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I’m A Healthy Aging Expert: This Is The Biggest Myth About Longevity

Common illnesses like heart disease and arthritis occur increasingly later in life. Today, people are two and a half times likelier than a century ago to enter their 60s without any chronic illnesses. Older people are healthier and more vigorous than ever before, and disability and disease rates are going down.

Thomas Perls, M.D., MPH who started and now oversees the world’s largest study of centenarians and their families, the New England Centenarian Study, is a friend from my postgraduate days at Harvard, when we shared an office suite in an old brick building above one of my favorite diners. We bonded quickly when I learned that he decided to become a geriatrician after reading Robert Butler’s seminal book on aging and ageism, Why Survive? Being Old in America.

In his groundbreaking work, Perls discovered a pattern that he hopes will refute the ageist idea that the older you get, the sicker you get. Instead, what he has found is that “the older you get, the healthier you have been.” He explains, “That’s what we’re seeing with the centenarians. To live to older ages, you can’t have been sick for a period of time. You have to age slowly or escape the age-related diseases.”

In one study, Perls found that 90% of centenarians were functionally independent in their 90s–meaning they lived their days without any help whatsoever. “The centenarians I have met with have with few exceptions reported that their 90s were essentially problem-free. As nonagenarians, many were employed, sexually active, and enjoyed the outdoors and the arts.”

Most supercentenarians (those over the age of 110) were living on their own at 100, and few had diabetes or vascular-related diseases, including hypertension. Similarly, in a recent study 330 Dutch centenarians demonstrated preserved abilities in a range of cognitive tasks including listing animals beginning with a certain letter and not getting distracted when working toward a goal.

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