Life After 90

In a recent 60 minutes special called, “Living to 90 and Beyond”, a study of what they called, “the oldest old”, has revealed some surprising realizations. Dr. Claudia Kawas is a neurologist and professor at UC Irvine who is spending her time at a retirement community that started a survey among their aging residence back in the 1980s. After tracking down many of the living individuals who took the survey, she was able to follow up with the now 90+ residents. Those participating in the study would go through a series of lifestyle questions and tests to try and isolate the factors that determines who doesn’t live past 90, who does, and in what condition.

While we assume that health findings are applicable to all adults, it turns out that studying the oldest of the old revealed some very counter-intuitive findings including:

  • Consuming 1-2 glasses of alcohol a day led to a 10-15% reduced risk of death compared to non-drinkers.
  • Drinking 1-2 cups of coffee a day was better than drinking less or more caffeine each day.
  • Increasing in weight later in life can actually increase longevity. Obesity was not healthy at any age, however those who were thin later in life did not usually live as long.
  • High blood pressure later in life was also associated with longevity. Again, while it was not healthy in youth, those with high blood pressure much later in life actually lived longer.
  • “People who exercised definitely lived longer than people who didn’t exercise. As little as 15 minutes a day on average made a difference. 45 minutes was the best. Even three hours did beat 45 minutes a day.”-Dr. Claudia Kawas

One of the other shocking ideas that Dr. Claudia Kawas pointed out is that, “we are going to have more people with dementia over the age of 90 than we currently have at all ages put together.” While we might have hope that if we made it passed a certain age we were in the clear, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Alzheimer’s and dementia is certainly on the radar screen of the study as they hope to learn more about its mysterious causes. Another counter-intuitive finding was that the plaques and tangles in the brain that we associate with the disease we found in individuals that did not show signs of dementia, who those with the memory problems and symptoms of the brain disease did not turn out to have the plaques and tangles in the brain. During the interview, Dr. Kawas shared the insight that we want one thing to explain Alzheimer's and dementia. The truth is, it may turn out to be the same as with other diseases and health risks: that there are multiple factors over time. 

While this study may bring up as many questions as answers, it is a wonderful example of how our longevity is opening up another developmental stage after adulthood. These precious individuals over the age of 90 have a lot to teach us about what it means to be human and age well. To listen to the full CSB News special on 60 Minutes, click here. You’ll find stories from some of the 90+ individuals who are participating in the study and hear their insights and stories that about their experience of life at 90.  


Published on May 7, 2014.