Many of my heroes are aviatrixes, especially those women who took up flying when pilots of any gender were still considered pioneers—and just a little bit crazy. A flight instructor myself, I’m fascinated with the women who paved the way for us younger flyers, women like the WASP, who flew military missions stateside for the U.S. Army Air Force during WWII.
That’s why, 10 years ago, I flew to a tiny Morristown, Tenn., airport to meet (then) 91-year-old Evelyn Johnson, an icon in the small community of women pilots. Since her first lesson in 1944, she’s logged more than 57,000 flight hours—that’s 6-and-a-half years aloft. Plus, she’s taught so many people to fly that she stopped counting after 3,000. As she reminisced, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d still be airborne—or above ground at all—at her age.
It seems unlikely, considering that of my extended family, only one aunt has lived to see 90. I’m probably doomed to inherit my parents’ high cholesterol and blood pressure, even though I (unlike them) exercise often and abstain from smoking. But even if I do all the “right things” health-wise, do I really have any control over whether I make it to 100, body and mind intact?
As head of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, Dr. Nir Barzilai is exploring just that question by studying healthy centenarians like Evelyn, who at 101 still works five days a week managing Morristown’s airport, having been grounded after a car wreck five years ago. Extraordinary longevity and vitality late in life seem to run in families, Barzilai says. He’s also noticed that many of his “super-agers” have abnormally high levels of HDL—the “good” cholesterol—which points to a genetic predisposition towards healthy aging. And he’s identified genes that may confer resistance to age-related diseases like type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease, all of which shorten life and severely diminish its quality. (Find out more about Dr. Barzilai's research on Superagers.com.)
Although most of us probably don’t have these “longevity genes,” Barzilai hopes that studying them may revolutionize how we think about aging. Instead of treating age-related diseases individually, he wants science to consider the aging process as a whole and learn to modulate the illnesses that accompany it. Understanding the biological pathways that allow some people to live longer, healthier lives, he believes, could lead to drugs that would offer similar benefits to others. In the interim, though, where does that leave those of us whose family histories are rife with heart disease, diabetes and dementia?
Luckily, says geriatrician Dr. James Powers of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., DNA is only part of the picture. “Lifestyle choices can make a huge difference in length of life and, I believe, quality as well,” he says.
Powers and Barzilai suggest that, instead of thinking fatalistically, we can make the most of our genetic potential by taking good care of brain and body. Barzilai finds time to exercise every day, despite 16- to 18-hour workdays. “It doesn’t matter where I am in the world,” he says. “There’s always a gym somewhere.”
Cardiovascular disease runs in his family, so he keeps his weight down and takes statins and aspirin. “The thing I hate most is to drink a cup of wine a day,” he laughs. “But I’m developing a taste for it.”
I recently asked Evelyn Johnson her secret to living such a long and fulfilling life. “I love what I do,” she says. “I’ve been very happy, very busy, and like to work every day.”
Barzilai says that even though many of his “hundreds” say similar things, it’s tough to prove that staying engaged in life and work will help you make it to 100. But whether I live 20 or 60 more years, I hope I wake up every day as excited to meet the world as Evelyn is at 101 years old. Her attitude may not have prolonged her life, but it seems to have made the time fly.