Australian centenarians: how to live past 100

By Joanna Egan 13 November 2012
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These Australian centenarians knows what it takes to live to triple figures.

THE NUMBER OF AUSTRALIANS living beyond the age of 100 is higher than ever before. While there are many contributing factors that relate specifically to life in Australia, there are aspects of lifestyle that can have an effect, too.

The latest demographics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reveal more than 4250 centenarians (people aged 100 years or older) and super-centenarians (people aged 110 years or older) are currently living in Australia.

This number is about 235 per cent higher than two decades ago, although the nation’s total population grew by just 31 per cent during that time.

High life expectancy for Australians

Factors such as health advancements, disease control, improved sewerage, better education about lifestyle choices, and access to clean water, safe food and pharmaceuticals can contribute to increased longevity in Australia and abroad.

Worldwide, the United Nations estimates there were about 455,000 centenarians in 2009. That number is predicted to increase nine-fold to about 4.1 million by 2050.

As of 2012, Australia has one of the highest rates of centenarians per capita, behind Japan, France, the US, Canada and the UK. According to centenarian expert John McCormack from La Trobe University, Melbourne, there are plenty of good reasons.

“We’ve got a good health system, we’ve got good clean water, and we control a lot of infections that once led to premature death,” John says. “We also saw an increase in births about a century ago, which is a contributing factor to the number of centenarians we have today, and our infant mortality rate is one of the lowest in the world.”

How to live past 100 years

Over the past decade, John has surveyed 130 centenarians and super-centenarians to learn more about healthy ageing and to discover the secrets of longevity. 

“The general conclusion is that there’s no single magic bullet,” he says. “It’s more a combination of factors, such as having a good diet and not taking too many risks. 

“A lot of very old people say they’ve always done things in moderation but there’s usually some combination of nature and nurture involved, and often a bit of luck.” 

About three-quarters of Australia’s centenarians are female, while more than half were born abroad. 

“The reason migrants tend to be slightly overrepresented amongst centenarians is probably due to the fact that anyone who migrated here would have had to pass a health test,” says John. “The reason there are more women could be that women tend to look after themselves better than men.”

Secrets to a long, happy life

Of the people John interviewed, most weren’t smokers and those who did smoke gave up at an early age. Most worked in physical occupations when they were younger, all were in a healthy weight range and more than half still lived in the community, rather than in a nursing home. 

“We have this stereotype that older people are frail, decrepit and totally dependent,” says John. “But that’s not the case. More than 60 per cent said they were happy and satisfied with life.” 

All the centenarians surveyed had lost loved ones during their lives, often including their partners and their own children. John says the ability to deal with loss is an important part of reaching a very old age.

“They are experts at handling loss,” John says of the surveyed centenarians. “They seem to focus on what they have and what they can do, rather than on what they don’t have and can’t do anymore.” 

As more and more people reach old age each year, John says it is important that we speak to today’s centenarians to learn about healthy ageing. 

“We don’t just want to add years to life,” says John. “We want to add life to years.”

Top 5 tips: how to live longer

1. Avoid smoking

2. Eat a balanced diet

3. Work in a physical occupation

4. Maintain a healthy weight range

5. Remain positive about life

View the ABS estimates here. View the United Nations statistics here.


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