Having good genes definitely help if you plan to live 85, 90 or 100-plus years — but they aren’t the only thing that matters.
Canada’s longest-lived seniors tend to have parents who live at least nine years longer than average and that’s a lot, according to Angela Brooks-Wilson, who runs a 16-year healthy aging study at Simon Fraser University.
But lifestyle always plays a bigger role in how long you live, she said.
If you want to live to 85 and longer, it helps to stay busy.
Study participant Ivan Vance — just 90 years old — hits the gym and the courts at the Jericho Tennis Club about four times a week and really pushes himself. After the gym, he hits serves for an hour or more.
And it’s singles only for Vance, when he plays.
“These guys in their 60s are playing doubles, I don’t even think they sweat,” said the former lumber trader turned actor. “Mostly they don’t want to play me anyway, it’s too hard on their ego.”
“I get the best tennis from the top women; they are really good players,” he said.
Vance calls it like he sees it, especially if he doesn’t like what he sees.
“The secret is, I vent,” he said. “If I see something that pisses me off, I respond — hopefully always politely — with ‘I hear what you are saying, but I think you are wrong and here’s why.’ I dump my concerns off of me and on to you.”
Seriously though, Vance has been active his whole life.
“I have been skiing for 76 years and I have been playing tennis since I was 60,” he said. “Tennis is tough game and you’ve got to be in shape, so lifting weights for a few minutes isn’t going to cut it. I work at it.”
It is always challenging to schedule the interviews with “super seniors” study participants because of their busy schedules, said Brooks-Wilson.
“They are very socially active and lot of them exercise — about 50 per cent — as many as the middle-aged comparison group,” she said. “Super seniors are definitely not couch potatoes.”
The late band leader Dal Richards and nonagenarian track star Olga Kotelko were also part of her super group.
Seniors in the study must be free of cancer, dementia, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and major lung disease at the time they join. They range in age from 85 — the minimum — to 109 years of age.
The researchers are examining candidate genes believed to be related to healthy aging, looking for differences between 700 super seniors and a comparison group of 500 randomly selected people in their 40s. That means they are young enough that any genetic predisposition to disease has not yet killed many of them.
Not surprisingly, very few super seniors have the APOe4 gene that is strongly associated with late-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.
“What’s interesting is that some do have it … and yet they are still super, so it’s not a given that they will get Alzheimer’s,” said Brooks-Wilson, also a Distinguished Scientist with Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at the B.C. Cancer Agency.
Super seniors are also less likely to have a gene variant related to inflammation, which is implicated in the five major diseases that super seniors don’t have by definition.
While you can’t control your genome, there are powerful lifestyle choices you can make if you aim to live past 85.
Smoking tobacco is an effective way to avoid getting very old, while quitting is almost as effective at extending your life.
“We have almost no life-long smokers in the super seniors group, but about half have smoked and then quit at some time in the past,” she said.
Super seniors — if they drink alcohol — have three or four drinks a week and were much more moderate in their consumption than the comparison group.
“Both moderate drinking and non-drinking are compatible with being a super senior,” she noted.
Super seniors don’t tend to be “super-skinny,” she said. Many of them have a body mass index of about 25 — the upper end of the normal band, bordering on overweight.
Brooks-Wilson will share her research in the SFU President’s Faculty lecture series on Thursday, March 15 at 5 p.m. at SFU’s Burnaby campus in the Diamond Alumni Centre.
She is also anxious to recruit new super seniors. Anyone aged 85 or older who is interested in participating may call 604-675-8151, or email email@example.com.
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