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Redefining longevity: the new centenarian spirit

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Medical science attributes increasing longevity to a complex interplay of diet, exercise, and genetics. But attitude, researchers suggest, is another factor we can learn from our elders: Act as if you're still living, rather than dying.

It's what one elder advocate calls "the centenarian spirit."

"The emergence of the oldest old, and the problems that surround it, are among the most important social issues of the 20th century," says Peter Martin, a gerontologist and medical researcher at Iowa State University in Ames. "While health and genetics and everything are important, there are also important psychological components ... people we talk to seem to suggest that they've worked pretty hard at it – because they enjoyed it."

Increasing longevity will have broad economic effects. But the implication for the individual is a wide-open question: How are we to live these bonus years we never expected to have?

"If progress in reducing mortality continues at the same pace as it has over the past two centuries, which is a matter of debate, then in countries with high life expectancies most children born since the year 2000 will celebrate their 100th birthday – in the twenty-second century," wrote James W. Vaupel, a Duke University (N.C.) demographer in a March 25 Nature magazine review of current studies. "Longer lifespans will alter the way individuals want to allocate time during their lives and will require radical revision of employment, retirement, health, education and other policies."

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