Not everyone agrees, but ongoing research of people who live to 90 and beyond is revealing some habits they have in common — everyday behaviors that seem to play a role in their longevity, researchers say.
Dr. Claudia Kawas is the co-principal investigator of The 90+ Study, one of the largest studies in the world of the “oldest-old” Americans. Some 1,800 nonagenarians are now enrolled in the research, contributing their blood and DNA, undergoing exams every six months, having their bodies imaged and sharing details of their lifestyle.
Kawas, a neurology professor at University of California, Irvine, talked about some of the study’s findings so far at the American Association For The Advancement Of Science annual meeting in Austin, Texas, earlier this year:
The role of coffee and alcohol
People who drank moderate amounts of alcohol or coffee lived longer than those who abstained, The 90+ Study researchers have found. For alcohol, about two glasses of beer or wine daily was linked to a reduced the risk of premature death.
“I have no explanation for it, but I do firmly believe that modest drinking is associated with longevity,” Kawas noted.
The key word is modest: It’s likely people who have had very excessive alcohol intake at younger ages don’t make it to their 90s, she said.
But other longevity experts were skeptical about alcohol’s role. Seventh-day Adventists famously have a long life expectancy — 89 years for women and 86 for men, on average — and they avoid alcohol, said Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study and professor at the Boston University School of Medicine.
“So I think there’s other data that would counter this notion that modest amounts of alcohol are good for you,” Perls told TODAY. Indeed, a 2016 meta-analysis of 87 studies found moderate drinkers didn't have a reduced risk of death compared to people who abstained all their lives or drank just occasionally. And just one drink a day increases a woman’s cancer risk, a 2015 study found.
When it came to coffee, the “sweet spot” for caffeine was 200-400 milligrams a day, or about two cups of coffee, Kawas said at the conference.
“People who had that amount of caffeine, whether it came from coffee, tea, chocolate or other things, lived longer than individuals who had less caffeine or individuals who had more caffeine,” she added.
Studies published last year confirm drinking coffee — either caffeinated or decaf — was associated with a reduced risk of death.
But here again, Perls said he’d stick to the healthy behaviors of Seventh-day Adventists, who avoid caffeine.
As little as 15 minutes of exercise a day was associated with greater longevity, 30 minutes was better, 45 minutes was even better than that, Kawas said about The 90+ Study findings.
“Mercifully, for couch potatoes like me, three hours was no better than 45 minutes,” she noted.
In her research, the exercise didn’t have to be super intense, heart-pumping workouts that required a gym. It just had to amount to 45 minutes per day total and move your body in some way. It could even be divided into several sessions: three 15-minute walks, for example.
Living long without dementia is a challenge
While regular exercise and modest amounts of alcohol and caffeine appear to help you live longer, they may not protect your brain from dementia, Kawas said.
“Most of those things do not appear to be clearly related to cognitive abilities in [your] 90s, which is sort of disappointing,” she noted, adding it’s a problem as life expectancy continues to grow. “The sad part about that is we’ve added more years than we’ve added quality.”
More than 40 percent of people 90 and older have dementia and almost 80 percent are disabled, her study found. Both conditions are more common in women than in men.
But The 90+ Study includes a “remarkable core” of people who maintain excellent cognition, Kawas said. The researchers are still looking for answers about why their brains stay resilient.
They know genes play a big role: People who live long without dementia are more likely to have had parents who lived long without dementia.
But lifestyle still makes a difference. Data suggests the risk of having dementia has gone down about 10 percent in the last 15 years — not because there are any new drugs on the market, but because of lifestyle differences, Kawas said. That includes a healthy diet, exercise and efforts to minimize stress, which contribute to brain health, she added.