As we left off in my last blog, the majority of Americans would love to live to 100 … IF they have their health and if they have their wealth.  Today we’ll expand on this by addressing the second of the three primary focuses of Longevity Planning/Management:  Healthspan, how we’ll be here long … not just living long, but understanding the actual facts behind longevity today.  And it’s not just about living long, it’s about living well — quality of life is what matters most to the majority of people today.

There are a number of factors beyond diet and exercise that effect our longevity and quality of life … where and how we live, how we stay involved, the opportunity for lifelong learning, will we volunteer and/or continue working, are just a few of the factors that contribute to our overall Healthspan.  Yet perhaps the most important focus needs to be on living longer and better … and the opportunity has never been greater!  Today, improving Heathspan means we have the potential to be healthier, stronger, more resilient and productive longer than ever before.

As a Gerontologist, undoubtedly one of the most common questions I’m often asked is, ‘What’s the Secret to Living Long?’ While there are a number of factors that contribute to this, most people are relatively surprised when my response is, Lifestyle — which encompasses numerous issues surrounding how we live our lives.

Expanding on the idea of what’s the secret, there was a study a few years ago among Centenarians and their thoughts on what they felt the secrets were to living to 100.  These centenarians identified four things that may surprise you … and I’ve added a fifth factor that I’ve seen consistently over my years of interviews with older adults.

The first thing centenarians identified was Attitude … feeling good about yourself, feeling good about your life.  If you think about it, attitude drives behaviors — which is critically important to longevity. For example, if you believe the second half of life can be a time of good health, vitality, and productivity, you’re much more likely to incorporate the lifestyle behaviors that will enable you to achieve this. If however you believe the second half of life is an automatic time of decline, poor health and inactivity, then you’re more likely to ‘retire’ to the couch, become sedentary, and blame all your problems on age!  Clearly what we think truly does matter in living long and living well!

The second issue they addressed was Engagement … passion for life, enthusiasm for life, staying involved, connected, having a sense of meaning and purpose in your life. Having something to do — be it physically, mentally, socially, whatever … we need to be engaged. In many ways, it makes the difference between living and just existing.

The third thing the centenarians identified was Activity … being able to move, function, climb stairs, carry packages – maintain the activities of daily living. This is hugely important as it absolutely makes a difference between independence and dependence. It’s not necessarily about running marathons and things like that, but rather being able to maintain the activities of daily living (ADL’s) which clearly pays huge dividends in our independence as we age. 

The fourth issue discussed was Adaptability and resilience – another important factor in aging well.  And in particular, adaptability to loss because by the time you reach the age of 100, you’ve had tremendous loss in your life, and sometimes it’s extremely difficult to move forward. Centenarians recognize this as a hurdle and barrier that must be overcome, so they often incorporate a number of different strategies to get through difficult times – friends, family, pets, humor, volunteering – all of these things are tools centenarians use to help them be resilient.

And the fifth element I’ve added — as I’ve seen it consistently in my 30+-year career of working with older adults, is Spirituality … simply put, a sense of faith that helps people make sense of things that sometimes don’t.

But the study that perhaps captures the answer to the ‘secret’ of living long best is the 30+ year ongoing study at Mt Sinai Medical Center in New York where they have found that when you look at the characteristics of aging today, 70% is based on lifestyle; 30% genetics!  Most people think it’s the opposite.  So what this tells us is that we actually do have some control over not only how long we live, but more importantly, how well we live, which I believe is what really matters to most people. It’s all about quality of life. And as a gerontologist, I don’t really care how long people live, it’s about how well we live — preferably long, and die like that (with a snap of the fingers)!  Yet sadly, too many people live to short and die to long and as a result, spend their longevity and extended time of life in poor health.

As we become an aged society, there’s a tremendous amount of interest in living long and living well – and great opportunities to do so today. Yet it’s important to recognize the role we each play in this process. Equally important is for the industry that advises people financially about longevity planning, to expand beyond just the traditional model.  By addressing the quality of life issues in the second half of life, we can help our society as a whole rethink longevity in an entirely new way and help more people maintain a quality of life and well being at all stages of life.