Happiness and Longevity: Learning from Centenarians

Are Centenarians Happier Than Other People?

Personally, I’d love to live to be 100, and am fascinated by the lifestyle differences between those who live a long time and those who don’t.


What do they do differently than others?


It turns out, they might just worry less than everyone else.
Secrets of Centenarians

Living a long and happy life is a goal most of us aspire to.

Most calls to action for exercising, eating healthy, becoming a better you, etc, usually evoke a conservative ethos that demand discipline, commitment, and a willingness to “embrace the pain” that healthy living demands.

However, most research suggests these approaches peter out after a few months, followed by adverse consequences. For example, extreme dieting is usually quickly followed by overeating that causes people to regain their old weight and then some. This ends up being true about 2/3 the time. Furthermore, your body forms “set points” that it wants to stay at, and rapid weight loss or weight gain is usually followed by hormonal changes that make you eat more or less to get back to your original weight.

The Characteristics of Centenarians

When you read studies about centenarians (people who live to be 100), you get the impression they didn’t get there by reading diet magazines and years of willful neglect. Instead, most of them “relaxed” their way into graceful aging.

There are a lot of reasons why people live to be a long time. Low calorie diets help. The immune systems of centenarians also undergo different changes in old age than people that don’t live as long. Men seem to do it less often than women, and for different reasons. But all centenarians seem to be pretty happy and laid back.

Centenarians are not immune to the rigors of old age. A recent study in Aging Research found that the prevalence of lifestyle diseases among the super old is not significantly different from those in their 70’s and 80’s. However, one of their defining traits is they have “low-anxiety” responses to unexpected circumstances, and a higher perception of their health than other old people.

Japanese Centenarians

The best source of information on longevity is Japan. They have a well established history of centenarians, and their census system is very meticulous, making reliable epidemiological research possible. The prevalence of centenarians in Japan has increased 100 fold in the last 4 decades.

Japanese Centenarians

In Japan the highest prevalence of centenarians is in the Okinawan region, and their lifestyle habits are revealing. They eat about 1,000 calories a day from mostly vegetable sources, live a communal lifestyle, and most people have very well defined lifestyle habits. Daily walks, gardening, and well-defined social norms are ways of life.

Okinawan Centenarians

Okinawan Cultural Practices

In Okinawan villages, the concepts of Yuimaru and Moai are central tenets of social life.

Yuimaru is an Okinawan concept of shared work that requires everyone to help everyone else with their everyday tasks.

Moai are regular meetings held within villages among people with shared interests. The idea being shared commitment makes the responsibilities of everyday life more enjoyable and helps enforce social bonds.

So, maybe living into old age can be summed up in six words: eat plants, keep friends, don’t worry.

Research and References on Centenarians:

Jinmyoung Cho, Peter Martin, Jennifer Margrett, Maurice MacDonald, and Leonard W. Poon, “The Relationship between Physical Health and Psychological Well-Being among Oldest-Old Adults,” Journal of Aging Research, vol. 2011, Article ID 605041, 8 pages, 2011. doi:10.4061/2011/605041

Laura Tafaro, Maria Teresa Tombolillo, Nina Brükner, Giovanni Troisi, Paolo Cicconetti, Massimo Motta, Elisabeth Cardillo, Ettore Bennati, Vincenzo Marigliano, Stress in centenarians, Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, Volume 48, Issue 3, May-June 2009, Pages 353-355, ISSN 0167-4943, 10.1016/j.archger.2008.03.001.

Hideki Tanaka, Shuichiro Shirakawa, Sleep health, lifestyle and mental health in the Japanese elderly: Ensuring sleep to promote a healthy brain and mind, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 56, Issue 5, May 2004, Pages 465-477

“Healthy Agriculture, Healthy Nutrition, Healthy People”, World Council on Genetics, Nutrition, and Fitness for Health. Pgs 114-117, Karger Publishers, 2011.

Christy F. Telch, W. Stewart Agras, The effects of a very low calorie diet on binge eating, Behavior Therapy, Volume 24, Issue 2, Spring 1993, Pages 177-193, ISSN 0005-7894, 10.1016/S0005-7894(05)80262-X.

3 thoughts on “Happiness and Longevity: Learning from Centenarians”

  1. My grandma is 98 years old, pays absolutely no attention to her diet, is bedridden half the day, but is positively cheerful when she’s allowed to be around others. You’d never guess she’s mostly incapacitated.


  2. Jeannie, the women in my family sound familiar to yours. My great grandma is close to the same age, but still whistles when we take her outside for a stroll!


  3. They say that even if you “fake” a smile, your brain can’t tell the difference, and actually THINKS you are happy. So every time I’m feeling down, I force myself to smile for a minute, and my mood lightens up a bit 🙂


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