Opinion

Extreme longevity – progress or worrisome prospect? | Gustafson

Alexander Imich is officially the oldest man alive. A few weeks ago he turned 111, still living independently in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He is not the currently longest-living human, though. He was surpassed  by 66 women, including the eldest, Misao Okawa, a 116-year-old lady from Japan, as recently reported by the New York Times. But despite the noteworthiness of these examples, extreme longevity is no longer a rare exception but is becoming a growing trend.

According to the most recent data collected by the Census Bureau, over 53,000 people are now 100 years and older in the United States alone.

The “oldest old” – those who are 90 and beyond – are the fastest expanding segment of the U.S. population. Today there are nearly two million nonagenarians. That number will likely increase to 10 to 12 million by mid-century, a prospect that raises multiple concerns in terms of healthcare and retirement issues.

A study titled “90+,” conducted by the University of California, Irvine and sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), has followed this demographic since 2003. As reported by 60 Minutes, the news magazine on CBS, it is the largest study on the subject of old age to date, and includes clinical, pathological, and genetic research, involving more than 1,600 participants.

While the study is still ongoing, it has already produced some surprising results. For example, putting on a little extra weight late in life does not as much harm as previously thought and may even have some benefits. Eating right is still important, but adding more nutrients, e.g. by taking vitamin supplements, seems to have no noticeable effects. On the other hand, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol and coffee can indeed promote healthy aging and increase longevity, the researchers found.

Mental health, however, is less assured, no matter what action is taken. Over 40 percent of nonagenarians suffer from dementia, and about half of those are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The causes are not fully understood yet, but experts say that lack of physical activity may be a contributing factor. Naturally, most 90-year-olds do not or are not able to exercise rigorously.

What we learn from the longest living among us is that they generally make healthy diet and lifestyle choices, but they don’t obsess over them. Education, access to healthcare, and standard of living are clearly important components, but so are good marriages, friendships, and an active social life. Purpose and meaningful work also play a role. Communities, neighborhoods, and even climatic and geographic differences seem to contribute to longevity. In other words, it is not one thing or set of rules people who age well live by – but usually a whole package that fulfills their needs and lets them thrive over long periods of time.

We are witnessing an extraordinary growth of aging populations throughout the world, and the current trends will likely accelerate in the future. How we handle the challenges that come with longer life expectancy, demographic changes, age-related disease, and many others, depends on how well we understand the natural aging process and meet its demands. Extending the human life span further and further, just because our medical and pharmaceutical advances enable us to do so, may not be the best way to go – it may not even be the right way.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian and  newspaper columnist.

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