Toothless geezer.

Is there a difference between old and too old? Looking ahead to becoming a centenarian.

Eight years ago, when I was a wet-behind-the-ears age of sixty-six, I wrote about “joining the legions of 90-and-older” one day, which was still almost two dozen years into the future. Well, that one day would have been October 7, 2037, which doesn’t seem so far away now. Therefore, with increasing optimism, I have expanded my goal to breaking the 100-year age barrier and joining the envied realm of centenarian. Why so hopeful? First of all, I’m in better shape than I was then, thanks to daily exercise and a healthier diet. Then there are statisticians working in cooperation with the U.S. Census Bureau who project that there will be 160,000 centenarians in the United States in 2047. That increases my odds dramatically. That’s almost 70,000 more than there were in 2020.

Some people fear age, and that is understandable if disability and disease have made your life a challenge as you embark into your sixties and seventies. I can’t say I’m looking forward to getting even older, but I no longer look ahead with trepidation.

This gnawing concern we have about getting old starts, for many it seems, when we turn 30 and escalates with each successive decade. It may approach panic stage when we hit 50 because we know the length of life we have left is considerably shorter than what we have already spent so carelessly. Or is it? Well, it was back then but not so much anymore. I could be a pessimist about it and consider that two thirds of my life is almost gone even if — I mean when—I do reach 100.

If you turned 30 in 1900, you would have fewer than 20 years left had you lived the typical lifespan of the time. Those turning 30 this year, based on the current average length of life, will have about 50 more years in their mortality accounts before checking out, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

The average life span of Americans is about 80. Women live a bit longer than that and men a bit shorter. The U.S. Census Bureau told me there were almost 2 million people 90 and older living in 2014 when I first wrote about the subject. In 1980, that segment of the population numbered only 720,000. The prognosis is that in 2050, or the 90th birthday year of people turning 62 this year, or early retirement age, there will be 9 million people 90 and older.

Think about this. In the decade my parents were born— the 1920’s— there were fewer than five million people who were 65 and beyond. My father did manage to make it to his 90th birthday year and Mom, who died the year before him, was 85.

Let’s consider the financial impact. For every person collecting Social Security, there will be fewer than one worker putting money into that account in 2050. To put it in perspective, there are barely three workers for every recipient today —down from the 16-to-one ratio in 1935—and it will be down to two for every recipient in 2030, according to The CPA Journal. As of the month of May 2022, there are almost 50 million eligible for Social Security benefits today, and that doesn’t count those with disabilities on Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Consider these statistical tidbits from 2014, compliments of Census Bureau statisticians. About one percent of people 65 thru 69 were in nursing homes, with that percentage rising to three in the 75-79 age group. From there, the percentage of those aged 85 through 89 in nursing care almost quadrupled to 11.2 percent, spiking to almost 20 percent in the 90-94 group. People living into their nineties and beyond are collecting 30, 40 years and more of Social Security benefits while, at the same time, a growing number of people are retiring after fewer years than that of employment.

But that’s just more negative stuff to make you feel bad about getting old and a burden to our children and grandchildren. The ongoing research study known as “90+” has taken advantage of statistical data and testing of thousands of residents of a California retirement community almost 35 years ago when they were in their fifties and sixties. They rounded up the ones who had continued to survive and thrive into their nineties, questioning, testing and otherwise studying them closely to find out how they’ve done it. They also sought answers about the causes of those despoilers of the old —senility, dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Some level of senility, or diminished cognitive function, is common as we age, but let’s find out what we all want to know. What are the keys to longevity? And what are the things we should or shouldn’t be doing if we want to live beyond 90 and still be reasonably healthy, physically and mentally?

It’s no surprise that smoking cuts your life short. There are exceptions, of course, but smoking will, as a rule, kill you sooner and probably bring more suffering into your final years, months and days.

On the positive side, it is no surprise that exercise is key to a longer life, but, unlike what some exercise buffs would like you to believe, you don’t need a lot of exercise and it doesn’t have to be all that intense. Forty-five minutes a day is as good as going at it for three hours after a certain age, and you don’t have to do it all at one time, the data shows. Even an average of 15 minutes a day contributes to longevity. Supplement this with a fairly active lifestyle, spending time with others and keeping the brain and tongue sharp, and you’ve got a leg up on living longer and enjoying those bonus years.

Things We Can Do to Achieve Longevity

Life can be unfair, it seems, and some have a genetic advantage over others when it comes to longevity, with accident and illness leveling the playing field.

However, there were quite a few surprises that should make some of us happy. Would you believe people who drink coffee in moderation tend to live longer than people who don’t? It’s some of the stuff we put in our coffee that does the damage.

How about this one? Consuming alcohol on a daily basis will help you live longer— a 10 to 15 percent “reduced risk of death” compared to non-drinkers. Sorry, teetotalers, but a glass or two of wine, beer and even a martini is actually a plus if you want to live beyond 90. As with coffee, and probably even more so, moderation is important in healthful alcohol consumption. I enjoy a beer now and again, and now and again is the way it has to be. Most beers don’t affect your blood sugar, but the carbs can add up if you consume more than a few pints a week.

Finally, and possibly the most welcome news, is that a little weight gain, as much as five pounds a decade from your fifties on, is another ingredient for a longer life.  Being underweight is particularly undesirable in old age, which means that skinny old people are not likely to live as long as people with a little extra padding. Keep in mind that obesity is a no-no, no matter what your age.

The common bond in all of this can be summed up in one word and that’s moderation. One might argue that living so many years is immoderate or excessive, especially if there is minimal quality of life in the last leg of life’s journey. Moderation in all things is a good rule to follow, in my opinion, but does living 30 years longer than your grandfather— much of it in retirement— make you better or happier?

Can you have too much moderation? The best quote I could find on that came from Brandon Sanderson in his fantasy novel, The Alloy of Law:

“Even a good thing can become destructive if taken to excess.”