Meanwhile: Do you really want to live to be 100?

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By Michael Johnson Published: July 16, 2007
BORDEAUX: The stakes have just been raised. No longer is it enough to stretch your life expectancy to some vague horizon. Now you are expected to strive for 100, and adjust your life to get there.

I was at a dinner party recently where four of the guests had just taken a longevity test on the Internet and were arguing over their scores. One chic 50ish Frenchwoman claimed victory with her estimated checkout age as 102. The reset of us sheepishly acknowledged defeat.

These tests are tapping in to a new competitive urge to reach 100 and still have your marbles. How-to books, Web sites and geriatric clinics are proliferating as life expectancy grows.

The number of American 100-year-olds has been doubling about every 10 years since the 1950s, according to researchers at the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University. There are 80,000 American centenarians alive today, and the U.S. Census Bureau predicts near 500,000 by the year 2040.

In Britain, Queen Elizabeth sends letters to each new British centenarian. She totaled 255 letters when she became queen in 1952; last year her staff wrote 4,623 for her to sign.
What is really pushing up the numbers in the developed world is the drop in mortality from infectious diseases, improved geriatric medical care, and higher income levels that mean better food. Now 100 is starting to look like an attainable goal for more people.

To establish your likely longevity, the Web-based questionnaires ask obvious questions like, “How much processed (junk) food to you eat?” “How much alcohol and tobacco do you consume?” “How much exercise do you take?” On the subject of general outlook, one question finally gets to the heart of the matter, “Are you dreading your older years?”

Which leads to a troubling question: Do you really want to live to be 100? Welcome to 100 years of aches and pains. Personally, I can barely stand looking in the mirror and I’m more than 30 years away from 100. God only knows what I would look like at 100.

Doctors have a long list of tips for getting to 100, most of them involving effort and abstention – stop being a couch potato, keep busy, eat oaty things and do slow-motion exercises like tai chi.

Dr. Thomas Perls, a director of the New England study, says the human body should be sufficiently robust to last about 85 years but baby boomers, now reaching their 60s, have done “a terrible job preparing for old age.” As a group, they tend to go for high-fat diets, excessive drinking and smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.

His study has produced a long list of characteristics that members of the 100 Club share: good longevity genes, emotional resilience, good coping skills, intellectual activity, a sense of humor and a zest for life. Optimists live longer, he adds. Oh yes, it also helps to be female, 80 percent of centenarians are women.
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