HIGHLAND PARK, California–Frances Ito is a typical artistic Angeleno. She has a full schedule that includes weekly jam sessions with musicians, film classes and shoots. In between is spirituality, volunteering, and downtime for gardening.
The fact she is in her nineties seems almost incidental to Ito’s story, proving that age is just a number.
“Longevity is not a handicap,” Ito told The Daily Beast on her 91st birthday. “But some people treat it that way.”
Scientists consider Ito to be a “SuperAger,” a person with an exceptionally long life remarkable for its continued activity. Gerontology, the study of old age and aging, is full of papers about what makes people age gracefully from genetics, to medicine, to diet–but a SuperAgers program at the University of Southern California is less focused on who these people are, and more on what they do.
To put it another way: It’s not so much Ito’s health that helps her to keep busy and moving, but that her active lifestyle keeps her healthy.
Jennifer Ailshire, an associate professor at USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, pointed out there hasn’t been much looking at aging from the perspective of social and interpersonal dynamics. “Most of the research has been focused on … things that maybe are not so much in our control,” Ailshire told The Daily Beast. “This project, though, is asking, what are the other factors?”
Ito’s parents died in their 70s and her brother at 47 due to heart disease, so there’s no history in her immediate family of long life. Ito also has had to deal with her own heart problems. But, she hasn’t changed her eating habits much over time, aside from a few years of avoiding meat, dairy, and eggs, and carries only 100 pounds on her 4-foot-9 frame.
” I know that I am different than most people,” she stated.
The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control says the average American’s life expectancy is 76. 4 years. However, if USC’s Lifetime Circumstances Predicting Extraordinary Longevity Project is successful and the number rises, Ailshire says it raises interesting questions about what “normal” aging looks like.
“Maybe it’s more like ‘typical’ or ‘majority’ aging,” Ailshire said. “We are seeing with this group of [SuperAgers] that they’re quite extraordinary. They really diverge from adults who don’t make it to those old ages.”
She adds, “They just look healthier all throughout their lives.”
Being a SuperAger is not as simple as reaching a certain birthday. Rather, it’s more of a you-know-it-when-you-see-it situation or “a state of mind,” as Ailshire called it. It’s the 96-year-old sculptor who recently had work exhibited in Los Angeles, or famed television producer Norman Lear, still racking up executive producer credits in the months before his 100th birthday.
“Longevity is not a handicap. But some people treat it that way.”
— Frances Ito
Health issues late in life don’t disqualify one from Super Ager status either. Ito, for example, said that she almost lost her leg due to circulatory problems. It’s not easy to determine how many SuperAgers exist. As a crude proxy, the United Nations’ worldwide estimate of centenarians tallied 451,000 in 2015, nearly five times as many than in 1990. It’s projected to boom to 3. 7 million by 2050.
Not only are their absolute numbers increasing, but those with triple-digit orbits around the sun are a growing percentage of the elderly population: In 1990, there were 2. 9 centenarians for every 10,000 adults ages 65 and older around the world; that share grew to 7. 4 by 2015 and is projected to rise to 23. 6 by 2050.
The statistical work by the Longevity Project’s team will expand upon previous studies by Ailshire and others. One paper looked at whether longer lives are healthier lives, concluding that some centenarians and near-centenarians achieve exceptional longevity in relatively good health and without loss of functioning.
Another study found that the oldest are more satisfied with life, can better maintain social relationships with family and friends, and receive more social support than younger older adults.
When Ailshire speaks with SuperAgers, she’s struck by how few credit their prolonged golden years to simply being born to long-lived parents. She said, “They always mention another thing they did when they were younger.” Or they will say that I was active all my life, and were always involved. So, the things that SuperAgers themselves will cite are not the things scientists typically study.”
The durability of SuperAgers received a real-world test during these recent COVID years.
Ailshire expressed concern that seniors who depend on social interaction would be affected by the sudden isolation.
“At the same time,” Ailshire said, “I think they were probably better, more industrious at finding ways to cope with that kind of isolation that was enforced upon us, or was sort of self-enforced during the pandemic.”
For one, Ailshire noted the SuperAgers embraced technology–which flies in the face of the stereotype of the senior befuddled by modern wonders such as a modem and router–so they could Zoom and FaceTime with family and friends.
(Ito said she had many vacations canceled, and online gatherings of ukulele enthusiasts like herself only went so far–so she instead plowed through 20 books. )
Nevertheless, SuperAgers’ survival during the pandemic isn’t all about adaptation in the absence of socialization.
“They also must have some fundamental underlying biological advantage,” Ailshire said. “An advantage that gets you to age 80 to 90 to 100 will also help you with a virus, like COVID in any of its variants, because it probably does suggest that you have better functioning across all body systems, including immune functioning and some of the other systems that we think COVID targets as well.”
“I imagine that they probably are less likely to get covid, less likely to get sick, less likely to get hospitalized, and less likely to die,” she added.
Another benefit of learning how some people age but don’t “grow old” is that it raises our chances for a dignified death. Ailshire presented a graph that would show a SuperAger’s life expectancy and their health. It would be like a corner of a rectangle with an individual enjoying a long period of good health before they die.
The alternative is a slow deterioration from alive to dead, with accompanying medical issues all the way until expiration.
“That’s not ideal. I don’t think any of us really want that,” Ailshire said. “We all just want to, you know, pop off in our sleep one night.”
As Ito discusses what she’s been up to in her old age, it sounds like enough to wear out a much younger person. She travels a lot, with many trips being the subjects of short films Ito produced and later showed at last year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in the program “Fran Rockstar!” Then there’s the volunteering: for the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Audubon Society, at her church.
What Ito doesn’t make time for is sedentary, passive activities. She said that watching TV was horrible.
With the number of SuperAgers increasing, Ailshire feels it would be wasteful for us to not ask them to share their wisdom and knowledge.
” We should give them the opportunity to keep in touch with their social networks. “These people can be really incredible resources for communities through some of these volunteer efforts–and we see some of that happening around the United States, with lots of volunteer opportunities the older adults are taking advantage of.”
But just as volunteering can improve the world around them, there is a potential reciprocal benefit: Volunteering can keep SuperAgers feeling… well, super.
Ito certainly believes that.
“Make the time to do it,” Ito advises other seniors. “It not only helps the community and the people that you’re involved with, but it really helps you as an individual–physically, mentally.”
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