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Centenarians: Genetics or lifestyle?

To qualify as a centenarian, you must have lived for at least one whole century and super centenarians are people who have made it to 110 years or more. Currently, statistics say that only about one in 6000 people reach 100 years of age and about one in seven million will live to see their 110th birthday. Does this unusual extension of life have a genetic component or is it lifestyle related? By studying and interviewing centenarians and super centenarians, researchers have come up with a few clues that could help answer those questions.


While it’s true that there is a genetic component associated with living a longer life, a Boston University study suggests that genetics only plays a partial role in longevity. The genetic make-up in centenarians tends to partially account for things like less cardio-vascular disease in advanced age, a reduced tendency toward obesity, and better mental function. Still, gerontologists say that genetics is only about 20-30% responsible for living an extended life. The rest is purely environmental.

Beneficial habits of the extremely elderly

Genetics aside, many centenarians and super centenarians have some very interesting commonalities concerning lifestyle.

  • Brain exercise. Keeping mental faculties in working order is very important to a person’s ability to age well. Many centenarians are cognizant of the fact that they must exercise their brain in order to preserve and optimize mental functioning. The majority read, do crossword puzzles, take classes, or do other activities that keep neural connections growing and firing.
  • Physical exercise. It’s a well-known fact that physical exercise adds to a person’s wellbeing. This fact is confirmed in the lives of many centenarians. People living past the century mark are able to do so, in part, by engaging in physical activity that is instrumental in keeping their muscles somewhat toned, their joints flexible, and their bones strong and healthy.
  • Stress. One of the most interesting findings among studies done on centenarians is that they are masters at handling life’s stressful situations. Because they handle stress well, centenarians have been found to be less likely to succumb to life-limiting habits such as heavy smoking or excessive alcohol consumption. Some of the ways centenarians naturally deal with stress is through refining and applying spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation, as well as staying socially and emotionally connected to friends and loved ones.
  • Nutrition. Another significant finding was that centenarians generally maintain good general health and are rarely obese. Some are actually underweight. They tend toward diets that are high in fruits and vegetables and consume small amounts of meat, if any at all. Their diets are high in vitamin and mineral content, but low in fat and calories.

Although there is not a set formula for living past the century mark, researchers agree that good genetics, and perhaps even more important, wise lifestyle choices can have an enormous effect on the length of a person’s lifespan, as well as the quality thereof.


Living to 100: Lessons in Living To Your Maximum Potential at Any Age. TT. Perls, MH. Silver, 1st edition, Basic Books, New York, NY, 1999

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