- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2003

Want to live to be 100? Then live well to stay well. “One of the biggest new health behaviors is that people are not accepting significant change associated with aging,” says Dr. Gene D. Cohen, director of the Center for Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University. “If you say, ‘I’m 65, so this is expected,’ you miss a opportunity for early intervention. Reducing risk factors can add three, five, even 12 years to your life.”

That is not to say anyone can control whether they will be in a plane crash or avoid all types of cancer. Even if longevity runs in the family, it can be slowly destroyed by years of unhealthy habits such as inactivity or smoking.

“Keep in mind that the population had the same genes in 1900 as it did in 2000,” Dr. Cohen says. “During that time, the average life expectancy increased by 55 percent. That illustrates how powerful lifestyle factors are. Even if longevity runs in your family, if you don’t take care of yourself, you will be at a disadvantage.”

Some ways to keep the advantage and have a shot at 100:

• Maintain good health habits. You’ve heard them before, but here they are again: Exercise, eat well, drink in moderation and don’t smoke.

Dr. Thomas T. Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study and co-author of “Living to 100: Lessons in Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age,” says the centenarians he has studied may vary in socioeconomic status or education, but they almost always have several characteristics in common: Few centenarians are obese, and they rarely have a substantial smoking history or history of alcohol abuse.

Dr. Perls has not found any specific foods or nutrients that centenarians consume, but in general, most of his subjects eat healthfully and sensibly. A majority of the subjects say their weight is about what it has been for most of their adult lives.

• Stay involved. Social connections and mental exercise can go a long way in keeping the brain youthful, Dr. Cohen says. This can be anything from reading books to participating in a bridge club to playing the piano or recording one’s memoirs into a tape recorder.

Dr. Perls has noticed that a large number of his centenarian study subjects played a musical instrument. A large number of seniors nationwide are taking advantage of classes at local universities and through groups such as Elderhostel.

Dr. Cohen says, “The brains actually sprout new projections when they are kept active. … This will keep the brain young. It is never too late to benefit. There is truth to the ‘use it or lose it’ saying.”

• Reduce stress, increase laughter. Dr. Perls has found a large number of centenarians are natural “stress-shedders.”

In one study, he looked at personality traits such as neuroticism, openness, agreeability and extroversion. The subjects scored remarkably low on the neuroticism scale — a measure for negative emotions. Low neuroticism means a person is better at coping with emotional stress, flexible, seldom depressed and less prone to unrealistic thinking.

• Take supplements. Researchers at Columbia University followed 341 patients with moderate Alzheimer’s disease who were taking either 2,000 IU of vitamin E, the Parkinson’s-disease drug selegine, a combination or a placebo.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997, reported that treatment with either vitamin E, selegine or a combination can significantly delay some of the critical outcomes (such as inability to perform tasks of daily living) of Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Perls says vitamin E also can protect against heart disease and cancer. Taking 400 to 800 IU of vitamin E daily can boost protection against disease, he writes in his book.

Selenium, another potent antioxidant, can guard against heart disease and cancer. Dr. Perls recommends 100 to 200 mcg daily.

Osteoporosis, the loss of bone density that leads to an increased risk of frailty and fractures in the elderly, can be fended off by supplemental doses of vitamin D (800 IU) and calcium (enough to bring daily totals up to 1,000 to 1,500 mg daily). Osteoporosis can also be avoided by weight-bearing exercise (such as walking or lifting light weights), three times a week.

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