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Monday May 4, 2015

RICHARD BÉLIVEAU’S COLUMN Healthy Aging: Dying of old age

Living over 100 years has always been seen as a rare accomplishment, considered with fascination and respect. The absolute (known) record of longevity is held by Mrs. Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died at the great age of 122 years and 164 days. Such longevity is exceptional, obviously – but the fact remains that the number of centenarians is rapidly increasing throughout the world. For example, it is believed that there were approximately 317,000 people aged 100 years or more in the world in 2011. By the end of the 21st century, this number could reach as much as 18 million. The human body really does have the ability to maintain its vital functions up to a very high age, as long as it’s able to avoid (or at least delay) the onset of chronic disease such as cancer or heart disease.
Life as a centenarian has not only an impact on the overall duration of life, but also on the way that this life ends. For example, researchers have recently studied certain differences in the cause of death of centenarians and that of “younger” seniors (aged 80-84 years). The main causes of death in octogenarians were cancer and heart disease (44% of deaths), while only 13% of centenarians suffered from these same diseases. In contrast, over half of seniors aged 100 years or more died from an overall frailty or pneumonia; a much higher prevalence than in people aged 80 to 84 years old (7 %).

Most centenarians seem to be avoiding the main chronic diseases and simply die of old age – an overall wear-down of their muscles and bones, or a reduced immunity that increases the risk of infections. In other words, centenarians are a great example of a long and healthy life that ends with a gentle, peaceful death. 

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