If you want to live to 100, Dr. Tom Perls has a few things to tell you.
He’s not a centenarian himself – he’s just 52 – but Perls, a geriatrician, has studied centenarians for two decades and now directs the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University. He’s followed 2,200 people who are 100-plus.
Perls became intrigued with centenarians back in 1992, while completing his medical training in geriatrics. Among his patients were two 100-year-olds. He expected them to be frail and sick.
Instead, he found that one, an accomplished pianist, was busy entertaining her fellow residents with masterful Chopin pieces. The other, a tailor by trade, taught residents how to mend their clothes. “When he wasn’t doing that, he was robbing the cradle, dating his 85-year-old girlfriend,” Perls says.
We spoke with Perls by phone and asked him to clue us in on other facts about living to 100.
What have you discovered since you began to study the lifespan some 20 years ago?
At first, we didn’t think we would find any factors that centenarians had in common. But clearly, this trait of exceptional survival does run very strongly in families.
We all have the same genes, it’s just that we have different variations of those genes. And we’ve found a number of these variations that are potentially very interesting for how and why some people can live to such a very old age. We’ve also seen that longevity isn’t just because you have one or two of these rare variants, but probably many. What makes these people rare is that you have to get the right combination of these variants. It’s kind of like winning the lottery.
Which matters more, genes or lifestyle?
I think the ability to live into your 100s or later has a very strong genetic component. Some of these centenarians didn’t take very good care of themselves, but still lived a very long time.
However, for the rest of the population – those who didn’t win that genetic lottery – lifestyle and health habits are very, very important.
I would say that the average person – one who lacks strong genes for longevity – has the ability to live to their late 80s, early 90s, which is very remarkable. What will make a huge difference is your lifestyle. That means not smoking, getting regular exercise 30 minutes a day, a vegetarian diet, avoiding red meat, probably not drinking alcohol – or if you must, just a little bit a day at most – and doing things that help you manage stress well, such as the exercise.
Strength training is critically imporant. And it’s one of those things where
the benefits don’t go away with age. So you can go out and strength train
and build muscle just like you did when you were younger. The
benefits of that are huge. It can help with osteoporosis and improve your
sleep. Building muscle can actually have cognitive benefits and it decreases
the risk of falls.
How do you know whether or not your own genes are strong?
You can start by looking at the longevity in your family. I had a great grandmother who lived to be 102. And my mom is in her early 90s and she’s doing really, really well. So I think that bodes pretty well for me.
Find out if there are certain diseases that people in your family died from. All of this is taken into account on the online life expectancy calculator on my website. [See below for the link.] It takes about seven minutes, and you get a ballpark life expectancy. Then, it tells you, based on your answers, things you can do differently to improve upon that.
Could “aging with attitude” help with longevity?
Aging with a good attitude is vey important. Some of us, like the centenarians, have personalities that do that naturally. These people tend not to dwell on problems. They manage stress well. They are more outgoing. They tend to be more able to establish friendships.
Aging with attitude also means you need to be willing to adapt to dealing with the fact that things may not work as well as they used to: the need to wear hearing aids and glasses, for instance. We had an interesting lady in our study who couldn’t see well. She purchased some dentist’s visors, these magnifying lenses with bright lights, and found that increased markedly her ability to read.
How can digital technology help us live as long as possible?
Technology can help us not be socially isolated – and those social connections are good for health. My mom lives in LA and we Skype all the time. She gets so involved in dealing with the Facebook pages of her grandchildren. She has a lot more contact now with her grandkids.
Anything else people should know about how to get to 100?
It’s critical that you do not let your physician or anyone else make decisions based on age alone. If you are doing otherwise fine and your knee hurts, for instance, they better not say, “Well, what do you expect for your age?”
- To access the life expectancy calculator on Tom Perls’ website, click here.
- To visit the New England Centenarian Project website, click here.