Certainly, good genes count when it comes to living to 100. And staying active, not smoking, and eating well all help you make it to a ripe old age. But new research shows that your mental habits might be just as important as your physical habits when it comes to longevity.

Geriatricians refer to a trait known as adaptive competence that they say is particularly evident in their very oldest patients. Loosely defined, adaptive competence is the ability to bounce back from stressful situations. The older you get, the more likely you are to suffer setbacks that may include losing friends and loved ones, suffering from bouts of ill health, and witnessing or being involved in traumatic events. In fact, tough times are all but inevitable. The key to staying alive, according to doctors who treat the elderly, is being able to get through these difficulties and then shrug them off.

A recent study at Yale University shed some light on the connection between positive mental attitude and longevity. A team there followed people in their fifties, tracking their health while at the same time having them answer questions about their perceptions of getting older. Even after controlling for medical problems, the subjects who agreed with statements such as "Things keep getting worse as I get older" or "As I get older I'm less useful" died an average of 7.5 years younger than subjects who had no use for such negativity.

A prominent gerontologist frequently mentions his oldest patient, a 109-year-old woman, who has a fondness for chocolate and beer and is a former smoker. She suffered a stroke several years ago but put herself through an intensive rehabilitation program and is no worse for the wear.

What else counts in the quest for old age besides resilience? A good sense of humor and an engagement in the world around you. There's a profound difference between simply existing and really living. And why bother trying to make it to age 100 or beyond if you're not going to take full advantage of your gift of years?



National Public Radio, www.npr.org