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Live to 100

The Health of Centenarians


Updated January 05, 2009



Ligia Botero / Getty Images
Live to 100 -- it sounds like a great goal for anyone, but how do we figure out what it really takes to live to 100? Is it just plain luck, or do centenarians have something that the rest of us lack? One way to find out is to study the people who made it to 100. That’s just what researchers did: they asked people 100 or older what illnesses they have and when they got them. The researchers wanted to find out if people who live to 100 had good genes and avoided diseases or were they hardier and survived diseases. Here is what they found:

Studying Centenarians

Researchers interviewed 424 centenarians (people aged 100 or more) and asked them (along with their caregiver) about if/when they were diagnosed with the following 10 health conditions: hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, nonskin cancer, skin cancer, osteoporosis, thyroid condition, Parkinson’s disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). They also asked about lifestyle factors, such as nutrition, exercise, smoking habits, etc. They were trying to link age of diagnosis with life expectancy. What they found was a bit surprising.

Three Categories of Centenarians

Centenarians fell in to three categories. Each of these categories says something different about how to live to 100.
  • Survivors: 24% of the male centenarians and 43% of the female centenarians in the study fit the profile of “survivors.” These are people who had a diagnosis of (at least) one of the age-related illnesses listed about before age 80.
  • Escapers: These are people who reached age 100 without any of the above medical conditions. Thirty-two percent of the men and 15% of the women in the study were escapers.
  • Delayers: These people delayed the diagnosis of one of the illnesses above until after age 80. Forty-four percent of men and 42% of women in the study fit this profile.

Heart Disease, Non-Skin Cancer and Stroke Alone

When the researchers looked at only three conditions (the three most deadly: heart disease, cancer (excluding skin cancer) and stroke), they found that almost all of the centenarians were escapers: 87% of men and 83% of women in the study reached 100 without having any of these three health conditions.

Multiple Routes to Very Old Age

What all this says is that there is no one route to very old age. People who live to 100 do not necessarily simply “have good genes” that make them immune to the common age-related illnesses. That is true, certainly, for some percentage of people, but others survive illness and live to well past 100.

How to Live to 100

This study shows us that delaying the diagnosis of an illness to 80 or beyond is a very, very good thing. There are many lifestyle factors that can help you delay (and even prevent) age-related illnesses. These include regular exercise, healthy eating, proper sleep and relaxation. You should also work to prevent disease through making good use of the medical care available to you.

What the study doesn’t tell us is how taking good care of your health and actively working toward successful aging can impact your life expectancy. The study also did not consider the quality of life of the people who made it to 100. What I would like to know is what to do in my life to be sure I have as many healthy years as possible. The lifestyle factors mentioned above are a good place to start.


Jessica Evert, Elizabeth Lawler, Hazel Bogan and Thomas Perls. Morbidity Profiles of Centenarians: Survivors, Delayers, and Escapers. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 58:M232-M237 (2003)

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