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We All Can Learn From Active Nonagenarians

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Today, there are almost 2 million nonagenarians in the U.S. That number is expected to reach 2.6 million in 2020 and could reach 12 million in a couple of decades.

We don’t know much about this age group.  In fact, we know more about frail older adults living in nursing homes than we do about active 90-year olds.In an interview with the Star Ledger, Alan Richardson, Director of the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio notes that active 90-year olds are difficult to locate.

Enter the 90+ Study with Principal Investigator Dr. Claudia Kawas, Professor of Neurology and Neurobiology at UC Irvine.

In 2008, the National Institute on Aging gave UC Irvine $7 million to study the health of people 90 and older.  That grant helped extend what is considered a landmark study of 14,000 retirees in Laguna Woods Village, formerly Leisure World.

In the early 1980s when the study began, the average age of participants was 73.  Now, a 1,000 of these individuals are in their 90s and are participating in the 90+ Study.

Researchers visit them every six months to obtain information about diet, activities, medical history and medications.

Here are some of the findings:

  • Those who drank a moderate amount of alcohol or coffee lived longer than those who did not.
  • More than 40 per cent of those aged 90 and older suffered from dementia; almost 80 per cent were disabled.  Both were more common among women than men.
  • Links have been discovered between the level of exercise and longevity.

And speaking of nonagenarians, I and 15 others had the opportunity to have lunch with an exceptional nonagenarian – Louis Zamperini.

Having lunch with Mr. Z. was a live auction item at the recent Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation fund raiser.  The price was $10,000 – and no one bid on it – until after the event.  Then 16 individuals contributed a total of $8,000 to make the event happen with all proceeds going to the TCAF.

Zamperini is the subject of the New York Times bestseller “Unbroken” (Random House, 2010) by Laura Hillenbrand.  He was born and raised in Torrance, a USC grad, an Olympic runner and POW in World War II.

There is much we can learn from this 93-year old hero about being hardy, survival, resilience and the gift of forgiveness.

He noted that “the effects of World War II are not yet over.  War is never over.” And yet, there is no room for hate.  “When you hate someone, you hate yourself; it’s self-destructive.”

Forgiveness is key.

For many, life is not over at the age of 90.  Sophocles wrote the epic drama “Oedipus at Colonus”at 90.  At 91, Hulda Crooks climbed the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States.  George Burns at 92 played a younger character (81) in the movie “18 Again”.  At 93, Marc Chagall completed two paintings and conductor Leopold Stokowski at 94 signed a six-year recording contract.

Connie Springer, a free-lance photographer and author of “Positively Ninety: Interviews with Lively Nonagenarians”    ( Blurb, 2010) reminds us that less notables in their 90s also have much to teach us — about love, dignity, passion, faith, drive, determination, hope and more.

She chronicled the lives of 28 nonagenarians living with purpose and writes about “attesting to living one’s life with a joi de vivre in place of trepidation about growing older.”  She observed the personality of these 90-year olds and identified usual traits such as positive attitude and regular physical and mental exercise.

She also identified traits less recognized such as living simply, never turning down an invitation, relating to younger people, having a “nothing can stop me” outlook, not thinking about aging and being just plain lucky.

Springer admits that not everyone ages with positive outcomes and not all are in charge of their journey through life.  However, she offers the people in her book as a source of inspiration, acknowledging that behavior and outlook can be changed for the better.

I couldn’t agree more.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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