When asked how old they felt, on average the centenarians surveyed said “83 years old,” and the 65-year-old baby boomers on average said they felt “55 years old.”

The United States is home to around 55,000 centenarians, and 40 million people aged 65 and over, according to the US Census Bureau, who estimate there will be more than 600,000 American centenarians by 2050.

In their recently conducted ninth annual 100@100 survey, insurance company UnitedHealthcare polled 65-year-old baby boomers and 100-year-olds to compare attitudes and lifestyles of Americans about to enter retirement with those who did so 35 years ago.

In describing how it felt to be 100 years old, the top three answers among centenarians were “blessed” (36% of answers), “happy” (31%), and “surprised” (12%).

In looking back at their lives, although 53% of centenarians said they had achieved everything they would like to do in life, nearly a third said 100 years was not enough; 1 in 5 said they would like just a few more years.

And perhaps surprisingly, more than half of centenarians surveyed (53%) said they lived independently, and were capable of carrying out their daily activities without help from caregivers.

Not one centenarian described themselves as sad or burdened, and only 3% said they felt lonely.

Friends and family and sense of independence among keys to healthy aging

seniors playing video games
Baby boomers top three keys to staying well were: maintaining a sense of independence, laughing and having a sense of humor and staying close to family and friends.

The survey asked respondents – 104 centenarians and 302 baby boomers – what their top three keys were to staying well in body and spirit.

Centenarians gave their top three keys to healthy aging as: staying close to friends and family (91%), keeping a sense of independence (88%) and eating right (86%).

For baby boomers, their top three keys to staying well as one gets older were: maintaining a sense of independence (87%), laughing and having a sense of humor (87%), and staying close to family and friends (84%).

Both centenarians and baby boomers appear to be proactive in managing personal health. In both groups, the majority see their doctor once a year for a physical exam; keep up with the vaccines (for example flu shots and shingles vaccinations); and have regular eye tests.

As well as getting preventive care, both centenarians and baby boomers appear to be keeping physically active. Most said they either walked or hiked at least once a week, and around a third reported doing strength-training once a week. Indoor cardio exercise and gardening were also among the top physical activities.

Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare Retiree Solutions, says:

“This year’s 100@100 survey paints an encouraging and exciting view of longevity in the United States, which is especially significant since the number of centenarians in this country is expected to swell in the coming years.”

She says the proactive measures that centenarians and baby boomers are taking to monitor and look after their health is probably at least partly responsible for their feeling more youthful than their years.

“This is a good reminder for all Americans to take charge of their health now so that they can enjoy life for many years to come,” she adds.

In March 2014, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested being overweight may benefit older people. Researchers in Australia found that people aged 65 and over with a body mass index (BMI) in the overweight range live longer. They propose that the World Health Organization guidelines on BMI may not be suitable for older people.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD