What it takes to live to 95


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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


I’m a big fan of studies (like this one from a few months ago) that paint exercise as a fountain of youth that will stave off aging. I’m less fond of studies like the one just published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, that suggest that longevity is in your genes, and nothing you do makes much difference (abstract here, press release here). But what you can you do? Data is what is (or “are what they are,” if you prefer — Audrey!).

The study: researchers interviewed 477 people between the ages of 95 and 112 to find out about their lifestyles way back when they were 70 (which was considered loosely representative of their adult habits): weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, exercise, whether they ate a low-calorie, low-fat or low-salt diet, etc. This data was compared to similar data collected back in the 1970s from several thousand people born around the same time, representing the general population. The punchline:

Overall, people with exceptional longevity did not have healthier habits than the comparison group in terms of BMI, smoking, physical activity, or diet.

Doh! On the other hand, the same research group has found distinct genetic patterns among people who live to be 100, such as one that gives them abnormally high levels of “good” cholesterol. So does this mean our longevity is written in our DNA and we might as well not worry about silly things like exercise and nutrition?

Well, there was one statistically significant difference between the super-agers and the general population: obesity. Being overweight (BMI 25-30) didn’t seem to make a difference, but fewer of the old folks were obese (BMI over 30): 4.5% versus 12.1% in the men, and 9.6% versus 16.% in the women. Still that’s a relatively minor difference.

The more important thing to remember is that this is a study of extreme outliers. So, if the results hold up and are confirmed by other studies, it may tell us that all the broccoli and chin-ups in the world won’t make you live to 100. You need the genes to make it that far. But if you don’t have the genes, then you do need the lifestyle factors to make it as far as possible — after all, there’s no question that factors like exercise and not smoking are linked to longer lifespans. They may not get you to 100, but there’s still a big difference between, say, 65 and 85!

6 Replies to “What it takes to live to 95”

  1. So, the interesting study would be to run the same survey against people who reached 95 _without_ the genes of longevity, right?

  2. Sure, these people are living to an extreme old age and seemingly not exercising, so to speak, healthy habits, but what about their quality of life. I’d rather live a shorter life, but be able to enjoy the things I love – swimming, cycling, yoga, running, hiking, etc. Staying active means I don’t get winded going up stairs and can run around the yard with my 5 year old niece.

  3. Studies like this make me cringe because plenty of people will take this as “proof” that they can eat/smoke/drink anything they want from the comfort of their couch and it won’t make any difference. Sure, the lifestyle factors alone might not be enough to get you to 100, but for those of us without the longevity genes, ignoring our eating habits and activity levels is a good way to end up with debilitating diseases that kill us in your 50s and 60s instead of our 70s and 80s.

  4. As you suggest, this study may in fact be a comparison between the healthy and the super healthy. Since life expectancy at birth around 1900 was lower than 70 (and, I presume, not very much above it, if you’d correct for infant mortality), people who were in their seventies in the 1970’s are probably a healthy subgroup of those born around 1900.

    Good to know that when I am 70, I can start smoking and boozing without consequence 😉

  5. One problem with studying people who were born around 1900 (not that there is a choice here) and the effects of exercise is that, at least from the history I have read, people’s idea of what exercise is and how intensely one does it has changed significantly in the last 100 years. One thought is that perhaps low-grade activity doesn’t help you live to 105, but maybe intense exercise does. No data here.

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