Six surprising secrets of super-agers

With the holidays just around the corner, I’ve begun to see all the silly TV segments on the morning talk shows about how to “get away” with making low-fat gravy and “skinny” cocktails.

Why such extreme measures?

As I always advise, moderation in all things will serve you well. Even around the holidays. Plus, a major study shows that body weight, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and smoking have nothing to do with extended longevity.

“Bad” lifestyle habits don’t affect great longevity

Just think of how well Winston Churchill lived. He was almost never without a glass of whiskey or cognac and a cigar. And his motto was, “never run when you can walk, never walk when you can stand still, never stand when you can sit, and never sit when you can lie down.” Winston actively worked during the Boer War, WW I, and WW II as well as through post-war peace and reconstruction. He suffered a stroke in the 1950s, recovered, and lived to age 91.

The major study I mentioned bears out Churchill’s approach to life. It compared data on “super-agers” to “average-agers.”

The so-called super-agers came from a cohort of 477 Ashkenazi Jews, known to have exceptional longevity. The population descended from a founder population in the 15th century, estimated to have numbered in the tens of thousands. Most of the Jews included in the study were born in the U.S. or moved here before or during WW II. And they were ages 95 and older at the study’s outset. The so-called average-agers came from a sample of 3,164 Americans who participated in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Survey.

Researchers found that roughly the same percentage of super-agers and average-agers were overweight and/or had a high BMI (body mass index). Why is that finding important? Well, it means having a higher BMI or carrying extra weight did not adversely affect longevity. And on the flip side, super-agers didn’t add their extra years by maintaining super small waistlines.

Plus, when the researchers looked specifically at women, the lifetime prevalence of being overweight was actually higher in women with extended longevity. And here again, this finding means that women who live into very old age were more likely to be “overweight.” (Or at least “overweight” by U.S. government health standards. Though, you have to question whether the standard is right if all these super-agers were “overweight.”)

The results about smoking and drinking turned in similar outcomes…

More smoking, more drinking, and less exercise linked to longer life

Turns out, 60 percent of the male super-agers smoked during their lifetimes. In fact, men with extended longevity reported an average of 34 years of smoking with an average of 14 cigarettes per day. The smoking rates were similar in the extended lifespan population and in the normal population sample.

When it came to alcohol consumption, a higher percentage of long-lived men reported consuming alcohol daily compared to the average population sample.

When it came to exercise, just 43 percent of long-lived men reported regular exercise of moderate intensity, which was lower than that of the average population sample.

There were also no differences in diet. Super-agers and average-agers had a similar percentage reporting low-fat, low-calorie, or non-meat diets.

So let’s look at the big picture here…

Among the super-agers, more women were heavier, more men drank alcohol daily, and most men were smokers. So, none of the government’s staunch health recommendations seem to affect or even improve extended longevity.

The long-lived themselves said their longevity was due to “good genes,” family history, a positive mental attitude, busy active lives, good luck, and religion or spirituality.

One more thing…

Diet makes a difference

Virtually all the super-agers attributed their own longevity to a “healthy diet.”

But remember, these 100-year-olds have a different definition of a “healthy diet” than millennial vegans. If they were anything like all of my own grandparents and great-grandparents (of whom five made it to almost 100), a healthy diet included plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, soups, salads, as well as healthy dairy, meats, and seafood. They avoided, or simply didn’t have, packaged “foods.” But they didn’t restrict caloric intake.

By the time the government came along with its bad advice to avoid cholesterol, saturated fats, eggs, meat and seafood, these adults had already formed their lifelong dietary habits. And they still had a good dose of common sense.

Family history is also important, but not just in the obvious genetic terms.

Yes, families pass along genes. But they also pass along attitudes, behaviors and lifestyles. As well as character and values. Many studies over the years found that brothers and sisters of people older than 100 years were eight to 17 times more likely to reach the age of 100 themselves. And parents of people with exceptional longevity were more likely to have lived to the age of 90 or 100. Children of long-lived people also have lower rates of chronic diseases.

And for that population of Ashkenazi Jews, they saw their children grow up to pursue higher education, become professionals, and find success in America.

Longevity is not all about the genes. As this study found, people with extended longevity seem to possess as many “risky” genes associated with high disease risk as the general population.

The mainstream never seems to consider excessive stress, the real “risk factor” hiding behind most diseases. And, of course, moderate drinking and even some light smoking probably help offset the silent killer of stress.

So this holiday season, live like a super-ager and follow these six secrets:

  1. Don’t worry so much about the number on the scale. Instead, eat like your grandparents did with a balanced diet filled with fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, seafood, eggs, and nuts.
  2. Go ahead and enjoy alcohol in moderation.
  3. Exercise — but only in moderation.
  4. If you smoke cigarettes, keep it to less than a half a pack a day. Or enjoy a cigar once in a while. The FDA’s own latest research shows there is no risk to smoking a cigar.
  5. Keep a positive outlook on life by seeking spiritual enrichment or practicing mindfulness meditation.
  6. Stay active socially by spending time with your family or joining a dinner club or book club.

Most of all, enjoy life!


“Lifestyle factors of people with exceptional longevity,” J Am Geriatr Soc 2011; 59(8): 1509-1512