Why Do Some People Live So Long?


By BJ Towe

It’s now predicted that more than half of the people born in 2014 will live to be 100. And according to researchers, even people in their 50s today have a good chance of living well into their 90s.

While medical science knows a lot about the aging process, the answer to long life has eluded scientists for generations. There is no magic bullet, no Fountain of Youth, no single secret to long life.

However, David Lemon, M.D., has long noticed that many of his aging patients shared similar traits – physical ailments, yes, but also mental, emotional, and lifestyle characteristics that he believes contribute to their exceptional longevity and happiness.

In 2000, he wrote, “So Far, So Good”, which provided insights into the lives and minds of his patients who were in their 80s. But soon after, he noticed patients living even longer, well into their 90s.

“If you live to be 90 or older and do very well, it’s usually not the medicines we give you. You’ve got something that can’t be prescribed,” Dr. Lemon says. So for four years, Lemon carefully listened to, observed, and recorded information about more than a hundred of his 90-something patients. His findings are detailed in his second book, “I’m Still Here: Living Long and Loving Life at Age Ninety Plus”

The Common Threads

Lemon says, “Age really isn’t a definer as much as we think it is. It’s how you age, what your core values are, and what kind of relationships you still have. Long life is about feeling connected and relevant.

“Patients in their 90s don’t want to be a burden; they want to contribute – to ride with grandkids on the tractor, to balance their own checkbooks, to be of value,” he says.

To describe what he’s learned from his 90-plus patients, Lemon’s latest book captures one real-life example after another. For instance:

They go, go, go! Evelyn, 95, doesn’t like people to help her if she can do something herself. The key (to long life) she says is “to work all the time and love it.” She gets up every morning at 6 a.m. She makes 100 quilts per year and gives them to kids with cancer. … She still shovels snow, mows a huge yard, and bakes all the time she is not quilting. In her “spare time” she does Bible studies for the prison ministry nine times per month.

They have positive attitudes – even if they come across as tough or grumpy. Herbert is a typical stubborn and tough, but likeable, Iowa boy. He doesn’t like medicines and takes them when he feels like it. … He says his wife has to swear at him a lot because he doesn’t do what she wants him to do. He then breaks into a big grin.

They’re grateful. Virginia, 92, emphasizes what she can do, not what she can’t do. She tells me, “Each morning when I wake up I thank the good Lord for giving me one more day.” She can only walk about 50 yards at a time and has to stop three times to catch her breath – but “so what” she says. “I can’t pull stumps anymore, but I can garden, sew, read, and bake a mean apple pie.”

They have a strong faith. James sings in the church choir. The other day he saw a sad woman sitting along in one of the pews at church. He told her to go ahead and take communion. She did. Later, after church she came out to thank him and they both cried. … Each Christmas he gives his kids $1000 and tells them to use it for others. He says all he wants to do is God’s work.

They’re witty. Albert (91) is a real jokester. … He delivers the “Shopper” every morning in his small rural Iowa town and doesn’t like to come to Des Moines. … He mentors fifth and sixth graders at church. He has finally consented to use a walker. My favorite quote from him is so typical: “I asked the devil if he wanted me – he said ‘No’. I asked the Lord if He wanted me – He said ‘No.’ That’s why I’m here."

But Life Is Hard

It was actress Bette Davis (1908-1989) who coined the phrase, “Old age is no place for sissies!” It’s true – with age come things like aching joints, extreme fatigue, impaired vision and hearing, and body parts that don’t work like they once did.

Hazel is 92. Her husband has Alzheimer’s disease. She changes his diaper three times per day and gives him his insulin two to three times per day. She feeds him, bathes him, and makes sure the rails are up on his bed at night. She does this all without outside help. She always has a smile, a kind word, and is bright and cheery. There can also be fading memories, loss of independence, and loss of a spouse, siblings, and friends. Sometimes the loneliness can seem overwhelming.

“It’s so important to keep people connected,” Lemon advises. “Include the older people in your lives in decisions and family gatherings. Call them. Talk with them. Listen and learn from their experiences. Help them know their lives are meaningful and they have something to offer. That’s much more important than the medications.”

Men And Women Age Differently

While his book tells many upbeat stories, Lemon says, “In most cases, men do not age well. They tend to complain a lot more than women. Men are defined by their ability to do productive work, be it physical or mental. Most men have fewer friends than their female counterparts. Their friendships are often based on shared physical activities like golf, bowling, boating, or biking. These activities become harder and harder to maintain. This often results in a negative attitude and broken relationships.”

Meanwhile, Lemon says women rarely acknowledge – and never joke about – their age. “The most important things are family and feeling useful and relevant. They all get their hair done and dress up to come see me. They are not angry or demanding. They are thankful. They believe in God and aren’t afraid to tell me about the beliefs that guide their lives and dreams.

“In short,” adds Lemon, “their lives often reflect the formula we should all follow to enjoy long and fruitful lives.”

Recipe For A Long Life

David Lemon, M.D., a Cardiologist with The Iowa Clinic, has the privilege of learning from his aging and wise patients, such as Robert, who penned his instructions for having a long and joy-filled life:

Be happy

Go to church

Keep busy

Play games

Don’t worry too much

Take fish oil

Have kids around

Have a good wife (or husband)

What The "90+ Study" Tells Us

In 2003, the University of California-Irvine launched a study to learn more about the “oldest old.” This research – the longest continuing research effort focused on health and lifestyle issues of people in their 90s – has been funded until at least 2018. Here are some of its findings thus far:

People who drink moderate amounts of alcohol or coffee live longer than those who abstain – but no one is suggesting that nondrinkers start.

While it’s bad to be overweight when you’re in your 50s and 60s, people who are overweight in their 70s live longer than normal-weight or underweight individuals; extra weight then appears to help fight infection and feed the brain.

Socializing is fabulous for a person’s health.

Optimal blood pressure when you’re 50 and 60 is lower than optimal blood pressure when you’re 80 or 90 years old.

Poor physical performance on activities such as walking is associated with increased risk of dementia.


Articles in this issue:


  • Masthead

    Editor-in Chief:
    Kirsten Nicole

    Editorial Staff:
    Kirsten Nicole
    Stan Kenyon
    Robyn Bowman
    Kimberly McNabb
    Lisa Gordon
    Stephanie Robinson

    Kirsten Nicole
    Stan Kenyon
    Liz Di Bernardo
    Cris Lobato
    Elisa Howard
    Susan Cramer

Leave a Comment

Please keep in mind that all comments are moderated. Please do not use a spam keyword or a domain as your name, or else it will be deleted. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation instead. Thanks for your comments!

Image Captcha