The idea of living past 100 years of age may be a difficult sell for some, but to others it’s alluring. Granted, an elderly person who is relatively healthy may have a much stronger desire to live past 100 than a younger person who is cushioned from the inevitability of aging.
Throughout the world, the global population is aging at a historic rate. The number of nonagenarians (people in their 90s) rose from 7.8 million to 16.5 million between 2000 and 2015. The number of centenarians (people age 100 and older) is expected to jump from 180,000 in 2000 to 3.2 million by 2050.
In nonagenarians and centenarians, exceptional longevity is characterized by positive psychological traits and mindset, hard work, and strong bonds with family, faith, and land, according to the results of a mixed-methods quantitative-qualitative study recently published in International Psychogeriatrics.
“Studying the strategies of exceptionally long-lived and lived-well individuals, who not just survive but also thrive and flourish, enhances our understanding of health and functional capacities in all age groups,” wrote the authors, led by Anna Scelzo, PsyD, MSc, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Azienda Sanitaria Locale 4, Chiavarese, Italy.
The investigators examined positive psychological traits among 29 nonagenarians and centenarians and 51 “young-old” family members (aged 51-75 years) by using standardized rating scales of mental and physical well-being, resilience, optimism, anxiety, depression, and perceived stress.
The researchers also conducted qualitative interviews to detail personal narratives, such as migrations, beliefs, and traumatic events. Next, they interviewed the young-old family members regarding the personality traits of their nonagenarian and centenarian relatives.
The researchers found that nonagenarians and centenarians experienced worse physical health but maintained better mental well-being vs their younger relatives. This superior mental well-being was negatively associated with levels of depression and anxiety. This “paradox” of better well-being in the elderly despite worsened physical state jibes with previous research on the topic.
In qualitative interviews, themes that emerged included positivity (resilience and optimism), working hard, and strong ties to both family and religion.
Nonagenarian and centenarian subjects exhibited a strong need for control (ie, domineering). These older individuals also wanted to be in charge of their own social lives and were described as “stubborn” by their younger relatives. Among all subjects, engagement in social activities was cited as a necessity to feel responsible, important, and connected.
Resilience was also identified an integral part of nonagenarian and centenarian identity. The authors highlighted that centenarians are role models for resilience because they have survived decades of risk and threats. They have had to adapt to countless daily stressors through a long life. Furthermore, exceptional longevity could represent sustainability, which involves a complex mix of identity, tradition, and change—thus indicating the importance of resilience, optimism, and purpose in life.
This study was conducted in Cilento, a city in southern Italy, which is the “Birthplace of the Mediterranean diet.” The investigators suggested that, based on previous research in this population, there could be partially linked heritability of longevity and positive traits.
One major limitation of this study is that it relied on retrospective accounts of life experiences, which could be biased. The investigators also used semi-structured vs in-depth interviews, which could make it more difficult to elicit themes.
“Exceptional longevity was characterized by a balance between acceptance of and grit to overcome adversities along with a positive attitude and close ties to family, religion, and land, providing purpose in life,” the researchers concluded.