If I live until I’m ninety, I have nearly one-third of my life to go. This thought occurred to me some time ago as I watched 60 Minutes for the first time in years. Interestingly, I stumbled on an episode that featured a story about research completed on an older population. The research actually began with questionnaires completed in the early 1980s. The now-completed project came to some fascinating and surprising conclusions about what leads to living a longer life.

The fastest growing segment of the U.S. population is people over ninety. I shudder to think what this means to social security. However, the fact that more people are living to be ninety is encouraging to someone like me who still has a long to-do list. (Not to mention multiple grandchildren that I would love to see grow up to be adults.)

Before getting into the details of the story, it is interesting to note that someone who is ninety today was born before 1929. This means they lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. They saw airplanes and cars go from undependable toys for the wealthy to staples of modern transportation. They have lived through the breath-taking invention of the manual typewriter, mainframe computers, personal computers, laptops, and, ultimately, phones that are driven by powerful little computer chips. If they read Dick Tracy cartoons in their younger years, they now can wear a watch that connects to their phone, bringing at least some of that cartoon fiction into their real life.

The 60 Minutes story reported on research that was based on information gathered at a large retirement facility in Southern California. This facility gathered information from thousands of residents starting in 1981. Over fourteen thousand people completed their surveys. The researchers tracked down as many people as possible to complete additional study on the participants. Ultimately, approximately 1600 people who had completed the surveys in the 1980s participated in the follow-up research.

As part of the study, the participants were examined every six months. These evaluations included an examination of their facial muscles, reflexes, and balance. Researchers also checked on how they walked and how fast they could stand up and sit down. Most importantly, they went through one hour of cognitive tests to see how well their minds were working.

There were several things I found fascinating about the story, but the one that struck me the most was the attitude of four of the senior citizens as they were interviewed. These four ninety-plusers looked forward to the challenge of their semiannual evaluation. Their response during the interview conveyed that they embraced an amazingly active lifestyle. These are not people marking time until they die. They have positive attitudes and are enjoying life. They seemed to be more likely in their 70s than in their 90s.

The specific things that were identified as being common to those who live longer contain some elements that we would expect. Yet, there were also a number of surprises. Here is the list of key findings:

  1. Genes clearly contribute to longevity. A family history of longer life is an indicator of potential for a longer life, but it is far from the whole story. A percentage of people with good family histories die young, and some people with bad family histories end up living into their 90s.
  2. Not surprisingly, smokers die earlier than non-smokers.
  3. Moderate alcohol use is associated with living longer versus those who abstain from any alcohol use. It turns out that the type of alcohol is not important. Red wine showed no advantage over white wine, beer, or mixed drinks. The key was limiting intake to one to two drinks per day. Up to two drinks per day led to a 10-15% reduced risk of death compared to non-drinkers.
  4. Coffee intake equivalent to 1-3 cups per day was better than drinking more coffee each day or not drinking coffee at all.
  5. Moderation applies to exercise as well. The sweet spot for exercise is 45 minutes per day. As little as 15 minutes per day made a positive difference, but going beyond 45 minutes per day had minimal additional impact. Even three hours per day did not beat 45 minutes per day. The key is a steady 45 minutes per day and the exercise can be spread out during the day. Exercise can include going to the gym, but lifestyle exercise such as walking, swimming, gardening, and even moving your arms while watching TV count.
  6. Socializing with friends including playing cards and board games were good. An active social life and participating in activities that stimulated the mind contributed to the probability of reaching ninety.
  7. Surprisingly, vitamins had no impact on living longer. This included vitamins E, A, C, and calcium. It doesn’t hurt to take vitamins but it won’t make you live longer.
  8. Finally, the study showed that, as you age, the best thing to do is to at least maintain, or even gain a bit of weight. As an older person, being slightly heavier than the weight guidelines for your height was found to be healthier than being either at or below the government specified weight. Being overweight in younger life, or being obese at any time, was not good. But carrying moderately more weight in your later years was correlated with longer life. It is apparently not good to be skinny when you are old.

One additional finding of the study. It has long been believed that if you did not get dementia or Alzheimer’s by the time you turn 90, that you were not likely to get it. Unfortunately, the study results did not support this. The study found that the risk of dementia doubles every five years starting at age 65. It keeps on doubling every five years as you age. This suggests that we will have a major issue to address as the number of ninety-plusers grows.