How to Live Long and Healthy

90+

Helen Weil, 92, and Henry Tornell, 94 (CBS NEWS from 60 Minutes segment on “Living to 90 and Beyond”)

Until recently, very little was known about what it takes to live well into our 90s. That’s because there weren’t many people that old to study, and because records were sparse about their diet and lifestyle. But today men and women above the age of 90 have become the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, and there’s new research that helps explain why. 

What can we do now to live long and healthy?

Finding out was the goal of a new research study known as “90+,” which was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment on Living to 90 and Beyond.  The breakthrough came from new insights from a group of seniors who decades ago all lived in a retirement community called Leisure World. It’s now a small city called Laguna Woods, and Dr. Claudia Kawas spends a lot of time there. She’s a neurologist and professor at nearby UC Irvine. What she found in old Leisure World files was the research equivalent of gold — the detailed medical records of some 1,400 residents dating back to 1981. Given the age of residents then, she assumed many would today be in their 90s and possibly make for a valuable study group, and she got a $6M grant from NIH to do that.

The 13 minute video below is the entire segment, followed by highlights from my notes.

  • Exercise, including mental exercise and maintaining social connections was an important factor, and any kind or amount seemed to help, although 45 minutes of moderate exercise spread out over the day seemed best.
  • Diet seemed to have little influence, and most paid no attention to what they ate.
  • Vitamins also had almost no impact. They found no correlation between any of the vitamins taken and longevity.
  • Alcohol & coffee in moderation (2-3 services per day) seemed to help.
  • Moderate weight gain actually helped, but not to the point of obesity. The point was to maintain a healthy weight.
  • High blood pressure in the elderly seemed to actually help, which goes against traditional thinking.
  • Sex was a factor, but it wasn’t clear if regular sex caused a more active lifestyle, or the more active lifestyle led to more sex. Either way, a likely contributor to longevity was having a positive attitude.
  • Dementia risk generally doubles every 5 years, but studies of donated brains from study subjects after they passed away showed no expected connection between the accumulation of amyloid plaques and tangles around neurons in the brain and dementia. One brain sample of a person who died from Alzheimer’s showed absolutely no buildup of plaques, while samples from people who died from other causes showed significant buildup. Using new MRI techniques, they even examined the brains of living subjects with no signs of dementia, and about half showed plaque accumulation while half didn’t. This again goes against traditional thinking.
  • Unnoticeable mini strokes, and the resulting accumulation  of micro infarctions (tissue death), were found to be cause of death in one subject, which caused me to perk up and wonder about the role of light, melatonin production and sleep. Melatonin, which is produced by the pineal gland at night in darkness, is an important molecule for regulating the circadian rhythm (biological clock), but it’s also a very powerful antioxidant that can be effective in preventing tissue death during a stroke.