fifty-eight validated supercentenarians are deceased as of this post; 150 died in the U.S. Hundreds more have claimed supercentenarian status but did not have reliable documentation of their date of birth.

The fact that the U.S. has a significant share of supercentenarians could be attributed to a relatively higher standard of living and better medical care compared to many countries, but it could also be accounted for by an ability of investigators to more easily validate the ages claimed by those listed.

How can I Live Longer and Healthier?

Want to be in the 110 club? Many of the health habits discussed in this post have known protective associations with a lower risk of chronic diseases that are a major cause of death worldwide. Staying active, consuming plant foods, managing stress, maintaining social connections and having a sense of purpose can benefit anyone. Humans are fortunate to live during a time in which potentially beneficial medical discoveries are increasing at a rapid pace and may further extend healthy lifespan.

A study published in Science reports the conclusion of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and Sapienza University of Rome that the risk of death, which increases exponentially up to an approximate age of 80 years, appears to level off after the age of 105. The findings contradict speculation by some biologists and demographers that there’s a fixed natural limit to human life.

"These are the best data for extreme-age longevity yet assembled," announced senior author Kenneth Wachter, who is a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of demography and statistics. "Our data tell us that there is no fixed limit to the human lifespan yet in sight. Not only do we see mortality rates that stop getting worse with age, we see them getting slightly better over time."14

Bradley J. Willcox and colleagues, who were quoted in the introduction to this post, noted that, unlike many individuals of advanced age, supercentenarians maintained independence in their activities of daily living until late in life (an average age of 105), which supports an extended health span, rather than gaining more years of disability. The authors describe the work that needs to be done to understand healthy aging and longevity and predict that “It may not be long before today’s version of the ‘exceptional survivor’ will be tomorrow’s ‘typical’ senior citizen. If this happens, the cigar-chomping, mountain climbing supercentenarians of Shangri-La fame may not prove so elusive after all.”2

About the author: Dayna Dye has been a member of the staff of Life Extension® since shortly after its inception. She has served as the department head of Life Extension® Wellness Specialists, is the author of thousands of articles published during the past two decades in Life Extension® Update, Life Extension Magazine® and on www.lifeextension.com, and has been interviewed on radio and TV and in newsprint. She is currently a member of Life Extension’s Education Department.

References:

  1. “GRG World Supercentenarian Rankings List.” Gerontology Research Group. 4 Nov 2019. www.grg.org/SC/WorldSCRankingsList.html
  2. Willcox BJ et al. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2008 Nov;63(11):1181-5
  3. Schoenhofen EA et al. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2006 Aug;54(8):1237-40.
  4. “National Diabetes Statistics Report.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 24 Feb 2018. www.cdc.gov/diabetes/data/statistics/statistics-report.html
  5. Hashimoto K et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Nov 12.
  6. Gavrilov LA et al. Biodemography Soc Biol. 2012;58(1):14–39.
  7. Willcox DC et al. Mech Ageing Dev. 2014 Mar-Apr;136-137:148-62.
  8. Zhao LG et al. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2016 Feb;70(2):155-61.
  9. Lv Y et al. Clin Nutr. 2019 Oct 25. pii: S0261-5614(19)33084-5.
  10. Arai Y et al. EBioMedicine. 2015 Jul 29;2(10):1549-58.
  11. Buettner D et al. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016 Jul 7;10(5):318-321.
  12. Herskind AM et al. Hum Genet. 1996 Mar;97(3):319-23.
  13. Arai Y et al. Mech Ageing Dev. 2017 Jul;165(Pt B):80-85.
  14. Barbi E et al. Science. 2018 Jun 29;360(6396):1459-1461.

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