How long do you think you’ll live? Seventy years? Seventy-five? Most Americans don’t see themselves living all that long past retirement age—and why would they want to, anyway? Old age is often thought of as a drag, a tedious and unpleasant slide into sickness. Even if everybody could make it to 100, would they want to?
“For years, we’ve heard this myth: The older you get, the sicker you get,” says Dr. Thomas Perls, a specialist in aging and longevity. “And at some point, we’re all going to have to recognize that it’s just not true.”
Perls has devoted much of his career to busting old-age canards, a specialty he developed while conducting a study on centenarians—people over 100 years old. Over the course of the study, Perls found that although many of the centenarians had age-related diseases, they were handling them much better than the average senior. Looking over the patients’ histories, Perls discovered that, by and large, the centenarians had taken excellent care of themselves throughout their lives, remaining healthy and independent even into their 90s. So he coined a new adage: The older you get, the healthier you’ve been.
“We should take an enabling and positive view of aging,” Perls says, “because most Americans generally have the genetic makeup, the blueprint, to live at least into their late 80s. It just depends on what they do with that blueprint.”
After developing his hypothesis about our bodies’ potential for a healthy old age, Perls decided to launch a new study to confirm his theories, this time focusing on Seventh Day Adventists. According to the dictates of their religion, Adventists are forbidden to smoke, drink, or eat meat, and they are encouraged to exercise regularly and pray frequently. (For believers, prayer often relieves stress.) And almost all of them live into their 80s and 90s.
The Adventists’ astonishing longevity was made even more intriguing by disparate genetics. As a group, they are geographically and ethnically heterogeneous; in other words, they don’t have any obvious genetic predisposition to longevity. That fact seems to contradict another common myth: that only people with certain protective genes can live an extremely long life.
“Many people assume that without those protective genes, we don’t have a good shot at longevity,” Perls says. “But the Adventist study shows that that’s just not true.”
Of course, having protective genes—as about 15 to 20 percent of us do—certainly helps. Most of the centenarians Perls studied had these genes, which help to block cancer, heart disease, and other common health pitfalls. These genes allow the centenarians to live generally rotten lifestyles—lots of junk food, little exercise—without a significant toll on their health.
Yet the centenarians had another surprise in store: In addition to protective genes, many also had bad genes. Previously, researchers had assumed that longevity required a lack of these genes, which put people at greater risk of disease and illness. But it turns out that the mere presence of protective genes is enough to get us into our 90s and beyond. In response to this finding, scientists are currently looking for a way to synthesize these genes and bring their benefits to the rest of the population.
For now, though, what can Americans do to maximize our genes’ potential? Perls suggests that taking simple actions every day can have a major impact on our later years. Smoking is off the table, naturally, and junk food should be minimized. Regular exercise is, predictably, a must, as are relaxation and rejuvenation. And those of us with health problems in the family—cancer, heart disease, even high cholesterol—should be particularly mindful to see a doctor for regular checkups. If we follow these simple steps and maximize our genetic blueprint, there’s no reason most of us can’t live healthy lives well into our 80s.
But that possibility presents another problem: How many of us are prepared to live that long?
“When people are planning financially, I sincerely doubt they believe they’ll live 20 or 30 years beyond the age of 60,” says Perls. “And that’s reason to worry.”
Perls believes that as baby boomers zip past retirement age, many will run unexpectedly low on finances, creating a strain on themselves, their families, and society as a whole. He’s even created a tool to help people calculate their likely lifespan in the hopes of waking them up to their longevity potential.
“We’re a healthier society than we’ve ever been,” Perls notes, “and the baby boomer population has a good chance of reaching their maximum longevity potential. But they’re going to need to start planning for it now.”