Gerotalk: Centenarians are not Inevitably Destined to have Poor Qualities of Life

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America, along with many other countries in the world, is getting older.  With the increasingly aging population, we are also witnessing many aging misconceptions being dispelled. Age does not bring with it doom and gloom. In fact, the elderly are often among the most satisfied, happy and emotionally stable of all age groups. Moreover, most are living quite independently.

As we continue to see the growth of the aging population, especially among those who are 100 and over, the trend appears to continue. In fact, the view that as older adults continue to increase there will also be a concomitant increase in the number of years that one lives with illness and poor health is now being challenged by the research done on centenarians.

In examining 3,000 centenarians or near centenarians, those 95 years of age and older that made up two different studies, the results indicated that centenarians often are fairly healthy and that disease and illness, when they do strike, often happen later in life than is found among most other older adults. In fact, as compared with other older adults, centenarians often experience a compression of morbidity; they appear to experience much less time ill and often the time they spend ill is more commonly toward the end of their lives.

This is not stating that they do not experience normal senescent changes, but that as a group, they were less likely to experience longer durations of illnesses and disabilities that often markedly interfered with their functional status and quality of life.

The two studies that the centenarian and near centenarians were selected from was the Longevity Genes Project (LGP) and the New England Centenarian Study (NECS). These studies have both been in existence since 1994 and 1998 respectively. When compared to their younger cohorts, those centenarians and near centenarians had later age of onset of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and osteoporosis. The overall morbidity as measured by the relative risk ratio for disease (RR) was lower for those with exceptional longevity than those of younger cohorts.

One of the major findings that this study found, especially as it compared the participants of both groups, was that living longer was not necessarily an inevitable burden on society. Furthermore, those individuals that were centenarians and near centenarians as mentioned previously, spent less time ill or markedly physically compromised then other elderly members who failed to live as long.

These individuals, due to their compressed duration of morbidity, often experienced just months or even weeks of illness before their death. As such the burden and cost to society was significantly less than was found among other elderly who failed to experience the same level of longevity.

Although many questions still need to be answered, especially why certain individuals live many more years than others, one thing does appear to exist that runs contrary to many of the misconceptions about advanced age: advanced age is not necessary synonymous to an enhanced societal burden.

However, this further begs the question of why certain individuals who live to significantly advanced age, such as centenarian status, are much healthier and spend much less time ill, infirm, and functionally incapacitated. Is it because they are healthier and have healthier lifestyles, which lead them to more salubrious advanced age? This seems plausible but here again, many individuals who did not live to such advanced age also had adopted healthy lifestyles. Although a simple cause-effect relationship of healthy lifestyle leading to centenarian or near-centenarian status appears to provide a logical and straightforward answer, in reality the relationship fails to hold, especially in such a simple and straightforward manner.

Therefore, the reason for centenarians and near-centenarians often being healthier and experiencing a compressed duration of morbidity still has too many questions that need to be answered. More studies will need to be completed to further explicate the important questions raised by this study that still need to be answered.

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About Author

Brian Garavaglia
Brian Garavaglia

Dr. Brian Garavaglia is a long-term care administrator, gerontologist, educator and consultant. He has worked in healthcare for approximately 26 years in all phases, including acute, subacute and long-term care environments. His area of specialization is older adults and the long-term care environment. He has continued to research, publish and be an advocate for the older adult population as well as teach at various colleges within the Detroit-metropolitan area. His research interests are numerous, currently working on how stereotypes influence the diagnostic implications for dementia in the older adult long-term care population. He also has a strong interest in neuroscience and the neuro-social psychological factors related to aging as well as how social-gerontological issues affect the regulatory and political climate in long-term care. Brian is married and has three children. He enjoys the outdoors and fishing as well as golfing and reading. Moreover, he enjoys educating and engaging in stimulating discussions that can reach a large audience.

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