PUMPING IRONY: Centenarian Strategies

A new study out of Sweden offers a prescription for aspiring centenarians, but I doubt we have that much control over how long we’re going to stay vertical.

My maternal grandfather lived to a fine old age — 93 or 94, as I recall — and now I know why he didn’t make it to 100, and why the odds might be against me getting there — at least according to a bunch of Swedes.

  1. He loved a good cigar (but smoked mostly cheap ones)
  2. He never owned his own home (he was a poor sharecropping farmer)
  3. His mother died at a relatively young age (or, at least I assume so; he never saw her after he left home at the age of 6)
  4. He probably drank too much coffee (he enjoyed his whiskey, too)

His cholesterol was probably too high, also, but I’m not sure the whole cholesterol thing ever came up, as I suspect he rarely visited a doctor until he hit his 90s.

The Centenarian Study

I’m thinking of Grandpa Winters today — and aspiring centenarians everywhere — after reading about researchers at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden who tracked hundreds of locals born in 1913 to determine the keys to extreme longevity. The study followed 855 Gothenberg men for more than a half century, surveying them on their lifestyle choices several times over the years. Ten of these fellows were still kicking in 2013, and the study’s lead author Lars Wilhelmsen and his colleagues found that these geezers shared a number of specific characteristics that may have contributed to their long life.

“The unique design [of the survey] has enabled us to identify the factors that influence survival after the age of 50,” Wilhelmsen told the Scandinavian Cardiovascular Journal. “Our recommendation for people who aspire to centenarianism is to refrain from smoking, maintain healthy cholesterol levels and confine themselves to four cups of coffee a day.’

It apparently also helps if your mother lived a long life, an old genetic gambit that surfaces now and then in these sorts of studies. But it may not be as important as it’s made out to be. “Our findings that there is a correlation with maternal but not paternal longevity are fully consistent with previous studies,” Wilhelmsen explained. “Given that the same associations have been demonstrated in Hawaii, the genetic factor appears to be a strong one.” But, he added, this factor was weaker than the behavioral choices.

I’m not sure where I stand on the whole genetics thing. The Saint Who Was My Mother died at the age of 82, a couple of years after undergoing what I’ll always contend was an ill-advised surgical procedure. TSWWMM might have rolled easily into her 90s and beyond. So does that mean I’ve got centenarian-quality DNA? When combined with my non-smoking, home-owning, tea-loving lifestyle, that should keep me vertical and sucking oxygen for another 37 years or so, if Wilhelmsen’s data is to be trusted. I’ve even got a little Swede in me.

That’s why I love these studies; they give hope to galoots like me who want to believe they’re doing everything they’re supposed to be doing to widen the distance between today and the day when there’s no tomorrow. But, of course, it’s all a bunch of hooey. Grandpa Winters lived as long as he did because he lived as long as he did. There was no intention, no formula, no strategy. The old farmer just did what he did and hoped for the best.

We all know better than that today. There are prescriptions and workout routines and longevity diets and stress-management plans. Maybe all that will help us all live longer; maybe it won’t. Fact is, none of us knows what’s going to trip us up on the road to forever. In the end, it seems to me that we’re more like the old farmer than we may want to admit: just doing what we do and hoping for the best.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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