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PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

When it comes to aging, 90-plus or even 100 might not be ‘extreme’ anymore

Why we need to put out-of-date attitudes about age to rest.

Marion Westermeyer (pictured in 2006) was a daily swimmer well into his 90s.David McLain/Blue Zones

Norman Lear turned “100 years young” back on July 27, which ABC later celebrated with a 90-minute tribute. Among the star-studded audience was comic-turned-senator-turned-comic Al Franken, who once drafted a note to a constituent upon her 110th birthday that read: “You have a bright future.” (His staff stopped him from sending it.) I wondered what he was thinking watching Lear.

It didn’t take long to figure out what was on comedian Jay Pharoah’s mind. “For everybody here and everyone at home listening, if you love somebody and they ain’t here with you tonight, you make sure you tell them right now because you may not get that chance tomorrow,” he said. “You may not know how long you have with them. So Norman Lear, I love you, man.”

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Even a vibrant, vital, working industry legend cannot escape society’s kiss of death — and you don’t have to be 100 to receive it. A friend replied to my e-mail asking about her mom, a mere 92: “She is cruising along with the challenges that come with age,” remarking that a nurse had referred to her mother as “extreme elderly.”

The term may have originated as a demographic distinction in gerontology, but it is also a reflection of how we see people who exceed their place on the actuarial tables. We may congratulate them on reaching a milestone but the expression on our faces is You still here? And some of us may be quietly wondering how much in tax dollars is being spent on their housing, health care, and other needs.

By 2034, adults over the age of 65 are expected to outnumber children under 18 for the first time in the history of the United States, according to a report by the Census Bureau. In January, a 13-year international study led by Harvard Medical School suggested we may ultimately get one treatment every decade that would reverse the aging of our cells by 10 years, delaying illnesses from heart disease to cancer to dementia, effectively slowing the aging process. Will longer life spans force us to make adjustments to our expectations, reconsider the notion of “extreme,” and change our attitudes toward aging?

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“I don’t think we should be thinking of 90-plus or even 100 as extreme aging anymore,” says Michael “Mick” Smyer, a clinical psychologist and national expert on aging. “We should be helping people prepare for this longevity.”

For decades, identifying the longest living populations and the common factors explaining their endurance has been National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner’s life’s work. His focus has been on five international “blue zones” with some of the world’s longest average life spans, from California to Costa Rica. One centenarian on bluezones.com is pictured diving into a pool, Cocoon-style (that’s him above). At least in these Blue Zones, Buettner says, “Centenarians are largely a happy bunch.” In one, Okinawa, Japan, “Ninety-seven is the biggest year of your life. The whole village celebrates. It’s a bigger event than a wedding or graduation.”

These counterintuitive observations about health and happiness among people 90-plus are confirmed in studies by Dr. Thomas Perls, an international expert on longevity with Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. Among his findings: “More than 90 percent of centenarians are functionally independent in their early nineties. ... Semi-super-centenarians (ages 105-109 years) and [especially] supercentenarians (age 110+), usually delay such age-related diseases towards the ends of their lives”; and “a substantial proportion of centenarians live with age-related diseases usually associated with significant mortality, for more than 20 years.”

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Dr. Perls, who prefers the term “extreme longevity,” says the older people get, the healthier they have been. “People age very differently from one another,” he explains, “and one must not make any assumptions based upon age alone.”

Yet how many times have we heard infantilizing generalizations like, “At this age, he’s not going to change”? Smyer refutes the conventional wisdom that a chronological number determines how we will act. “One rule of thumb in aging is that variability increases with age,” he explains. “A group of 7-year-olds are more alike than a group of 77-year-olds. With increasing age comes increasing individual differences.”

Even living in an independent senior living community where centenarians are far from an anomaly, my mom is well aware of the “extreme” old age designation — and so am I. Recently, a friend asked me my mother’s age. (Apparently, after a certain point, it becomes impolite not to answer the question, rather than to ask it.) “Wow,” he responded, “God bless her,” as if she were a canine who somehow made it this long in human years. No wonder some relatively healthy, lucid people her age can be too paralyzed by what might happen in the future to enjoy the present.

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Imagine trying to live in the moment when the world is treating you like every moment might be your last. As Aaliyah sang (and then, sadly, demonstrated when she died at 22), “Age ain’t nothing but a number.” Yet instead of feeling comforted that, because life spans differ dramatically, none of us knows our expiration dates, I would feel like I spent two decades on death row. How does this enhance quality of life? If the next generation can survive school shootings, pandemics, and global warming to benefit from medical advances that extend their lives, don’t we need to reframe the idea of “extreme”?

In the end, I preferred the forward-thinking perspective of George Clooney. “The fact that Norman Lear just turned 100 is the least of his accomplishments,” he said in his introduction. “Lots of people do it. You turn on the Today show and you see a bunch of folks celebrating their centennial. . . . Congratulations on your first hundred, my friend.”


Andy Levinsky is a frequent contributor to Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.