Genetic and Lifestyle Influences to Live to 100

What types of Genes & Lifestyle contribute to a 100 year old Great Grandmother who lives on her own, and a 95 year old track and field competitor?

As I travel home for my great grandma’s 100th birthday, I am once again thinking about aging, how does one live to 100 relatively disease free, vs. someone who passes away in their 60’s or 70’s?  Is much of it genetic?  Are there ways we can live to enhance our health to an older age?
A few weeks back I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts by Rich Roll.  He was interviewing an author who had written a book about a 95-year-old track and field star (including the 100 m sprint, high jump, and long jump).  She often competes in up to 10 events at one meet!  She had started practicing track and field at the age of 77!  Olga is an example of someone who was generally active throughout life, became an elite athlete for her age in her late 70’s!  How does someone do this, when most people her age are moving into homes?  The author, and I, both know the obvious:  when we eat better, sleep better, and move more, we live longer and healthier lives.
He also points out a few other rules of living longer:

1)   Keep Moving: “IF EVERYBODY EXERCISED, ACCORDING TO SOME ESTIMATES, THE GAINS OF HEALTH CARE COST SAVINGS WOULD BE THE EQUIVALENT OF THE DISCOVERY OF ANTIBIOTICS”.  We decrease our risk of the 5 major diseases that kill in our society, our brains working quicker and more efficiently, and we sleep better!  Olga grew up living on a farm, and spent the majority of her childhood years helping with farm labour- that’s the best type of activity you can get!  As an adult she stayed naturally very active.  At one point she wanted to tear down a house to rebuild, so she tore it down herself!  I know this to be true of my great grandmother as well.  She tells many stories of all the washing/cleaning/house work she did in her own home, and for others.   She was bowling and playing shuffle board into her 90’s! Active living is the way to go!  “Older folk who can walk briskly have a 90 % chance of living an extra 10 years”.
            There was one study listed in the book about mitochondrial DNA damage and exercise.  DNA damage is what happens over time as we live our lives, as we naturally experience degradation in the body.  As our DNA becomes damaged this is what causes mutations and changes in our physical structure, and can lead to death.  There was a study done with rats, who had their DNA damaged artificially by the researchers.  Quite quickly the rats presented all signs of aging:  gray, weak, shriveled sex organs, sclerotic hearts and failed hearing.  The researchers then took two groups, one control and one who ran 3 times a week for 45 minutes.  All mice who participated in the exercise protocol completely reversed all signs of aging, ended up with a sleek dark coat, plump muscles, normal sized hearts.  “In just about every measurable way, exercise reversed the signs of premature aging in these mice”.  WOW- What a STUDY!
I say over and over how important it is to maintain your muscle mass as you age, as this is your protector for a long and healthy life!  I love the one story in the book about Olga visiting a Kinesiology lab to have her strength tested.  At the age of 93 she bench-pressed 60 pounds 15 times (and it was more than she did 2 years prior).  This is incredible to me!  I will use this as evidence to continue to persuade people to life heavy!

2)   Create Routine: Those that live the longest have established healthy routines for themselves, but also find ways to challenge themselves.  “Create routines” the author say’s, “but don’t get stuck in a rut”.  Olga has her meal routines (Oatmeal every morning), and has her pre race routines (praying, and laying with her legs up in the air) but isn’t afraid to try new things (such as a new food if she is travelling to a new country). My Great Grandma also has some routines!  One thing I hear her ask for a lot is to get a good fresh salad in!  Personally I believe routines instill good health habits, and take some stress away from daily life.

3)   Be opportunistic. The author notes that the longest living people know how to find the most important 20 % of each task to focus their energy here, rather than wasting their time on 80 % of the rest of the task.  AKA, they are efficient.  Olga realized this when she left her marriage.  Their was no use bringing her best efforts to it anymore, and there was no shame in leaving, it was time to not see something to the end!  I think as a society we tend to get stuck on this one.  We focus on trying to make everything work, and look good, rather than giving it our all to the 20 % that’s most important to you!

4)   Be kind. Studies on baboons show the longest living baboons are the kindest.  I know this to be true of my great grandmother.  Most christmas’s up to her late 90’s she would knit every single member of our family a pair of slippers!
The author also talks about being intuitive, and ‘feeling others’.  Olga has a powerful sense of feeling others emotions.  “She is powerfully self- aware, and self-awareness is the way out of “dukkha”- suffering and chronic disease, It is the path to good health and long life”.  I firmly believe this to be true, although I am skeptical about my Great Grandma’s ability to “feel” others.  She is consistently making ‘weight’ jokes, and saying some of the wittiest comments I could imagine to the members of my family!  “Have you gained weight?” is one of her favourite questions.  Coming from a regular person her comments could leave scars, but from a 100 year old, how can you really get mad?

5)   Have a belief system.  People who believe in something, possibly religion, anything that keeps you trusting the fact that all your life lessons serve a higher purpose tend to live longer.  These people tend to look at life differently and thrive.  Both Olga and my great grandmother went to church weekly their entire lives!  That’s a belief system if I’ve ever seen one, and a community too!

6)   “There’s no time for grumbling, only grace and attitude”. The author notes that relieving stress, and not worrying about the things you can’t control is so important to a long life!  But at the same time he also dives into why some time hardships are extremely important in growing  physically and mentally stronger.  Olga had to escape a physically abusive relationship, divorce her husband, and move her 2 kids across the country.  She also grew up on the prairies and endured tremendous ‘cold’ stress as a child.  My great grandmother immigrated from Holland in the 1940’s, post war.  I can’t imagine any greater stress than leaving your family behind to move to a foreign country, with everything so unknown!  She has shared with me many stories about trying to integrate into Canada and learn the language!  She also endured the passing of two precious loves in her life, and 2 of her 3 children.  These two women are tough!

7)   Cultivate a sense of progress.  The author notes that when we are celebrating small wins in our lives, and when we feel like we are moving forward we feel more satisfied with our lives.  I think this is extremely powerful, and why the track and field was perfect for Olga.  She was always striving for a new record, or event, how could you not be motivated to live longer when you have such fun goals planned for yourself?

8)   Only do things you love. The author notes that if things don’t feel good for you to do, or you aren’t enjoying them, you shouldn’t do them.  He say’s that things should be enjoyable, like play!  When Olga was playing softball into her 70’s she experienced an injury from another player.  She was fearful of it happening again in that sport so there wasn’t any point playing anymore, she would move on to be a track star!  My great grandma loves BINGO and goes multiple times per week I guess she follows this rule too!

9)   Begin Now.  I LOVE THIS RULE!  A large majority of the book talks about how after midlife is sometimes the best time to start exercising if you haven’t your whole life.  First of all if you haven’t been active you most likely don’t have any repetitive use injuries, or bone or joint problems similar to those that have been active in their lives.  Secondly you probably have retired, or are an empty nester, or have paid off your home, you have no one left to look after and it’s time to focus on you!  Olga took up track and field very late in life, so it’s never too late for you either!

Other similarities between Olga and my Grandmother:
–       They both sleep well each night!  Olga in fact wakes up for a few hours in the middle of the night, and uses this time to do a stretching/rolling routine (fantastic way to keep the tissues mobile and flexible), but she still gets her deep REM sleep in every night.  “Exercise may be the best sleep aid there is, it has been linked to faster sleep onset, and faster onset of the highest quality sleep.  BUT- don’t overdo it.  If you aren’t sleeping well, you in fact should be DECREASING your exercise.  Exercising when you are exhausted can in fact be detrimental, rather than beneficial to your physiology.  Without sleep we don’t regenerate the hormones, repair muscles, or improve the immune system as needed with heavy activity.  Get the sleep in first!  
–       This book specifically mentions that Olga’s diet doesn’t seem to play too big of a role in her age.  She eats all types of food, generally healthy, and indulges when she wants to!  I know the same is true for my Great Grandma, she enjoys her healthy home cooked meals, Wendy’s salads, but she’s known to have a cookie or two as well!
–       The book also mentions a few personality characteristics seen in healthy old people:
–       1)  Openness:  “What have I got to lose?”
–       2)  Conscientiousness:  Measure of goal orientedness.  “Are able to tolerate unsatisfied needs without abandoning their plan of action”
–       3)  Extroversion:  You walk away from a party with more energy then you came with.
–       4)  Agreeableness:  Listen well and are generous with praise and affection.
–       5)  Neuroticism:  React appropriately to genuine threats, but didn’t waste energy on imagined threats perceived to be there.
–       Brain structural integrity.  Olga’s brain shows fantastic integrity in two places known to respond to exercise training.  She also has as many firing motor units as someone 30 years younger.  My Great Grandmother has also maintained fantastic brain function for her age.  At some points she was experience memory loss and was being treated for Alzheimer’s, which seems to be fine now.  She often say’s things like “Nice to meet you”, rather than ‘Nice to see you”, but who knows if that’s her brain, or the fact that English is a second language to her!

Overall I see plenty of similarities between these two women.  I would assume that the physiology of my Great Grandmother’s muscles are not as ‘athletically inclined’ as Olga’s, as she wasn’t a track star in her 90’s, but they both clearly have some genetic and lifestyle cards stacked in their favour.  The book called “ What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson was a fantastic read and I recommend it to you all!  Sadly Olga passed away this past June of a brain hemorrhage.  She sure did make an impact on this world, as has my Great Grandmother!