Helen Mongelia's 102 years reflect the mysterious alchemy of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that coalesce to aid longevity. Fresh food, consistent movement, emotional resilience, and a family full of long-living relatives mark the centenarian's colorful life span, which began in 1919 while Woodrow Wilson occupied the White House.
Longevity like Mrs. Mongelia's remains extraordinary, with an estimated one in 6,000 people in the United States reaching 100 nowadays, according to the U.S. Administration on Aging. More than 100,000 were 100 or older in 2019, triple the number in 1980 who'd passed their 100th birthday.
Scientists, including those at Harvard, are eagerly studying people in their 90s and beyond to tease out what contributes to exceptionally long living. People enduring to extreme old age often have lifestyles that fuel vigor and hamper age-related chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. They typically are nonsmokers, are not obese, and cope effectively with stress, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Most are women.
"I didn't expect to live this long, that's for sure," says Mrs. Mongelia, who lived independently until 101 — when she also gave up driving — and happily holds a mailroom job at her assisted living residence in Connecticut. "But I've tried not to let anything bother me too much. I have two great daughters, two sons-in-law, and two grandchildren — what else can you ask for? There's my happiness right there."
Healthy habits key
Mrs. Mongelia never restricted her diet, eating meat but skipping most alcoholic drinks. But her early fare as the middle child of 11 was abundant in fruits and vegetables, many grown in her family's garden in Carbondale, Pa., and canned to enjoy all year long. The large clan also walked "everywhere," trekking miles round-trip to church, school, and the grocery store.
Mrs. Mongelia's healthy habits hit a sweet spot that science increasingly spotlights as optimal for longevity. A new Harvard-led study spanning 11 years and involving 2,400 people (average age 60; 55% women) suggests that a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats may dampen inflammation and prevent age-related frailty, a major predictor of decline affecting between 10% and 15% of older adults.
"Frailty is hard to define, but it's really easy to spot. In general, it's a state of increased vulnerability," says Courtney Millar, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Marcus Institute for Aging Research at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
"It's important to focus on frailty prevention and treatment, because it's associated with so many of the factors that determine someone's longevity," says Millar, a co-author of the study, published online May 12, 2022, by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Another new study suggests that young adults who begin optimizing their diets at age 20 by veering from typical Western fare to more whole grains, legumes, and nuts could increase their life expectancy by more than a decade. Published online Feb. 8, 2022, by PLOS Medicine, the study posited that people who start such dietary shifts even at age 60 can still reap substantial benefits, increasing life expectancy by eight years for women; 80-year-olds could gain another three-plus years.
"I'm certainly a believer that food is medicine," Millar says, "and there's some great evidence that dietary factors can improve longevity."
Genes at the forefront?
Mrs. Mongelia's family is peppered with relatives who've had far longer-than-average life spans. Although her coal miner father died of black lung disease at 78, Mrs. Mongelia's mother lived to 93, and many siblings also thrived into their 10th decade. Two brothers still survive.
Research reinforces this link: siblings and children of long-living people are more likely to live beyond peers and remain healthier while doing so, according to the NIH. A study published online May 28, 2022, by The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences suggested that children of those who reach 100 carry a specific "genetic footprint" explaining why they're less frail than peers whose parents were not centenarians.
Might our genes be the linchpin to longevity? "My take is that it's certainly a combination of lifestyle and genetics," Millar says. "Certain dietary factors and even exercise regimens can modify how our genes are expressed and contribute to what's going on in our bodies. It's a really important intersection of our health."
Tips for a longer road
Some scientists use the term "biohacks" to refer to tweaks in daily habits and choices that aim to tamp down inflammation and blunt aging's effects. Many of these tactics aren't new, but Harvard experts say that employing them consistently might contribute to longevity.
Move more. Vigorous movement has repeatedly been linked with lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic health problems.
Review your health history. Talk to your primary care doctor about your health conditions and any new symptoms so you can manage them appropriately.
Try intermittent fasting. Compressing meals into a six- or eight-hour window each day boosts the body's natural process of eliminating damaged cells and proteins, lowering inflammation levels.
Eat a plant-forward diet. Antioxidants from fruits and vegetables and fiber from whole grains all help to lower inflammation levels. Beans, chickpeas, and other legumes were hailed as a key dietary predictor of longevity in a study that found a daily dietary increase of just 20 grams (less than an ounce) of legumes lowers our risk of dying in any given year by 8%.
Boost your outlook. List your life goals and imagine a future where they've been reached, or think about three good things that happened to you every day. Write them down.
Don't overlook outlook
Despite a hardscrabble path that included dropping out of school after 11th grade to take care of a baby sibling and also working as a button operator in a dress factory — where she earned three cents per dozen buttons mounted — Mrs. Mongelia maintains an upbeat attitude that matches her hardy body. She relies on a walker and hearing aids, but remains mentally sharp. "Just keep going and going and going, and don't give up," she counsels.
A recent Harvard-led analysis of nearly 160,000 American women linked positive outlook to extended life span. Published online June 8, 2022, by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the study analyzed data and survey responses from women who were 50 to 79 years old when they enrolled in the study in the 1990s. The researchers then tracked participants' survival for up to 26 years. The results suggested that higher levels of optimism correlated with higher odds of living beyond 90.
About a quarter of the relationship between optimism and living longer may reflect health-related factors such as eating healthy foods, controlling weight, exercising, and limiting alcohol, says study co-author Dr. Hayami Koga, a researcher and doctoral candidate in population health sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The findings hint at the value of focusing on positive psychological factors as possible new ways of promoting longevity and healthy aging, Dr. Koga says. "There's some evidence that optimistic people are more likely to have goals and the confidence to reach them," she adds. "I think it drives people to be more confident and take actions that lead to better health."
Photo by Timothy H. Cole