Long life: how to become super old

Author photo NEW THE WORLD photo shoot 27.09.-07.10.2016 Pia Heinemann Photo: Claudius Pflug

T he most important thing to say about the life of the world’s oldest man sounds pretty unimportant: Jeanne Calment barely got around. The daughter of a wealthy shipbuilder lived in Arles, southern France, which she rarely left – and where she outlived everyone: not only Vincent van Gogh, whom she met as a young girl, but also her parents, husband, daughter and grandson.

When Jeanne Calment died in 1997, she was 122 years and 164 days old. To this day, it holds the age record. And that, say today’s age researchers, she probably also has to thank her steady life change. In a place where she knew everyone. Those who are well connected live longer. Sometimes even if, like the robust lady from Provence, she smoked for 96 years.

Super olds like Calment are isolated cases. Still. Because in most countries of the world, life expectancy is increasing. In Germany alone, there are now around 16.000 people who have already reached their 100. have celebrated their birthday. If no diseases or wars intervene, this number will double every eight years in the future.

Whether one has a long life is no longer only of personal interest. It also employs an army of researchers, medical doctors and biologists, demographers, sociologists, economists and statisticians. They are trying to better understand the rise in life expectancy. Life span is an important economic factor. And pension insurers want to know how big the financial burden will be in the future.

People live to a maximum of 120 on average

For the last few decades, people have regularly lived beyond 80 years of age. It is now common knowledge that olive oil, vegetables and exercise increase life expectancy, while smoking, alcohol, hard work and obesity shorten it. Lifestyle choices can sometimes postpone death for a little while. Biologists estimate that people live to be at most 120 years old. Longer the cells do not hold out, the organs do not remain intact.

And Madame Calment? She was often asked what her secret recipe was. But she didn’t really know it herself, she didn’t set out to become ancient, it just happened. She started learning fencing at 85. At 100 she still rode a bicycle. But she has never done much sport. At 115, she broke her legs in a fall and was confined to a wheelchair. She became blind and deaf, but remained mentally active. And, just, smoker – as long as she could still light her own cigarette.

Poverty often leads to illness

Germans feel healthier than 20 years ago. But social background still plays a role in determining our health and even how long we live.

Source: Die Welt

At the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, researchers are looking for the key ingredients that will ensure the longevity of Calment and other methuselahs. It is clear that vegetables and olive oil, the healthy Mediterranean diet, may have given the Frenchwoman a few years of life, and her privileged life without hard work may also have contributed to this. But little sport and smoking? An explanation for old age is not.

People who stay in their place of birth live longer

Who goes faster, lives possibly longer

The result of a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in the U.S. establishes a connection between walking speed and a person’s life expectancy.

In the conference room at 4. Looking out over the lead-gray waters of the Warnow River, boats drifting in the distance and seagulls blown away by gusts of wind, Sebastian Klusener then says the key sentence to Madame Calment’s long life: "She died in the same place where she was born." She hardly got around. Klusener, gray hair, gray-green glasses, like most population researchers, deals with numbers from morning to night. With them he can tell stories.

And that of Jeanne Calment is not only that of a woman who had a financially relatively carefree life and came from a family in which many people reached old age. If you compare their biographies with those of other superannuated people, you will find one more thing in common: "A third of those who lived to be over 105 years old died in their place of birth," says Klusener. Perhaps these people had not needed financially to leave their homeland. Perhaps it was a coincidence or a typical pattern for this generation: people liked to stay in the place where they grew up. But those who don’t move away have a good social network. And that acts as a fountain of youth.

How does it fit then that today, in the age of social mobility, people are getting older and older?? Technology provides the answer: social networks are no longer dependent on local residency. If you have a cell phone and are on Facebook, you can move around a lot – and still grow old. Social contacts are not everything, of course. "Prosperity is the other important prerequisite for a high age," says Klusener.

This is also reflected in the fact that nowadays the proportion of old and very old people in the prosperous south of Germany, in Baden, is rising most sharply. The highest Methuselah density is still to be found in Berlin at present.

But while 100 years ago northern Germany was considered the biotope of the elderly, life expectancy is now highest in the south of the republic. On average, people in Baden-Wurttemberg live about three years longer than people in Schleswig-Holstein. Because more rich people live in the south.

More and more Germans are living to a ripe old age

Geographical differences seem secondary, however, in view of the major trend: all Germans are getting older. Rembrandt Scholz, another researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Rostock, wears a plaid shirt, the lumberjack type. He leans forward and pulls out a stack of papers. Here, jagged, colored lines run across diagrams, curves rise steeply or plummet, rows of numbers fill columns.

Scholz explains the general trend, pulling out the chart showing life expectancy for Germans from 1955 to 2015. Four jagged curves pulling upwards. Two curves for women, east and west, two curves for men. Scholz has an explanation for every new steep incline and every new jagged edge. One thing is clear: More and more Germans, women as well as men, reach a high age. Women live longer than men, and West German men live longer than East German men. East German women and West German women now have the same life expectancy.

"At the end of the 1960s, there were new drugs and therapies for cardiovascular disease," he says, curling the pencil tip into the appropriate zone on the curve. "We call this the ‘cardiovascular revolution’. You can see how, as a result, the curve of life expectancy for men and women rises more steeply than before."Scholz pauses briefly to admire the beauty of the correlation.

Then his pencil point moves to the next prong. "Here, after reunification, the curve of life expectancy for men in the new German states dropped dramatically. Why? Traffic accidents, the new cars, the narrow roads, that cost a lot of lives back then." There is also this downward spike among women in the new German states.

There are six hours of life expectancy added per day

Since 1992, then, life expectancy in Germany has been rising steadily, for both women and men, in both the old and the new federal states. Medical care is apparently saving people in Germany from death more and more efficiently. "If the trend of recent years continues, at least half of all children born in Germany in 2007 will live to be 100," says Scholz. In other words, per day, the average German gains six hours in life expectancy.

Better roads and safer cars, better pills and modern medical technology are prolonging life. But there are also biological reasons for high life expectancy. Otherwise, it would be impossible to explain why so many old people live in the mountain villages of Ecuador and Sardinia, which are not exactly characterized by modern infrastructure.

Can this effect also be explained by staying put, or are people here more closely related – and more likely to inherit genes for long life? Lars Bertram knows how crucial hereditary factors can be for a healthy life. He is a professor at the University of Lubeck and an expert in molecular genetic methods. Genes associated with old age are his specialty.

From the 50 million or so DNA variants that have been described for humans so far, he is trying to filter out those that are responsible for signs of aging and diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. "So far," says Lars Bertram, "only one hereditary trait has been found to be a major determinant of the risk of early death: the APOE gene."

There is no Methuselah gene

It is involved in various metabolic processes, ensures the removal of cholesterol in the blood, and plays a role in Alzheimer’s plaques in the brain. The regulation of inflammatory processes are also regulated by the APOE gene. Depending on which variant of the APOE gene one carries, the effects tend to be positive or negative – and thus change life expectancy. However, such a gene is an exception, APOE was an exotic find.

But even those who carry a particular variant of this gene don’t necessarily die earlier or later than average. "According to the current data, there is no single Methuselah gene," says Bertram. "There is more likely to be a set of genes that together increase the likelihood that a person will live to an above-average age."

Experts believe that a polygenetic approach, i.e. the simultaneous search for different genes and gene variants, is more useful and promising than the search for single genes.

According to Bertram, it has been possible to quantify the contribution of genes to the aging process. This was made possible by studies with identical and fraternal twins. "About 20 to 30 percent of the variance in life expectancy can probably be explained genetically," Bertram explains. By this he means: Genes are important, but a person can compensate for the effect of his genetic makeup with an appropriate lifestyle and under certain environmental conditions.

"If you have a risk factor, that doesn’t mean you necessarily shorten your life," he emphasizes. You can "have bad genes" – but make up for it with good nutrition. Or you have "good genes" – then you can afford to smoke for decades like Helmut Schmidt or the Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment.

Germany lacks data for research

Rembrandt Scholz leafs through his papers at the Max Planck Institute in Rostock, Germany. For strong analyses that want to explain rising life expectancy, you need one thing above all: good data sets. "But we don’t have very many of those in Germany," says Scholz, and yes, that annoys him. Germans are stingy with their personal data.

People value privacy, not everything should and must not be stored. You can move without registering, and then die abroad. There is no central register in which the important data of a person’s life are collected. "In Austria, the Benelux countries and Scandinavia – everywhere there is the. Only Germany has traditionally struggled."

The disadvantage: Nobody knows exactly who is how old in Germany. Recently, the Federal Statistical Office even had to revise downward the number of people over the age of 90, because there are not as many very old people living in the Federal Republic of Germany as was thought. Above all, the number of people over 90 had been massively overestimated: "Many labor migrants are now of retirement age. Many of them go back to the old country and forget to sign off," Scholz explains.

Six reasons why life is better than ever today

Whether it’s historically low unemployment rates, better educational opportunities or ever-increasing life expectancy, humanity is doing better than ever before despite many crises.

"If they die abroad, nobody notices it here."At the office, they would be managed as if they were still alive – and thus reach astonishing ages. The census in 2011 revealed this problem. Among the over-90s, twelve percent more had been expected, and among men over 90, almost 30 percent more.

Are the added years also worth living?

Good data sets are one thing, the other is interpretation. In Denmark, for example, life expectancy stagnated in the 1980s. In the other industrialized nations, it increased. Had the Danes miscounted like the Germans? No, according to the researchers. Danish women born between 1915 and 1945 actually had a problem: They had smoked a lot compared to women in other industrialized nations. That’s why more Danish women died of cancer and cardiovascular disease in the 1980s. In Switzerland, a similar effect is currently being seen: here, too, life expectancy for women is no longer rising as steeply as in previous years.

Even in the U.S., life is not lengthening in all populations. Anne Case and Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton of Princeton University recently showed that life expectancy among 45- to 54-year-old white Americans fell between 1999 and 2013. Their mortality rate had increased by 0.5 percent annually. Drugs, alcohol, suicides and chronic liver disease caused early deaths in this age group, Case and Deaton said. Especially low-income people without a college degree would have health and psychological problems that lead to an earlier death.

Such dips aside, the global trend is toward longer lives. "We also want to know if only the quantity of years of life is increasing, or are the added years also worth living," says Denis Gerstorf. He is a psychologist who oversees both the Berlin Aging Studies and the Socioeconomic Panel. For behavioral scientists, this data is very important. Because here people are asked how they are, whether they are ill, sad or lonely – and this over and over again.

From 90 years the well-being goes downhill

How it feels to be old or even super old? "On average, 75-year-olds are doing much better today than 75-year-olds were 20 years ago," Gerstorf says. They are more educated, physically fit, more socially active and have a better mental capacity. "Cognitive aging has been decelerated in recent decades," he says. It remains to be seen whether the brain degrades more slowly in old age or whether losses simply start later.

This is also due to the fact that people feel less externally determined and have realized that they themselves can determine how their lives will develop. "People know that exercise, healthy eating and social activities can help them stay mentally fit longer." When surveyed, today’s 75-year-olds also say they feel good about themselves – on average, just as good about themselves as 45-year-olds do. But it also shows that this effect often breaks down among the over 90s. "The very old often feel less well, cognitive decline is suddenly all the faster."

Psychologists and population statisticians have found yet another factor that apparently keeps people young: work. At the very least, scientists led by Chenkai Wuvon of Oregon State University have just been able to use epidemiological data to confirm that people who work longer also live longer. It’s not just people who are in great shape who benefit from retiring a few years later, but also those who say they have a few health problems.

Germans are getting older and older

Life expectancy in Germany has increased for both men and women over the past decade. Nevertheless, there are significant differences between the sexes.

Source: The World

Of course, this does not apply to those who physically toil hard, or probably to those who do extremely monotonous work. Why this is so is also not yet clear. But it may be that some occupations increase life expectancy.

Test to predict life expectancy

This pleases the pension insurers – and casts the current pension debate in a new light. In 1960, a man in Germany spent an average of 9.6 years in retirement and a woman one year longer. Today, this time has doubled: men are 17 years, women almost 22 years in retirement. Funding this is a challenge. If it should now be confirmed that certain forms of work keep healthy, some could warm up to a longer working life.

So it’s no wonder that insurance companies in particular want to know more about which lifestyles, genes and environments have a positive impact on longevity. And this interest, after all, Elena Kulinskaya a month ago 800.000 British pounds. With this, the professor of statistics at the University of East Anglia is expected to develop a test within four years.

It should make people’s life expectancy calculable. "We hope to predict longevity – so people can make the best decisions for their future," Kulinskaya says. "We are interested, for example, in how certain chronic diseases and their therapies affect lifespan." Kulinskaya’s client: the Association of British Actuaries.

For their test of residual life, they want to tap into a new pool of data: Big Data. Because what people report about their lives on social networks can reveal a lot about their life expectancy. For insurers this is highly interesting.

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