How Centenarians Explain Their Longevity

Dr. Mercola

Do you want to live to be 100? How about 110, or even 120? Statistically, the younger you are, the greater your chances of reaching those milestones—that much is known.

There is even a fairly strong possibility that lifespans beyond 150 will be possible in the next few decades as improvements in 3D printing, stem cell, and nanotech continue to improve.  

But when it comes to understanding the complexity of human longevity and all of the factors that determine your lifespan, there is much we still don’t understand. Researchers have the advantage of an ever-growing pool of centenarians and supercentenarians. Supercentenarians are those rare individuals who live past 110.

Both demographics are growing. And the good news is, most centenarians and supercentenarians are quite healthy until very near the end of their lives. Research tell us that the older the age group, the later the onset of degenerative diseases and cognitive decline.1 Here are a few interesting facts about centenarians—who now represent the fastest growing segment of the American population:2

  • One quarter of children born today are expected to live beyond 1003 whereas only one in 26 baby boomers will reach the century mark4
  • There are between 96,000 and 105,000 centenarians living in the US, and about 12,640 in the UK5
  • Research indicates that the number of American centenarians has been doubling every decade since the 1950s; by 2050, the number of centenarians living in the US is expected to pass one million
  • There are about 65 verified supercentenarians living today, but unofficial estimates are as high as 3506,7
  • Approximately eight of every nine Centenarians are women; 19 percent use cell phones, 12 percent use the Internet, and three percent have participated in online dating

What’s Their Secret?

Scientific explanations for longevity remain elusive. Researchers studying centenarians agree: there is no specific pattern.

There appears to be a connection between your longevity and the age your mother gave birth. Researchers at the University of Chicago Center on Aging found that if your mother was under age 25 when you were born, your chances of reaching age 100 are twice as high as for someone whose mother was older than 25. Makes me grateful my mother was only 19 when she had me.

This presumably has something to do with the robustness of a woman’s eggs over time, but this is just one potential factor among many. According to Israeli physician Nir Barzilai of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York:8

“There is no pattern. The usual recommendations for a healthy life—not smoking, not drinking, plenty of exercise, a well-balanced diet, keeping your weight down—they apply to us average people. But not to them. Centenarians are in a class of their own.”

Based on years of data from studying centenarians, Barzilai reports that when analyzing the data from his particular pool of centenarians, at age 70:

  • 37 percent were overweight
  • 8 percent were obese
  • 37 percent were smokers (for an average of 31 years)
  • 44 percent reported only moderate exercise
  • 20 percent never exercised at all

Despite this, centenarians as a population have 60 percent lower rates of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.9 Depression and other psychiatric illnesses are almost nonexistent. Barzalai is quick to emphasize you should not disregard the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices (such as keeping yourinsulin level low). He explains:

“Today’s changes in lifestyle do in fact contribute to whether someone dies at the age of 85 or before age 75. But in order to reach the age of 100, you need a special genetic make-up. These people age differently. Slower. They end up dying of the same diseases that we do—but 30 years later and usually quicker, without languishing for long periods.”

What the Elders Themselves Have to Say

The majority of centenarians do not feel their chronological age; on average, they report feeling 20 years younger. They also tend to have positive attitudes, optimism, and a zest for life. Could it be that personality characteristics and worldviews play a more significant role than genetics, diet, or exercise?

One way to determine this is to ask centenarians questions about how they see the world, what they value, and to what they attribute their own longevity. What are their secrets to aging well? These individuals represent centuries of wisdom that should not be overlooked. So that’s what researchers are now doing—mining the minds of centenarians for nuggets of wisdom. Regardless of which interviews you read, this is where patterns really DO emerge. In interviews and surveys with centenarians, the following themes come up time and time again when asked to explain why they’ve lived so long:10

Keeping a positive attitude Eating good food
Exercising moderately (most report basic activities, like walking, biking, gardening, swimming, etc.) Clean living (not smoking or drinking excessively, etc.)
Living independently Family
“Good genes” Friends
Staying mentally active and always learning something new Faith/spirituality


Some jokingly said they attribute their longevity to “avoiding dying.” Others give hints to their life philosophy, such as “Find your passion and live it,” “Make time to cry,” and “Practice forgiveness.” Centenarians overwhelmingly cite stress as the most important thing to avoid. Their lives are marked by as many stressful events as the rest of us, but they differ in how well they manage their stress. Rather than dwelling on it, they let it go. And they are very happy people!

Rx: Happiness

Happy people live longer—by 35 percent, according to one study.11 Another study found that happiness and contentment increases health and longevity.12 Other studies show optimists live longer than pessimists.13 So it’s no surprise that centenarians are a happy and optimistic lot. Positive thoughts and attitudes seem to somehow do things in your body that strengthen your immune system, boost positive emotions, decrease pain, and provide stress relief.  In fact, it’s been scientifically shown that happiness can alter your genes!

A team of researchers at UCLA showed that people with a deep sense of happiness and well-being had lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and stronger antiviral and antibody responses.14 This falls into the realm of epigenetics—changing the way your genes function by turning them off and on.

Part of your longevity may depend on the DNA you were born with, but an even larger part depends on epigenetics—over which you have more control. Your thoughts, feeling, emotions, diet, and other lifestyle factors exert epigenetic influences every minute of the day, playing a central role in aging and disease.15 Perhaps it’s not as important to avoid that bowl of ice cream as it is to feel sheer bliss when eating it… at least, on occasion!

Four Nutrients That Will Help You Reach the Century Mark

The fact that you can manipulate your genes with happiness doesn’t mean you can completely disregard lifestyle choices, as that would be foolhardy. The basics are still important—dietexercisesleep, etc. Research suggests the modern American diet is increasingly low in four important nutrients that have a direct bearing on aging, and our brains are suffering for it. If you hope to one day become a healthy, happy centenarian, you must address the following:16

  1. Vitamin D
  2. DHA
  3. Folate
  4. Magnesium

Vitamin D

Vitamin D’s list of health benefits is amazingly long, including helping your brain combat the damage from free radicals, which helps prevent cognitive decline. The important factor when it comes to vitamin D is your serum level, which should be between 50-70 ng/ml year-round, and the only way to determine this is with a blood test.

Your skin produces vitamin D in response to ultraviolet light, so sun exposure or a safe tanning bed are the preferred methods of boosting your vitamin D. However, a D3 supplement can be used when necessary. Most adults need about 8,000 IUs of vitamin D3 per day to achieve serum levels of 40 ng/ml. If you take supplemental vitamin D3, you also need to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin K2, as these two nutrients work in tandem to ensure calcium is distributed into the proper areas in your body.

vitamin d levels


DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)

DHA is an omega-3 fat that plays a role in keeping your cell membranes healthy, flexible, and resistant to oxidative stress, which decreases inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a key factor in many degenerative diseases, including dementia. Low DHA is has been linked with depression, memory loss, and even elevated hostility, which reflect its importance to optimal brain function.

The American diet has far too many omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3 fats due to its heavy reliance on processed food. You can boost your DHA by eating more fish, such as salmon and sardines, but so much of the fish today is contaminated with mercury and other toxic compounds that I prefer to take a high quality omega-3 fat supplement such as krill oil.

Folate (Vitamin B9)

Folate helps prevent depression, seizure disorders, brain atrophy, and other neurological problems. Folate deficiencies correlate with impaired memory, slowed mental processing and overall cognitive decline, particularly in the elderly. Your body also needs folate to make red blood cells. Folate deficiency has been thought to lead to elevated homocysteine levels, which can be a major contributor to heart disease and Alzheimer’s. However, recent studies may have disproven that idea.17

People often confuse folate with folic acid, and it’s important to know the difference. Folate is the naturally-occurring form of the vitamin and contains all of the related isomers your body needs for optimal use. Folic acid is the synthetic form of the vitamin that is used in most supplements and in fortified foods.

It is always preferable to raise your folate levels by modifying your diet, as opposed to eating “enriched” foods or taking a multivitamin. Foods rich in folate include egg yolks, sunflower seeds, asparagus, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, basil, parsley, and greens such as romaine, turnip, collards, and spinach.18 If you do think you need a supplement, make sure it lists “folate” on the label, rather than folic acid, as this suggests food sources were used.


Magnesium plays a role in your body’s detoxification processes and is therefore important for minimizing damage from environmental chemicals, heavy metals and other toxins. Even glutathione, considered by many to be your body’s most powerful antioxidant, requires magnesium in order to be synthesized. But this important mineral also helps your brain.

Magnesium acts as a buffer between neuron synapses, particularly those involved with cognitive functions (learning and memory). Magnesium “sits” on the receptor without activating it, in effect protecting the receptor from over-activation by other neurochemicals, especially glutamate. Glutamate is an “excitotoxin,” which can harm your brain if it accumulates, and magnesium helps prevent this. That’s why you often see magnesium advertised as a “calming” nutrient.

Good sources of magnesium are whole organic foods, especially dark green leafy vegetables, seaweed, dried pumpkin seeds, unsweetened cocoa, flaxseed, almond butter, and whey. If you choose to add a magnesium supplement, there are many forms so it can be a bit confusing. A newer type called magnesium threonate is particularly good due to its ability to penetrate cell membranes and cross your blood-brain barrier, which is important for preserving good cognitive function as you age.

Healthy Aging Is a ‘Package Deal’

There is no magic bullet when it comes to aging well. Generally speaking, the better you treat your body throughout your life, the better your aging experience will be. Most people do not revel in the thought of getting older because, for many, aging is synonymous with aches and pains, forgetfulness and loneliness. It is inevitable that you’re going to get older, but I can tell you from personal experience that this need not be a bad thing!

Now, as I approach my 60th birthday in a few months, I am the fittest I have ever been—and I live every day to its fullest potential. I may have been able to run faster when I was younger, but I would never trade that for the muscle strength, flexibility and knowledge I have today. You too can achieve wellness on both physical and mental fronts, at any age. In fact, for me in many ways life continues to get better as the years go by.

One thought on “How Centenarians Explain Their Longevity

  1. “Statistically, the younger you are, the greater your chances of reaching those milestones—that much is known.”

    You’re full of shite, Doc. With an average life expectancy of 72, a one year-old definitely does NOT have a greater chance of reaching 100 than a 99 year-old, but the only math you learn in med school is how to pad the bill.

    And with the death rates caused by doctors and the drugs they prescribe, you really ought to tell your patients that the best way to improve their chances of reaching 100, is to stay the hell away from you.

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