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Article: Living Well

By Elaine Cassel

Have you ever seen that bumper sticker that reads, "If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself?" A few years ago, when it first came out, it was funny. Today, it is more ironic than funny. There are currently more than 50,000 centenarians in the United States, almost three times the number there were in 1980. By the year 2030, the over-65 population will have grown at more than twice the rate of the general population. People born today have a better than 50-50 chance of living to be 100 or more. And people who are 50 today and are in good health can expect to live to be 90 and older! Many of them, hearing the predictions about increased life expectancies, literally wish they had taken better care of themselves.

But even if you are past the halfway mark, it’s never too late to start planning for the second half of your centenarian life. And if you’re in your 20s and 30s, you can get a jumpstart on preparing to live late into the 21st century. Two new books can help prepare you for a long, happy life, regardless of your present age. David J. Mahoney, chairman of the Charles A. Dana Foundation, a brain research think tank, and Richard Restak, a well-known researcher and writer in the area of neuroscience and brain research, wrote The Longevity Strategy: How to Live to 100 Using the Brain-Body Connection (John Wiley & Sons, 1998). Mahoney and Restak do not focus on living to be 100 for the sake of being 100; they address how to live now so that you can be a happy and healthy centenarian.

Mahoney and Restak emphasize long-term career and financial planning, and using their extensive experience in neuroscience research, they devote much of the book to keeping the brain healthy. They stress that exercising the brain is just as important as exercising the body, and that cognitive effort stimulates proliferation of synapses, which help mitigate the decline of neurological functioning and ability. The most well-adjusted and highly functioning centenarians continually challenge themselves by learning new skills or a new language, or tackling math and science courses in continuing education programs.

Thomas T. Perls, professor of medicine at Harvard University Medical School, and Harvard psychology professor Margery Silver wrote Living to 100: Lessons in Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age (Basic Books, 1999). Silver and Perls are involved in the New England Centenarian Study (NECS), an ongoing study of more than 100 centenarians in the Boston area. The results of the study suggest that people who refrain from smoking, drink in moderation, eat less meat and more grains and vegetables, minimize their exposure to the sun, and exercise, can add ten or more years to their lives. Coping with stress and maintaining contact with family members can also prolong life. Not doing these things can take away healthy, productive years.

Both books emphasize the need to take care of yourself now—physically and mentally—and to start creating life plans for your later years. Advances in gerontology and all aspects of medical care, along with higher standards of living, virtually guarantee longevity. But added years will be more burden than blessing if you are not healthy—and happy. So, forget staying young! The issue is going to be how well you age. No matter what your age now, these books will give you ideas about how to live now—so that you can enjoy living at 80, 90, and even 100.

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