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What we know about living to 100 and what we are still learning

We all want to be mentally sharp, physically fit, financially secure and live a life with a sense of belonging, purpose and worth.

Q. I have attended many seminars on aging and a question frequently asked is, “How many of you would like to live to be 100?” Very few hands are raised because we do not want to become disabled, sick, frail and dependent. That’s our image of someone who is 100. Yet there is much written about a society for centenarians that is more optimistic. We remember our wonderful role model Betty White who almost made it. What should we know about a 100-year-old life? N.S.

You are right. Living to be 100 has gotten lots of attention with implication for what that means for us as individuals and for society. We all want to be mentally sharp, physically fit, financially secure and live a life with a sense of belonging, purpose and worth.

That’s exactly what Laura Carstensen, Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and her colleagues created in what they call the New Map of Life. Their work addresses the question, “What are we going to do with our century-long lives?” Their initiative defines new models of education, the redesign of how we work, recommends new policies on health, housing, environment, financial security and more. They note today’s norms are based on a time when we lived half as long making the sequence of education, then work, family and retirement outdated.

Then there is the Blue Zone study by Dan Buettner who studied centenarians and the longest-lived people in the world, identifying where they lived and characteristics they had in common. These older people were physically active without going to a gym, ate plant-based diets, belonged to a faith-based community, put their family first, had routines to shed stress, a family network and more.

The book “The 100 Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity” (Bloomsbury Information, 2016) by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, professors from the London Business School, suggests we are moving to a social and economic revolution to make the needed changes for our 100-year-old lives. They indicate people will be working into their 80s and 90s, with changes in work affected by robotics and artificial intelligence. Having two to three different careers will become the norm. They noted our leisure time will be spent less on consumption and recreation and more on investment and “re-creation.” Age will not be connected to one’s life stage, they wrote. You could be an undergraduate in college and no one would be able to guess your age.

Then there is the often-quoted New England Centenarian study, started in 1995 and directed by Dr. Thomas Perls. It is considered the largest and most comprehensive study of centenarians and their families in the world that identifies characteristics centenarians share and reasons for it.

Take this short true-false quiz to check out what you know, based in part on some of the study results.

The questions:

  1. The U.S. is home to 97,000 centenarians; the highest absolute number in the world but with fewer per capita per 10,000 compared to other top countries.

  2. Exceptional longevity runs in families.

  3. Middle-age mothers have a shorter lifespan.

  4. Centenarians seem to be natural stress shedders.

  5. Residents of Loma Linda have the shortest life expectancy compared to residents of any other city in the U.S.

The answers:

  1. True. The U.S. has more centenarians in absolute number but not per capita per 10,000. Japan has 4.8 centenarians per 10,000, Italy 4.1 and the U.S. has 2.2 centenarians per 10,000 people.

  2. True. Longevity has a genetic basis with longer life spans running in families. However, a healthy lifestyle also plays a role. Some research suggests that genes have a 30 percent influence in determining longevity.

  3. False. They actually live longer. Women who gave birth to a child after the age of 40 had four times greater odds of being a centenarian, that is without fertility assistance.

  4. True. Centenarians seem to handle stress well, not letting it affect them. Even in stressful situations when they became less self-sufficient, the majority in a study were not depressed or anxious.

  5. False. Residents in Loma Linda have one of the highest life expectancies in the world. They are 10 times more likely to live to age 100 than typical Americans. The average male age is 89; for women it’s age 91. They are vegetarians, celebrate the Sabbath, exercise regularly and belong to a religious community, most often Seventh Day Adventists. Clearly lifestyle counts. Check out the Blue Zone study on the Internet.

We are not quite ready for a population that will live to be 100. However, there is a work in progress to design an environment and society where exceptional longevity will be a gift. Stay tuned.

Thank you N.S. for your thought-provoking question. Stay well and safe, and be kind to yourself and others.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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