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The Surprising Secrets to Living Longer - And Better

The Surprising Secrets to Living Longer - And Better
From TIME - February 15, 2018

Old age demands to be taken very seriouslyand it usually gets its way. Its hard to be cavalier about a time of life defined by loss of vigor, increasing frailty, rising disease risk and falling cognitive faculties. Then theres the unavoidable matter of the end of consciousness and the selfdeath, in other wordsthats drawing closer and closer. Its the rare person who can confront the final decline with flippancy or ease. That, as it turns out, might be our first mistake.

Humans are not alone in facing the ultimate reckoning, but were the only speciesas far as we knowwho spends its whole life knowing death is coming. A clam dredged from the ocean off Iceland in 2006and inadvertently killed by the scientists who discovered itcarried growth lines on its shell indicating it had been around since 1499. That was enough time for 185,055 generations of mayflywhich live as little as a dayto come and go. Neither clam nor fly gave a thought to that mortal math.

Humans fall somewhere between those two extremes. Globally, the average life span is 71.4 years; for a few lucky people, it may exceed 100 years. It has never, to sciences knowledge, exceeded the 122 years, 164 days lived by Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who was born when Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House and died when Bill Clinton lived there.

Most of us would like a little bit of that Calment magic, and weve made at least some progress. Life expectancy in the U.S. exceeds the global average, clocking in at just under 79 years. In 1900, it was just over 47 years. The extra decades came courtesy of just the things youd expect: vaccines, antibiotics, sanitation and improved detection and treatment of a range of diseases. Advances in genetics and in our understanding of dementia are helping to extend our factory warranties still further.

None of that, however, changes the way we contemplate the end of lifeoften with anxiety and asceticism, practicing a sort of existential bartering. We can narrow our experiences and give up indulgences in exchange for a more guardedly lived life that might run a little longer.

But what if we could take off some of that bubble wrap? What about living longer and actually having some fun? A Yale University study just this month found that in a group of 4,765 people with an average age of 72, those who carried a gene variant linked to dementiabut also had positive attitudes about agingwere 50% less likely to develop the disorder than people who carried the gene but faced aging with more pessimism or fear.

There may be something to be said then for aging less timidlyas a sort of happy contrarian, arguing when you feel like arguing, playing when you feel like playing. Maybe you want to pass up the quiet of the country for the churn of a city. Maybe you want to drink a little, eat a rich meal, have some sex.

The most important advice we offer people about longevity is, Throw away your lists,' says Howard Friedman, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and co-author of The Longevity Project. We live in a self-help society full of lists: lose weight, hit the gym. So why arent we all healthy? People who live a long time can work hard and play hard. Under the right circumstances, it increasingly seems, so could all of us.

Marie Ashdown, 90, has lived in New York City for nearly 60 years, in an apartment on the east side of Manhattan. New York has beaten down younger people than her, but Ashdown, executive director of the Musicians Emergency Fund, loves city life. I have a fire in my belly, she says. Theres not one minute of the day that I dont learn.

As a classical-music connoisseur, Ashdown organizes two concerts a year at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. When shes not working, she takes weekend trips outside of the city, and spends her free time binding old books. Like many New Yorkers several decades her junior, she often orders takeout rather than bother with cooking. We have the best and worst here, says Ashdown. We learn to cope, live on the defensive and conquer fear.

Shes hardly the only senior who loves city living. In the U.S., 80% of people ages 65 and older are now living in metropolitan areas, and according to the World Health Organization, by 2030, an estimated 60% of all people will live in citiesmany of them over age 60. You may lose a little sidewalk speed and have to work harder to get up and down subway stairs, but cities increasingly rank high on both doctors and seniors lists of the best places to age gracefully.

Every year, the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging (CFA) ranks the best metropolitan places for successful aging, and most years, major cities sweep the top 10 spots. No wonder: cities tend to have strong health systems, opportunities for continued learning, widespread public transportation and an abundance of arts and culture. Thats not to say that people cant feel isolated or lonely in cities, but you can get lonely in a country cottage too. In cities, the cure can be just outside your door.

We all long to bump into each other, says Paul Irving, the chairman of the Milken Institute CFA. The ranges of places where this can happen in cities tend to create more options and opportunities.

Its that aspectthe other-people aspectthat may be the particularly challenging for some, especially as we age and families disperse. But there are answers: a 2017 study in the journal Personal Relationships found that it can be friends, not family, who matter most. The study looked at 270,000 people in nearly 100 countries and found that while both family and friends are associated with happiness and better health, as people aged, the health link remained only for people with strong friendships.

[While] in a lot of ways, relationships with friends had a similar effect as those with family, says William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University and the author of the study, in others, they surpassed them.

If the primacy of family has been oversold as a key to long life, so has the importance of avoiding conflict or emotional upset. Shouting back at cable news is no way to spend your golden years, but passion, its turning out, may be more life-sustaining than apathy, engagement more than indifference.

In a study published by the American Aging Association, researchers analyzed data from the Georgia Centenarian Study, a survey of 285 people who were at least (or nearly) 100 years old, as well as 273 family members and other proxies who provided information about them. The investigators were looking at how the subjects scored on various personality traits, including conscientiousness, extraversion, hostility and neuroticism.

As a group, the centenarians tested lower on neuroticism and higher on competence and extraversion. Their proxies ranked them a bit higher on neuroticism, as well as on hostility. Its impossible to draw a straight line between those strong personality traits and long life, but the authors saw a potential one, citing other studies showing that centenarians rank high on moral righteousness, which leads to robust temperaments that may help centenarians adapt well to later life.

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