This week the science section of the New York Times had a big feature on “Secrets of the Centenarians.” It was full of the inevitable truisms about the secrets of a long life, this time summed up by Jane Brody as the Three R’s: resolution, resourcefulness and resilience. Importantly, it emphasized the fact that genes account for only about 20 to 30 percent of how long we live.
The article trotted out the usual suspects: exercise, moderation, strong social and family ties. Lifestyle, in short. But what struck me once again, just as in my own interviews, was the variety of the sample. Some of these people would be great dinner companions, others dull as dishwater. Some are remarkably healthy, others bionic. Hazel Miller’s the one I’d like to sit next to. What’s her secret? “You just don’t die.” Miller has always liked to dance, “but as you know after a certain age there are no men to dance with, so I started line dancing.” The uber-trait is optimism, and yes, there’s a University of Pittsburgh study with evidence that optimists live longer.
How, then, to muster optimism? By swapping myth for fact. By talking to older people instead of avoiding them. Just by meeting their gaze. By moving beyond stereotypes to find out more about what the lives of older people are actually like. Americans think the very old have many more problems than they actually experience. In fact, the more we learn, the less scary old age becomes — and the more of it we’re likely to enjoy.