Last week, in a medical congress in Milan, I had the free testing offered by the manufacturer of a modern machine that could evaluate the status of the arteries.
“Your arteries are about eight years younger than your chronological age,” the manager in the booth said. “At the rate you’re going, you may live to a hundred and beyond.”
Living beyond 100 years is, indeed, a big blessing. Maintaining one’s brain function and the vitality of healthy, elderly people 20 years their junior is like winning the genetic lottery.
Dr. Ma. Socorro Endrina-Ignacio, associate professor of public health at the University of the Philippines, wrote an article on super-centenarians in the latest issue of H&L (Health & Lifestyle) magazine.
She defines a super-centenarian as someone who has reached the age of 110. There are not too many in this elite class worldwide, but the number is increasing.
She cites published literature showing that super-centenarians live a life typically free of major age-related diseases. The secret is in maintaining excellent vascular health, or a good condition of the arteries supplying all the vital organs, particularly the heart, brain and kidneys.
Experts on vascular aging say that although old age is generally a risk factor for practically all chronic illnesses, the risk diminishes in individuals who have already exceeded the age of 100. Genetic factors certainly play an important role, but environmental factors, particularly one’s lifestyle, are equally important.
So, if one reaches 100 years in fair health, there is a high likelihood one can live at least another 10 years and be classified as a super-centenarian.
The Calment magic
The oldest super-centenarian on record is Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman who died at 122 years and 164 days in 1997. She was the subject of scrutiny to demystify her secret to longevity, which was called the “Calment magic.”
Still relatively sharp in her interviews a few years before she died, Calment attributed her long life and youthful appearance to a diet rich in olive oil.
Dr. Ignacio explains that 14 percent of the oils in olive oil are saturated fat, while 11 percent are polyunsaturated, such as omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. The predominant fatty acid in olive oil is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat. This makes up around 73 percent of its total oil content.
“Studies have shown that oleic acid reduces inflammation and may even have beneficial effect on genes linked to cancer,” says Dr. Ignacio. It also contains a high level of powerful antioxidants like vitamin E.
“These nutrients have been found to reduce one’s risk to develop chronic diseases and heart disease because they protect the blood cholesterol from oxidation,” adds Dr. Ignacio.
Calment said another major factor in her longevity was her calm disposition. She did not allow anything to stress her. She managed her stressors well, and always looked at the positive side of the worst situations. She joked that she had to live up to her name—Calment, which signified being calm, cool and stress-free.
“Stress, even short-lived and minor, can have an impact on one’s health,” says Dr. Ignacio. Meanwhile, chronic stress increases the wear and tear of one’s body, causing organ malfunction and premature death.
Chronic stress can also result in depression, which is now an established cardiovascular risk factor. “Multiple studies have shown that these sudden emotional stresses—especially anger —can trigger heart attacks, arrhythmias and even sudden death,” says Dr. Ignacio.
Calment said that she was also a very active person. Cycling was one of her favorite exercises, and she continued cycling up to her 100th birthday. She would have wanted to keep on cycling, but she was prevailed
upon to stop doing it after she had an accident where she fractured her
leg. She recovered in no time at all and was able to walk again, still unassisted.
At age 109, she was admitted into a nursing home, and she spent long hours socializing with other senior residents. She woke up every morning at 6:45 and started her day with a long prayer, profusely thanking God for all the blessings she had received.
She visualized how her day would go and thanked God in advance for the blessings she expected to receive. She would then sit in her armchair and do exercises while listening to her favorite music, using her stereo headset.
Then she would eat a hearty breakfast consisting usually of coffee, milk and rusk. Rusk is a hard, dry biscuit or twice-baked bread, which is very high in fiber.
For lunch she enjoyed braised beef, which was her main protein source. She also enjoyed sipping port wine with her meals. Her dessert consisted of fresh fruits, usually bananas and oranges. She loved chocolates, too, and she consumed up to 2 pounds of chocolates, usually dark chocolate.
The “Calment magic” seems simple enough and doable. And with modern medicines and technology, Calment’s age when she died may likely be surpassed in the next two decades.