This is part 1 of a series of lessons in brain health from our elders — those folk who lived the longest and healthiest.
We’re living longer, but how do our aging brains fare?
To answer this question, I’ve looked to two sources — those exceptionally old folks who remain in robust physical and mental health till the very end of their lives, and our evolutionary past.
Over millennia, Mother Nature equipped us to survive and thrive in the wild. Our brains evolved such that from womb to the tomb we’re required to move, eat well, sleep, immerse ourselves in nature, avoid stress, love and befriend, and seek meaning. These requirements neatly map onto the principles of everyday life followed by the world’s longest living people.
When does old age begin?
We can’t seem to make up our minds, and the older we get, the further we move the goalposts marking the last season of our lives.
A 2009 survey of Americans asked participants when they believed someone grew ‘old’.
Young folks in their twenties believed said old age began at 60. Those under 50 put the threshold closer to 70, whereas those 65 and above said that the average person does not become old until turning 74.
Getting old wasn’t nearly as bad as people think it will be. Nor was it quite as good.
On the downside, one in four adults ages 65 surveyed reported memory loss. One in five had a serious illness, are no longer sexually active, or often feel sad or depressed, lonely or have trouble paying bills. One in ten felt like a burden.
On the upside, the same group said they have more time for hobbies, travel, volunteer work, and more financial security. Of all the good things about getting old, the best by far, according to older adults, is being able to spend more time with family members.
“Am I Old? Certainly not!”
One of my boys said to me recently he couldn’t imagine me as a little girl and how did it feel to finally be “old”. I told him I feel the same now as I did when I was 10.
“Am I Old? Certainly not!” This was the answer survey respondents gave too.
In fact, the older they got, the younger they said they feel. About half of those under 30 said they felt their age. But those who were 75 and older? Just 35% say they feel “old”.
It seems we remain on intimate terms with our much younger selves — I sometimes wonder how ten-year old me suddenly became forty-three?
We enter the end of our lifespan with our past woven intimately into our biology.
From birth, our neural architecture is shaped by life’s ups and downs, the decisions we made, the places where we lived, worked and learned, the meaning we’ve derived, and who we loved, gave life to, and travelled with through time. How we spend our early years will determine how we age.
More and more of us are living to into old age, and there has never been a better time in which to do so. Our large clever human brains have bequeathed us with modern medicine and tools with which we manage our reproductive health, avoid maternal and neonatal death, vaccinate against disease, prevent pain, treat infection and some cancers, and perform surgery if required.
One hundred years ago, women lived barely long enough to see out their 50s. A baby girl born today can expect to live to see out the first decades of the 22nd century.
Uncovering the secrets of exceptional longevity
On February 21, 1875, one year before the Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent for the telephone, a baby girl, Jeanne Louise Calment was born in Arles, France. She was alive to witness the invention of the aeroplane, cinema, and on a trip to Paris saw the Eiffel tower being built. When she was 13, Jeanne met Vincent Van Gogh; although apparently, she was less than impressed saying he was ”…very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick…”.
In 1997, the same year Princess Diana died, Calment finally passed away. She was 122 years and 164 days old. Although blind, almost deaf, and confined to a wheelchair, Calment reportedly remained spirited and “alert as a hummingbird” till the end. The French called her “la doyenne de l’humanitè” (the elder of humankind) and she still holds the record for the world’s longest ever living human (although this has been recently challenged).
In April 2017, the latest longevity record holder, Emma Martina Luigia Morano of Vercelli, Italy, died aged 117. Born in November 1899, Morano was the last known living person who was born in the 1800s. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Morano followed the same extraordinary diet for around 90 years: three eggs per day (two raw, one cooked), fresh Italian pasta, and a dish of raw meat. The current longevity crown belongs to Polish Holocaust survivor Israel Kristal, who celebrated his 113th birthday in September 2017.
Once rare as diamonds, the oldest of the old are the fastest growing sector of our global population.
If you were born in 1900, the odds of living till age 100 were less than 1 in a million, and few people lived long enough see out the 1950s. For girls born into wealthy countries today, the odds of blowing out 100 candles on a cake are roughly 1 in 50.
Israel Kristal claims he doesn’t know the secret of his long life.
I believe that everything is determined from above and we shall never know the reasons why. There have been smarter, stronger and better-looking men then me who are no longer alive. All that is left for us to do is to keep on working as hard as we can and rebuild what is lost.
When asked her secrets, Jeanne Calment attributed her longevity to immunity to stress and a good attitude,
I wasn’t afraid of anything. I was often reproached for that … I took pleasure when I could, I acted clearly and morally and without regret. I’m very lucky.
Calment reportedly ate more than two pounds of chocolate a week, treated her skin with olive oil, rode a bicycle until she was 100, and only quit smoking when she was 117 because she became too proud to ask someone else to light her cigarettes. Known for her wit, she is widely reported as saying,
I’ve never had but one wrinkle, and I’m sitting on it.
Hard work, raw eggs, biking, and no regrets. We clamour to learn their secrets, and typically the oldest of the old love to share their long-won wisdom. Calment once quipped.
I wait. For death and journalists.
Blue Zones lessons for longevity
In another longevity project, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner together Professor Michel Poulain famously described five ‘Blue Zones’ around the globe where the residents live to exceptional old age. Despite being very different parts of the world, there are commonalities to the resident’s lifestyles.
Their longevity has nothing to do with brute discipline, diets, exercise programs or supplements… In Blue Zones areas around the world, longevity happens to people. It’s the result of the right environment that constantly nudges them into moving more, eating more plants and beans while eating less meat and sugar, socializing with the right people and living out their values. It’s that simple, really.
- Residents of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, prioritise friendship and family, and they almost never work extra hours if it means they have to forego a good party. They also foster ‘plan de vida’ or ‘a reason to live’.
- In Loma Linda, California, the strong sense of purpose, day of rest, no-smoking policy, and healthy diet practices of the local Seventh Day Adventist community has rubbed off on the health of the whole town.
- Residents of the mountainous villages of Sardinia, Italy and the Greek island of Ikaria, nap, fast, grow their own food, and drink wine daily with friends. It’s thought the clean air, warm breezes and rugged terrain of the Mediterranean islands draw locals outdoors to move naturally.
- The residents of the Japanese islands of Okinawa, home to the world’s longest living women, are dedicated to family. Okinawans practice ‘Hara hachi bu’, a reminder to stop eating when they’re 80% full, ‘Ikigai’, which roughly translates to “Why I wake up in the morning,” and form ‘Moais’, groups of five friends that remain committed to each other for live.
Buettner has distilled the lifestyle practices of Blue Zones into lessons for longevity. As he says, to make it to 100 you may have to “win the genetic lottery”, but the average person’s life expectancy can be increased by moving move, prioritising friends, family and social gatherings, eating less, drinking wine, and fostering a sense of purpose.
Sydney Centenarian Study lessons for longevity
Due to the rarity of extremely old folks, the Sydney Centenarian Study has partnered with a consortium of centenarian research teams from around the globe to pool their resources and data to enable more powerful conclusions to be drawn. Their data support the Blue Zones observations.
Charlene Levitan, who once headed up the Sydney Centenarian Study says,
What is emerging from the global research is that around 30% of longevity is contributed by genetics. The remaining 70% is to do with our lifestyle, which includes a healthy diet, exercise, and remaining socially integrated.
One of the strongest themes to emerge is related to the personality traits of resilience, adaptability and optimism.
Most of our centenarians will report optimism as a life-long personality characteristic.
This is an excerpt from my book The Women’s Brain Book.
About Dr Sarah
I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.
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