The unexpected secrets of living to 100 years

By Charlie Williams
Published July 2, 2020

Key Takeaways

Health advice can feel pretty aggressive sometimes. Want to lose weight? Exercise more and eat less! Want better relationships? Love more, hate less! Want to improve your mental health? Meditate more, scroll less! Poke around on the internet and it won’t take long before you conclude that it’s all on you—you’re either not doing enough or you’re doing way too much.

Taking greater control of your life is an important step toward improving your health. But, the uncomfortable truth is that there will always be aspects of your health that are extremely difficult to influence—and some that are simply beyond your control.

That’s the key takeaway of a recent study published by researchers at Washington State University: We can’t ignore that our living environment—which can define how much exercise we get, what education we’ll receive, and what socioeconomic bracket we’re likely to fall into—plays a big role in determining whether we’ll live to blow out the candles on our 100th birthday cake.

Products of our environment

Scientists have known for decades that living environments influence health and longevity. Significant evidence suggests that living in communities with access to green space is better for the body and mind. The healthiest communities in the United States earned their status because of their equitable access to suitable nutrition, quality education, and good healthcare. And the common thread between the areas across the world where people are most likely to live to be over 100 years old, called “Blue Zones,” tend to be positive environmental factors, such as the cultural value of family ties and the quality of the regional diet.

In fact, environmental conditions are so important to health and well-being that scientists estimate that only 20% to 35% of the way a person ages and how long they live is the product of heritable traits, like their genes. The remaining 65% to 80% is the sum of the so-called “social determinants of health,” which include all outside factors contributing to a person’s health, including educational attainment, access to quality healthcare, and socioeconomic status.

In their study, the Washington State University researchers found evidence to support these assertions. When they analyzed state mortality data on 144,665 Washington residents who died at age 75 years or older, they identified the following environmental conditions that were more likely to be found among people who lived to be 100 years of age:

Neighborhood walkability

A neighborhood’s “walkability” is directly related to its walkable access to important infrastructure like public transit, healthy food, healthcare clinics, and other community hot spots. More walkable areas allow people to walk and bike for transportation and recreational purposes, which has the dual effect of helping them save money and increase the amount of exercise they get. Previous studies have found that people who live in communities with more walkable areas and parks have lower BMI values and a 30% greater rate of physical activity.

Educational attainment

Previous studies have suggested that higher education levels are strongly associated with lower mortality. Higher academic achievement has been linked to better employment opportunities, better knowledge of health resources and behaviors, and better management of health problems.

In this recent study, however, education was unexpectedly found to be negatively associated with becoming a centenarian. The researchers suggested that rapid advances in educational attainment in the last few generations may be raising the bar across the board (34% of Americans had a high school diploma in 1950 vs 80% by 2000), and could explain the lack of association between educational attainment and longevity. Specifically, higher levels of education might lead to larger gaps in longevity among the younger population due to the rapidly changing technological landscape of life in the United States and in healthcare.

Marital Status

Compared with married older adults, those who were widowed, never married, or were divorced were more likely to become centenarians (in decreasing order of likelihood). These findings fly in the face of decades of previous scientific findings, which generally posit the theory of “marriage protection,” the idea that being married is associated with greater social connectedness, which has also been independently associated with later mortality.

However, unlike many of these other studies, this study specifically focused on people over the age of 75. The researchers theorized that their findings might be partially explained by the fact that strained marriages may be an independent cause of harmful stress and diminished health outcomes, and that widowed, divorced or unmarried people may not have to face the negative health consequences of unhealthy marriages.

Socioeconomic status

According to the recent study findings, people who lived in areas of greater deprivation were less likely to become a centenarian; on the other hand, those who had higher socioeconomic statuses were more likely to live to an older age. Socioeconomic factors that increased the likelihood of a person becoming a centenarian included income, being able to afford health interventions, and having more and better social connections.

Sex and racial makeup

In line with decades of previous research, this study found that women are much more likely than men to live to 100 years old, and that non-white individuals did not live as long as white individuals. Research in the US has consistently shown higher mortality rates for African Americans compared to white Americans. Conversely, Hispanic and Asian individuals, as well as Pacific Islanders, have been shown to have lower mortality rates compared with white individuals. Explanations for these results may be related to the negative health effects of discrimination and lower socioeconomic status in communities where non-white individuals make up a greater proportion of the population.

Percentage of working age population

Centenarians were more likely to be found in communities where higher percentages of the population were of working age. Urban areas are more likely to have younger populations and more labor force participants, which suggests higher educational attainment (meaning higher income) and improved socioeconomic conditions among those people. Higher percentages of the working age populations correlate with greater availability of work, easier access to services and programs, and a preference for a more active lifestyle.

The unexpected secrets to living to 100 years old

There it is folks—more evidence to suggest that where you live determines how well you live, which plays a big part in determining how long you live.

There’s no doubt that it’s still important to focus on the health factors immediately before you, like eating healthier foods, getting more exercise, and improving your relationships. But, it’s important to think about the big picture, too. Does your community have green space? Do you use it? Can you walk or bike to a grocery store, a train, or bus station? Will your next paycheck go straight to bills or can you put a slice aside for leisure and savings?

Bottom line: Keep an eye on these environmental factors. After all, they make up 65% to 80% of your health.

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