Discovering The Fountain Of Youth: Living Well Into Your 90s

We're all looking for the fountain of youth. It's right in front of our eyes. Not only do we want to live to a ripe old age, but we also want to do so while maintaining our vigor and health. What good is it to live longer but be in failing health and homebound?
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We're all looking for the fountain of youth. It's right in front of our eyes.

Not only do we want to live to a ripe old age, but we also want to do so while maintaining our vigor and health. What good is to live longer but be in failing health and homebound?

More than half of those born today will live to be 100. In the United States today, two million people are in their 90s and that's predicted to grow to 10 to 12 million by the middle of the century. Researchers say even a person in their 50s today has a good chance of reaching their 90s by taking care of themselves.

We're getting some answers from people who've lived that long to help the rest of us get there. It's part of a study by University of California-Irvine, which launched its 90+ study in 2003 to learn more about this fastest growing age group in the nation and will continue for another four years from nearly $30 million in grants from the National Institute on Aging.

"We used to virtually have nobody who lived to be 90 and 100 years old," says Claudia Kawas, a geriatric neurologist and professor of neurology and neurobiology and behavior who's co-directing the project at the Clinic for Aging Research & Education in Laguna Woods, CA. "President Nixon used to send a card to everyone in the US who had their 100th birthday. It was so few that the President would personally sign them -- that's not an option anymore."

So how are people living longer than we used to in the United States?

"Do what your mother told you do," Kawas says in espousing a healthy diet to keep waistlines down, as well as exercise, no smoking and socialization.

"We want to live full lives and not be disabled and frail," adds Dana Greenia, a clinical research administrator on the project. "I think you should do the basics of what we learned in kindergarten. Eat healthy foods, exercise, read and keep the brain active and socialize. Don't be depressed. Try to be happy. If depression comes into play, get treatment and do what it takes to get to a happy place."

The study has its origins from a questionnaire of 14,000 people in a Southern California retirement community in 1981. It's been updated by contacting those in that group who were still alive and documenting what happened to those who already died.

"I really believe that when we learn things from the 90-year-olds that's going to help the 60- and 70-year-olds not just know how to become 90-year-olds, but how to do it with style and as good a function as possible," Kawas says.

Kawas says she expected to find that exercise was associated with living longer. It doesn't have to be everyday, and it doesn't have to be vigorous exercise, she says. On average, 15 minutes was best to see mortality benefits compared to those who don't. Researchers say it can be any form of exercise from walking, running, swimming and even gardening.

"Thirty minutes was better and 45 minutes a day was the best, but after that it didn't seem to matter. Three hours a day didn't do any better than 45 minutes a day. And it didn't all have to be at once," Kawas says.

What the research of more than 1,600 participants found dispels some popular notions. One is that vitamin supplements don't matter in helping people live longer, Kawas says.

"Vitamin E was one of our favorite things because it was popular, and they said it might be useful in dementia and a powerful anti-oxidant. They thought it would be related to good things in aging, but in our study it just doesn't seem to be related to anything except maybe expensive urine," Kawas says.

As for what people should weigh, Kawas says that depends on how old they are. The study dispels the myth that people should keep the weight off their entire lives.

What the study shows, she says, is being overweight is bad when you're younger, especially in your 50s and 60s, but it becomes neutral in your 70s and protective of your health in your 80s and 90s. There's a similar result for blood pressure.

"We learn about what's optimal and we study 50 and 60 year olds and then we pretend that whatever we learned for a 50 or 60 year old is the same for an 80 year old or 90 year old and that's an error," Kawas says. "The optimal blood pressure and optimal weight when you're 50 and 60 is lower than the optimal blood pressure or weight for an 80 or 90 year old."

That information reinforces the notion that "old people aren't just bad versions of young people," Kawas says. An infant needs to have a different diet than a five year old. Illnesses that a toddler has are different than the illnesses that an adolescent has.

"We understand at one end of the life spectrum that age matters. It matters if you're 2 months, 2 years or 12 years what you're going to get, how we should treat you and the dosage levels for medication," Kawas says. "We never acted like it matters after that, but age matters all the way through."

The reason higher weight appears to be good in those older because it helps fight infection and it also appears to provide food for the brain as we age, Kawas says. Higher blood pressure is acceptable in older people because it helps push the blood throughout the body and brain when the circulation system isn't as clean as when we're young, she says.

Some of the surprises in the study show that a couple of cups of coffee a day, in essence taking in caffeine, and taking in a moderate amount of alcohol a day are both associated with longer life. Researchers, however, aren't suggesting those who don't drink to start now.

"You always run the risk in an observational study like this that it has nothing to do with caffeine or alcohol but it has to do with something else," Kawas says. "In those examples, maybe it's not that alcohol or caffeine that's fabulous for you but maybe socializing is fabulous for you and maybe the people who drink alcohol and coffee are more like to get out of their house and socialize."

Kawas says the one disappointing aspect of the study she hoped would happen is the risk of dementia would ultimately decrease with age. Even if society rid itself of Alzheimer's, dementia would be prevalent, she says.

The study shows that more than 40 percent of people 90 and older suffer from dementia and that almost 80 percent are disabled. The conditions are more common in women.

"I'm not convinced yet that it's inevitable but what I am convinced that it's very high and unfortunately it's higher for a 100 year old than it is for a 95 year old, and it's higher than 95 year old than 90 year old, and higher for a 90 year old than anyone else," Kawas says. "Age continues to be the strongest risk factor for dementia."

A lack of exercise increases the risk of dementia, but people should also exercise their brain, which is vital for longer life and staying mentally alert as long as possible, Kawas says. People, however, need to broaden their notions about brain exercise, she says.

Doing the crossword puzzles for the 500th time is probably less valuable than the first the ten times you do the crossword puzzles, Kawas says. She encourages people to l learn new things for stimulation.

"It doesn't have to be a cognitive exercise like a puzzle," Kawas says. "Social engagement in going to talking to people, going to a museum, learning new things and going to see a play all those count just as much. Social engagement is worth more than a crossword puzzle in terms of value. Don't be isolated. Be with people."

For more information about the study and to participate in studies, go to

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