WYTHE CO., Va., October 6, 2012 — Growing old is a reality for all of us, especially as millions of baby boomers come of age. The average American has a life expectancy of 78.2 years. Even more impressive is the increase in people over 100 years of age.
America’s population of centenarians (over 100) — already the largest in the world — has roughly doubled in the past 20 years to around 72,000 and is projected to at least double again by 2020.
With so many of us soon facing the golden years, some tips on how to do so are welcome. First some tips from Dr. Tom Perls, (born circa 1960) the founding director of the New England Centenarian Study.
Lisa King: What do you attribute our increased longevity to?
Dr. Tom Perls: In 1900, average life expectancy was nearly half that at about 45 years. A number of forces have facilitated a near doubling of our average life expectancy. Around the turn of the last century we began to see major improvements in public health measures including modern plumbing, sewage treatment and a clean water supply, a more dependable and safe food supply, safer working conditions and laws to take children out of the work force.
Around 1915, children were expected to have 12 years of education, not eight. With more education, markedly improving socioeconomic conditions and these public health measures, we went from losing a quarter of children to neonatal and early childhood illnesses (e.g. diphtheria, tuberculosis, bacterial infections, flu etc) to a quarter of the population now surviving and having the opportunity to live into adulthood.
Then as we approached the 1940s and 50s we got further improvements in socioecomic conditions, vaccinations, antibiotics, much better obstetrical care (and less maternal mortality), markedly improved surgical outcomes, and treatment of high blood pressure, so then we got to see many more people live from early-mid adulthood to an average life expectancy of 64 years in 1960.
Since then, all of these things have gotten even better plus better prevention and treatment of heart disease, cancer, infections and so on. With less smoking, more exercise, healthier diets, we are at age 80 or so.
LK: Do you see this trend continuing?
TP: Only if people start becoming more like 7th Day Adventists, who have average life expectancies of about 85 years because of the health behaviors expected by their religion. That is: no smoking, no drinking, regular exercise (30-60 min a day), vegetarian diet, and managing your stress effectively.
LK: What diseases do you see the biggest progress in that may help explain the increase?
TP: Infections, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, certain cancers.
LK: What is the most preventable health issue for the elderly?
TP: High blood pressure, heart disease, screening, and prevention of certain cancers
To recognize this unique and rapidly growing part of the populous, I interviewed centenarian Toni Balcean to try and gain some insight about how she has lived so long, and what she has done to achieve her age of 101.
What do you enjoy most about being a Centenarian?
Toni Balcean: The attention.
LK: What do you enjoy least about being a Centenarian?
TB: The way I look.
LK: To what do you attribute your longevity?
TB: Clean living and good Italian wine.
LK: Does your family tree reflect your longevity?
LK: Given your presence during so much of this country’s history, what do you think about this country today?
TB: It’s not moving forward. It seems in reverse.
LK: What, if anything, has America lost that it needs to recover?
TB: Patriotism and respect for our country.
LK: What has it gained that you appreciate most?
TB: Being able to travel and visit more places.
LK: Are people more or less kind than they used to be?
TB: Less kind.
LK: In the generations that have followed you in your family, do you see progress in their lives?
LK: Do you have any “naughty” habits?
LK: Do you have any daily health related activities such as vitamins, exercise…etc?
TB: I did till I turned 97. I took vitamins and exercised.
LK: What are your favorite things to do?
TB: Visit with friends.
LK: What annoys you most?
LK: Do you think women have surrendered more than they have gained seeking equality?
LK: Any advice on how to live to a ripe old age such as yours?
TB: Keep a sense of humor, keep busy, interested, eat good food, and drink good wine and a martini now and then!
According to the Dr. Perls, lifestyle choices are most important. No drinking, no smoking, no red meat, and stress management are essential in aging healthy.
While according to Toni Balcean, a sense of humor, keeping busy, and drinking good wine with an occasional martini is important.
So what’s the best route for those of us approaching the so-called golden years to keep us from rusting out before we get to enjoy them? Looking at what both Toni Balcean and Tom Perls said, the key to their agreement may lie in stress management because what better way to de-stress than with a sense of humor?
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