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100 Not Out
Oliver Moor

To many, the idea of being very, very old is, in many ways, quite frightening. The image is one of decay and disease, of senility and incontinence and cancer. Most people, when asked, would say that they certainly would not want to live to be one hundred years old, as the likelihood of having an good quality of life is pretty small. Yet there are those who do wish for it. Some – particularly in the US – are taking steps to extend their lives, by following long-term dietary and exercise regimes.  

This seems, at first glance, misguided. Most doctors agree that deciding to live to be a hundred is not a realistic goal. Whether you live that long is largely out of your hands, and even if you are born with the right genetic makeup there isn’t much chance you’ll make it. Currently there are a hundred thousand centenarians in the world, which, out of a population of six billion, gives you a 1 in 60,000 chance of getting there. And, although in the US and Europe, the 100 Club is the fastest growing sector of the population in percentage terms (by 2050 there will be two million in the US alone), you might think twice before wishing that you could join it. Could it really be worth it? 

Surprisingly, yes. Many centenarians do, in fact, live have a good quality of life. Quite a few are independent (about 15% live by themselves). A high proportion of them live with their extended families. Many are in good health. So what is their secret? Is there really much you can do to extend your life to a hundred or more years? How would you do it? What about money? What about loneliness? What about your health? 

Actually, if you’re worrying about things like that already, the chances are you definitely won’t get there. A study by two Harvard professors in 1999 found that centenarians, as a group, are able to handle their worries. Being able to “roll with the punches” is very much a trait amongst them: many are holocaust survivors, who seem to have been able to take even the most devastating losses in their stride. Put simply, they “process it and move on”, and are often remarkable in their ability to think positively. Most centenarians do not suffer decades of ill-health either, but usually have had lives which have largely been illness-free. Even senility is not an absolute given: at least 21% of centenarians have suffered no form of mental decay at all, and some surveys have shown that this figure is as high as 40%.  

Your chances of making it to a hundred are also greatly reduced if you are unfortunate enough to be a man. 85% of hundred-year-olds are women – so at least if you are a man you’ll have plenty to choose from. The men who do make it to a hundred are generally in (relatively) spectacular condition. Centenarians don’t generally smoke (although some do, notably Madame Calment, who died at 122 and who gave up cigarettes at 116). Neither do they worry incessantly about their diets. Most have a dietary “secret to a long life” – a glass of port, eating a boiled egg every day, or something like that, but there is no evidence to suggest that this really has much effect. The secret is mainly having come from a family with a history of long life. 

However, if you are determined to try for your telegram from the Queen -- or probably King by that time -- there are some things you might do. Calorie restriction, which entails reducing your calorific intake to an absolute minimum very gradually (over a period of four to seven years) may have an effect. The idea, apparently proven in primates, is that by eating very small amounts of vitamin-rich foods, aging can be markedly reduced and life span extended -- according to Brian Delaney, of Infinitefaculty, by as much as forty years. It is a particularly tough regime, and one which is certainly not for everybody.  Natural Hygiene is another option. This means eating raw vegetables and fruit only, and avoiding all animal products, wheat, and anything that needs to be cooked. It also requires occasional fasting, in order (to use the phrase de jour) to “clear out the toxins”. By a combination of these, and similar regimes, some doctors believe that the human lifespan can be extended to over 140 years. 

But surely this is not in keeping with the centenarian spirit? It all sounds very healthy, but somewhat joyless. Most centenarians did not start out by wanting, particularly, to be a hundred. They got there by accident rather than through planning. Most would agree that having a positive frame of mind and, above all, enjoying life is far more beneficial than rigorous dietary plans. So perhaps this is what you should be concentrating on instead of worrying the whole time. Then at least you’ll have had a good life. If you get to the big 100, well, congratulations. If you don’t, too bad.

© Oliver Moor 2001

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