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Oldsters in Sardinia, another wellspring of longevity, have many similarities to their Okinawan counterparts except that the Sardinian ratio of centenarians is about equal for men and women (in most societies, 100-plus females outnumber males by 3 or 4 to 1). They maintain very active lives and powerful social networks; extended family and friends are available to share troubles and take some of the emotional burden out of life. Says researcher Gianni Pes, part of a team from Sardinia's University of Sassari, which is studying the group: "The 100-year-olds are less depressed than average 60-year-olds."
That makes perfect sense to Leonard Poon, director of the University of Georgia Gerontology Center. Since 1988 he has studied American centenarians he calls them "expert survivors" and compared them to people in their 80s ("master survivors") and to relative youngsters in their 60s. Poon found that out of 16 personality traits, the experts exhibited four coping mechanisms. First, he says, "centenarians are more dominant. They want to have their way," and they are not easily pushed around. Many are characterized by "suspiciousness. They do not take information on the superficial level" but will question an issue and think it through. They tend to be practical rather than idealistic. And in their approach to life, they are likely to be more relaxed. In other words, they are strong but not inflexible characters.
Poon also determined that people whose age reaches three figures tend to have a high level of cognition, demonstrating skill in everyday problem solving and learning. That's another reason exercise is important: to keep plenty of blood flowing to the brain as well as to stay in shape. Many of his subjects aren't rich; some of them have homes with mud floors. But they make good out of making do. "Many have their own gardens," he notes. "They can their own vegetables. They're living down to earth."
Like the Okinawans, Sardinians and Nova Scotians, the U.S. centenarians enjoy a strong social-support system. Few Americans live in a village anymore, but having outlived family and friends of the same age, the superold find new helpers and confidants among people younger by a generation or more. It might be someone to help with groceries or car trips or simply a sympathetic voice on the other end of the line. Maintaining a connection with the world, with younger people, keeps their outlook youthful.
With so much evidence that lifestyle is the key to healthy aging, it might be tempting to ignore the role of genes altogether. That would be a mistake. Brothers of centenarians are 17 times as likely to live to 100 as are people without 100-year-olds in the family, while sisters of centenarians are 8.5 times as likely to live into their second century. Given statistics like that, says Winifred Rossi, director of the National Institute on Aging's study on exceptional survival, "we are interested in looking for some kind of genetic component to longevity." Her approach is to look at family members, especially the children, of centenarians. Says Perls, who does similar research: "Kids of centenarians who are in their 70s and early 80s are very much following in the footsteps of their parents, with a 60% reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. They are the model for successful aging and a great group to study."