The very old: How different from you and me?

Some aging superstars get away with breaking the rules. For the rest of us, healthy choices should pay off.

In 2002, the television show Dateline did a segment about exceptional longevity. Paul Roberts was one of the people featured. Roberts smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for 50 years. He was still drinking three martinis daily. But there he was at age 90, spry enough to be fixing his roof.

In 2003, Danish researchers published a study on predictors of mortality among 90-year-olds in that country. They kept tabs on a group of 2,249 men and women for about 15 months. About one in four died, but smoking and obesity played no role. Among the "old old," the researchers concluded, many of the usual risk factors lose their importance.

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