When Lillian Butler turned an effervescent, piano-playing 94, the activities director at Meadow Glen of Richmond just had to ask: "What's the secret?"
"She looked at me," recalls Lisa Mullen. "She was so serious.
She said: ‘I eat a banana every day.' "
If only it were that easy.
So what is the real secret to longevity? Fish oil, push-ups, prayer … bananas? Genes certainly play a big role, scientists have discovered; one study found that male siblings of American centenarians were at least 17 times more likely than average to reach the age of 100 themselves, while female siblings were at least eight times more likely. But beyond genetics, there are some things you can do to live a longer, healthier life, as some of Meadow Glen's residents attest.
Mullen asked resident Frances Whitehouse, who turned 90 in May, for tips she would give baby boomers as they enter their later years. "Oh, I have three!" she said. "Exercise, exercise, exercise. You don't think it will matter, but it really does."
She's absolutely right, according to Dr. Peter A. Boling, professor of medicine and director of geriatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. Boling tells his patients to exercise, exercise, exercise, even if they've already reached their 60s and 70s without being particularly active. All it takes is five years of increasing your activity level to see a meaningful difference in cardio health, he says; you can decrease the chance of suffering a cardiovascular event by up to 50 percent.
"You don't have to have done this your life long, and you don't have to be Michael Phelps to make a difference," Boling says.
Bob MacKenzie, 76, chairs the resident-wellness committee at the Westminster Canterbury retirement community. "I'm not an exercise freak," Mac-Kenzie says, but he's always been athletic and outdoorsy. When his knees said "no more running," he simply focused on other activities he enjoys: working out in the fitness center, bicycling (often to Ashland and back) and skeet shooting.
When MacKenzie and his wife moved into the community, he says, their goal was to maintain their health in their remaining years. Then they discovered that Westminster Canterbury had different aims. It wasn't about maintaining but about growing. The community's motto is "Strengthen the body, inspire the mind, nurture the spirit."
All three elements — physical exercise, intellectual and social engagement, and purposeful living — are essential to healthy aging, says Dr. Kevin W. Fergusson, Westminster Canterbury's medical director. Hence the plethora of activities at Westminster Canterbury, which include theater groups, lecture series, computer classes and more.
What if you're just not a social butterfly? Remaining mentally engaged doesn't mean you have to join the canasta club. "One of my favorite residents," Fergusson says, "just reads history books one after the other," and is apt to strike up a conversation about Stonewall Jackson during his routine medical exams.
Simply keeping busy, however, is not enough. An essential element of life in the later years is empowerment, says Meadow Glen's Mullen. The activities she organizes for residents are not about simply "pursuing leisure activities, but letting them know that they're still a vital part of this community, and of
The Meadow Glen ladies echo what Mullen says. "Keep your activities as long as you can," says Marion Scheide-mantel, who's almost 87.
"Keep on visiting. Keep on talking. Don't shut up!" says Marilyne Camp, 75.
You've got to stay connected, Mullen says. Keep up with current events, talk to your friends, follow the stock market. Too often she sees older people's health decline simply because they've let themselves get bored, and they begin to lose their sense of self.
When is it time?
One of the toughest — and most important — decisions that influences quality of life is when to move out of your home and into a retirement community.
"Coming into a facility like this isn't easy," MacKenzie says. "I didn't want to come here." It was hard for him and his wife to leave their friends and their home in Williamsburg and move into Westminster Canterbury. However, he says he's glad now that they didn't wait.
Maintaining one's independence is a key ingredient of longevity. True, many people live into their 90s and 100s in their own homes with the help of caregivers and family, but hanging on to your accustomed life until your health starts to decline can be risky. An illness or injury is one of the biggest obstacles to maintaining your quality of life, Mullen says. The recovery can be long, and people sometimes sink into a depression. Follow-up care and therapy "become an important part of your life, and can take up a lot of what used to be your leisure time," she says.
So when should you make the move from home to community?
"Everybody agrees that you need to come when you don't need to come," says 70-year-old Westminster Canterbury resident Ann Reed. She and her husband, Stanley, 71, moved in three years ago. (The minimum age to become a resident is 65.)
The Reeds plunged into the life of the community as soon as they arrived. They and their two dachshunds are familiar sights on the North Side campus. Mandy, the older canine, is a therapy dog that makes the rounds in assisted-living facilities; Higgins, the puppy, loves children. The key to healthy aging, the Reeds say, is taking on new responsibilities. "Something you have to do that keeps you doing instead of sitting around and taking naps all the time," Stanley Reed says.
What else can you do to make a long life a good life? The Meadow Glen ladies have one more suggestion.
"Hold onto your good memories," says Elsie Heskett.
"How do you do that?" asks Mary Zanca.
And everyone roars with laughter.
Here's what will keep you young …
• Maintaining a healthy weight: Yeah, we know you don't want to hear it. But obesity "is probably the biggest threat to the health of the boomers right now," Boling says.
• Watching what you put into your body: A recent British study found that eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, not smoking, and drinking alcohol in moderation could add 14 years to your life.
• Vitamin D: A deficiency of Vitamin D (sources: sunlight, some fish, including cod, tuna and salmon) is related to muscle weakness, fractures and falls. Talk to your doctor about taking a supplement, Boling says.
• Owning a pet: Heart-attack victims who own a pet are 28 percent more likely to recover than those who don't.
• Flossing: Simply flossing can add a year to your life, as gum disease is linked to heart disease.
… and here's what will subtract years from your life.
• Eating lots of red meat: A recent National Cancer Institute study found that men and women eating the highest amount of red meat were found to have, respectively, a 31-percent and 36-percent higher risk of dying from any cause than those eating the least amount.
• Sleeping too much or too little: Sleeping more than eight hours a night or less than six can take two to three years off your life expectancy.
• Being a grump: A Mayo Clinic study found that optimists live longer and have a better quality of life than pessimists.
• What's your life expectancy? Find out with the Living to 100 Life Expectancy Calculator at livingto100.com.