Fancy being a centenarian? According to statistics, more people across the world are achieving that goal, thanks to scientific advances and medical breakthroughs. And no, living to 100 here does not mean being infirm, incapacitated or confused. One can be in reasonably good physical and mental shape for a century and beyond if one wanted to.
The body, according to some scientists, can reach a maximum age of 120. And, as certain communities such as the Okinawans in Japan, the Ikarians in Greece and the Sardinians in Italy have shown, it often boils down to lifestyles and habits. Members of these communities typically live to 90 or 100, and their cultures have become models for the rest of the world.
The longest living person on record was a Frenchwoman named Jeanne Calment. She lived to 122, from 1875 to 1997. She rode a bicycle till she was 100, smoked cigarettes till 117, recorded a song when she was 120, and joked and flirted for much of her life.
Considering that Singapore men live till 80 and Singapore women till 86, could you extend your life by 20 or 14 more years respectively to be a healthy centenarian too? Some scientists say yes.
According to studies of Danish twins, our genes dictate 25 per cent of how long we will live. The remaining 75 per cent depends on our habits and lifestyles. A good diet replete with fruit and vegetables, and regular exercise has been shown time and again to slow down the ageing process. On the other hand, a sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy habits (smoking, alcohol, stress, lack of sleep) damage your body. Meanwhile, consumption of vitamin and mineral supplements have yet to yield conclusive proof that they contribute to longevity.
Shuhei Kyo, president of the Tokyo Metropolitan Geriatric Hospital and Institute of Gerontology, Japan, was recently in Singapore for the 8th International Ageing Asia Innovation Forum, an annual Singapore event that has grown every year due to the booming silver economy.
He says: "If you can avoid the leading causes of death - cancer, heart disease and pneumonia - you have a good chance of living to 90 or even 100. Of those three, pneumonia is very preventable - eat good, clean food and try not get to the flu. We also have a better understanding of heart disease now so the rate of deaths due to heart disease has been steadily declining in the past 10 years. So what you really need to watch out for is cancer."
Dr Kyo recommends endoscopy checks every year after you turn 40. "If you can find cancer at an early stage, it would so much easier to deal with it."
Singaporeans Live Long Lives
The odds of living past 100 have increased dramatically in the past few decades. When the Japanese ministry started compiling statistics in 1963, the nation had only 153 centenarians. In 2015, that number surpassed 61,000 - nearly a 400 times jump in 52 years.
Singapore has startling figures too. In 1990, there were just 50 centenarians. In 2015, there were 1,100. The jump is 22 times in 25 years. Considering that Singapore is a younger country than Japan, these achievements are considerable.
In terms of health-adjusted life expectancy, Japan and Singapore rank No 1 and No 2 in the world - although in both countries, women outstrip men in terms of lifespans by at least six years.
Stuart Kim, professor of developmental biology and genetics at Stanford University, has been studying supercentenarians (people who live past 110) for more than a decade. He says: "In the past 100 years, science and technology have been able to add 0.3 years to the average lifespan every year. So if the current male life expectancy in Singapore is 80 years, then next year it will 80.3, and the following year, 80.6, and so on."
"Here at Stanford, we're fascinated with the concept of science trying to add - instead 0.3 years - a full one year to life expectancy every year. What that means is this: If you're 75-year-old man in Singapore, you figure you have about five more years to live, because life expectancy is 80 for men. But if science could add one more year to that life expectancy every year, when you're 76, you're looking at 81; when you're 77, you're looking at 82. And so on. It's always five years away."
Prof Kim stops short of suggesting that we can live forever, but he too thinks that living past 100 could be a reality for many people in time to come. This is especially true if future couples opt to genetically-modify their embryos to produce "designer babies" with desirable traits such as good physical and mental health.
He points to the bowhead whale as an example of a mammal that can live up to 200 years "without getting cancer". He also cites the famous "Ming the clam", so named because it is scientifically proven to have been born more than 500 years ago during the Ming dynasty.
"Think of it this way," he says. "If a DNA has been able to survive intact for thousands of years and passed down from one generation to the next, why can't we imagine our bodies similarly lasting?"
Reverse ageing now
Prof Kim says that the natural processes of ageing still baffle scientists: "No one really quite knows why we age." But his scientific research as well as that of others have found ways to reverse the ageing process in animals. Parabiosis, for instance, exchanges the blood of a young mouse with that of an old mouse, reversing the ageing process of the old mouse at no detriment to young mouse.
Now what if human beings have individual blood banks where they could safely store their own blood drawn each month from the time when they were 15 - to have that blood pumped back regularly into their system when they are 65 and above? In theory, we could all instantly grow younger using our own blood. The elixir of life has been in us all along, albeit our younger selves.
But what about now, you ask. How can we reverse ageing now - never mind the utopian medical future. Well, there are plenty of scientific studies that have shown that diet, nutrition and regular exercise can actually do that.
Hiroyuki Murata, a professor at Tohoku University and CEO of Centre for Studies on Ageing Societies Japan, says that studies have shown that 30-minute exercises three times a week increase levels of a crucial protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), essential for maintaining healthy neurons and creating new ones. Regular exercise can actually make your brain function like that of a younger person and ward off Alzheimer's, accelerated ageing, neurotransmitter dysfunction, obesity, depression and schizophrenia.
In fact, regular exercise has proven to be more effective than a good balanced diet when it comes to longevity - which possibly explains why some active people can sometimes indulge in fast food while still remaining in excellent health.
Longevity also stems from one's attitudes and perspective towards ageing. Prof Murata, who was also in Singapore for the International Ageing Asia Innovation Forum, says: "In Japan, there has been a tremendous change in mentality towards ageing. In the past, people tended not to think about it. But with a rapidly ageing society and the number of people suffering from dementia and other age-related diseases, more older people have become more preventive-oriented, joining gyms and making exercise a regular priority to stay healthy.
"I expect that that phenomenon will soon happen in Singapore, considering you too have a growing silver population."
Secrets of Centenarians
Prof Murata says there are four key factors to "smart ageing". They are: healthy eating, regular exercise, steady brain stimulation and active socialisation.
Most recently, the Japan Gerontological Society submitted recommendations to the Japanese government to raise the age category of the elderly from 65 to 75. These recommendations are thought to be fair because comparative data show that the average 75-year-old Japanese today is as healthy as the average 65-year-old from about 25 years ago.
The Japan Gerontological Society thus recommends that elderly folk still continue to work in their 60s and early 70s. Prof Murata explains: "Work is crucial to our lives. Typically, senior citizens have three types of anxieties - worsening health, insufficient finances and isolation. Work actually kills three birds with one stone. By allowing them to work just three days a week, it would give them a little bit of money, keep them physically active, and keep them socially engaged with society."
In fact, many successful and happy centenarians such as doctor Leila Denmark who practised paediatry till 103, chess master Zoltan Sarosy who still played chess at 108, and art critic Gillo Dorfles who published a book at 103, have one thing in common: They liked what they did and continued to work past 100.
Prof Kim of Stanford laughs when he shares this anecdote: "I interviewed a woman once who was past 100. She had outlived two husbands but she was still very interested in men. So she was dating men who were in their 70s, but she had to lie to them about her age so that they didn't know she was 30 years older than them. She was still vain and still fussing over her looks. If I lived till 100, I wouldn't be fussing about my looks. But maybe that helps - a passion for living."
Tips for living longer:
Research on ageing has come a long way to show how you can stay healthy and happy for 100 years or more. Prof Stuart Kim of Stanford University says that living to 110 and beyond still requires exceptional genes. However, he and other experts agree that diet and exercise can add at least five to 10 years to your life. Here's some other advice.
In a nutshell, take daily five servings of fruit and vegetables daily, three servings of wholegrain foods, and two servings of dairy products. On top of that, take a serving of nuts every other day, oily fish every third day, and green tea, chocolate and red wine judiciously. Avoid sugary foods and processed food. Also, eat less than you have to. Dr Shuhei Kyo of Tokyo Metropolitan Geriatric Hospital and Institute of Gerontology quotes a Japanese saying: "Hara hachi bun me", or "Eat till your belly is 80 per cent full." In lab experiments, mice that were allowed to eat as much as they wanted died within two years.
Mice that were only allowed 70 per cent of their normal caloric intake prolonged their lives by 25 per cent. Other studies have also shown the benefits of fasting. Meanwhile, a study of the famous "Blue Zones" - places such as Okinawa, Sardinia and Loma Linda where people typically live till 100 - found that their diets consist mostly of plants, especially beans. They eat meat rarely and always in small portions. On the whole, they don't suffer from heart disease, obesity, cancer or diabetes. The phenomena lasted centuries until the arrival of fast food restaurants and supermarkets in some of these communities. Today, even the Okinawans have seen their life expectancy decline, possibly due to their changing diets.
It cannot be said enough: Regular exercise is key to a long life - perhaps even more so than all the other factors. Prof Hiroyuki Murata who heads Centre for Studies on Ageing Societies says that after 20, the body starts to age in different ways - yes, 20, not 40 or 50. And the best way to manage or reverse that is to stay physically active. But it is important to know what your body can withstand.
Extreme exercise can put unnecessary strain on your joints. So instead of jogging, many successful centenarians choose walking. Brisk walking can have the same cardiovascular benefits as running. But if you don't like walking, opt for cycling, swimming or even gardening. Incidentally, activities that involve socialising with other people such as dancing and badminton have dramatically positive. effects on mood and temperament. Just don't stay home and watch TV - that's exactly what the Grim Reaper wants you to do.
People who need people are the luckiest people in the world, so goes the song. But the song should clarify that they get to live longer too. Women outlive men by about five to 10 years, and 85 per cent of the world's centenarians are women. There are many competing genetic, scientific and social theories. But the famous psychology-based Terman study says that it has to do with women's ability to establish strong social and emotional ties with others. (Think for a moment how women are much better at remembering and celebrating birthdays and anniversaries.)
The study even found that men with some "feminine" qualities, such as sensitivity and understanding, had happier relationships with their wives and lived longer. ("Feminine" here is not used to connote sexual orientation but personality traits.) "Masculine men" and "masculine women" died sooner than "feminine women" and "feminine men". Divorced men who stayed divorced had the highest risk of premature mortality.
Believe it or not, conscientiousness is perhaps the most important personality trait that could help you extend your life. A groundbreaking 80-year longitudinal study led by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman tracked 1,500 people born around 1910 and tested them over the course of their lives on a range of traits, from cheerfulness and optimism, to ambition and religiousness. The study found that many of these qualities had no bearing on longevity, except one - conscientiousness. Conscientious people were simply more responsible with their lives.
They put on seatbelts when they drove, took the medication that their doctors gave them, planned their finances carefully, and tried to be good and fair to others. Contrary to popular belief, cheerful people died earlier than the conscientious or even fastidious people. Whether these conscientious people were married or single, religious or atheists, shy or outgoing, their longevity was consistent across the board.
Article first published on BusinessTimes