Secret no.52 Bananas

Maysie Strang caused some excitement in the media recently when she reached the age of 102 despite a lifetime of heavy smoking. Maysie started as a teenager and smoked 20 a day. Her son Sandy, 65, says: “The house was a fug of smoke. She was a secretary and was always smoking at her typewriter.”

But that story – the ‘ultimate health paradox’, as Sandy describes it – overshadowed what might otherwise have been trumpeted as Maysie’s unusual longevity secret: bananas. Sandy said: “She’s mad on bananas. When she was working at the newspaper [Maysie was at the Daily Express] she was often eating lunch on the hoof, so she used to have a banana. She is a fanatical banana eater, she still eats a couple a day.”

Maysie is not the first centenarian to have their longevity associated with bananas. Salustiano Sanchez-Blazquez, who at 112 died in New York as the world’s oldest man, also put his long life down to bananas (and aspirin).

So could there be anything in it?

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10. Oddly enough, yes. Bananas have got lots of things going for them and in particular their high level of potassium. Why does this matter? Well, there is good evidence that potassium can help counter the effects of too much salt in our diets, something that affects an awful lot of us and can lead to problems with our hearts.

First the basics. As well as potassium, bananas contribute to your recommended daily intake of vitamin B6, vitamin C, magnesium, copper and manganese. They are rich in fibre and contain virtually no fat. An average one has around 100 calories. And in the UK we love them, with the typical person eating around two a week.

But perhaps we should be eating more because many of us still don’t get enough potassium. That’s a problem when combined with another common trait in Western diets: eating too much salt. There is now strong evidence that a diet which is low in potassium and high in salt significantly increases our risk of cardiovascular problems like stroke and heart disease.

A change of diet might be the answer. This study, for example, suggests that eating twice as much potassium as sodium (i.e. a ratio of 2:1) halves your chance of dying from cardiovascular disease. The bad news is that just 1.5% of the US population (and probably similar levels of the UK population) currently eats a diet with that ratio. The authors say that ‘extraordinary efforts’ will be needed to achieve it for the whole population.

Eating a couple of bananas a day, like Maysie, as part of a balanced diet would be a start. Each banana has around 425mg of potassium which is around 15% of the amount recommended by the World Health Organisation. Other good sources are baked potatoes, tomatoes, milk, sweet potatoes, raisins and avocados. You can even find potassium in fudge and chocolate, though there are other reasons why you might not want to increase your consumption of those.

So Maysie may have science on here side. You would want to avoid her smoking though. While we can’t know for sure, it’s likely that Maysie has the set of genes that help protect some people from the effects of smoking and drinking. You may not be so lucky.

photo credit: Chris B Richmond″>Bunches of Bananas via photopin(license)


Secret no.51 Dancing naked in front of a mirror

26766726774_2e61352645_bThis is a novel longevity secret in two ways: it’s not quite from a centenarian and it’s really a gentle dig at the whole idea of longevity secrets.

Its author is the scriptwriter Norman Lear, who’s 94 on July 27th. Lear has a string of US TV successes to his name, most famously All in the Family, which created the character Archie Bunker. As with the UK original Til Death Us Do Part (and the equivalent British character Alf Garnett), it broke taboos around discussing race on TV. It still makes terrific viewing, tackling racist attitudes with wit and warmth.

Lear has been raising issues as a writer and political activist since 1945, when he returned from the three years’ services as a US Air Force gunner in the second world war. A documentary about his life has just opened in New York.

And his longevity secret of “dancing naked in front of a full-length mirror every day”? “Well it just could be,” Lear told the Huffington Post. “I don’t know of a scientist on the planet who has said it is not the secret to longevity.” And, he adds: “I have a dozen such secrets.”

Probability rating: doesn’t apply.

The concept of a longevity secret is fair game for Lear. We love to believe (in fact we’re probably programmed to believe) in patterns and causes but there isn’t always a simple reason why someone lives a long time.

It can be fun trying to explore the subject though. And it’d make a great subject for a sitcom, Norman.

photo credit: ode to Ana via photopin (license)



Secret no.50 Gin and tonic

4537590128_f7618daeaf_oWhat a very civilized longevity secret this would be: a gin and tonic, with a slice of lime, perhaps sipped slowly on a verandah while watching the sun go down.

Except that 100-year-old Mabel Jackson downs not just one but six. “I have two at lunchtime, one at tea time with a biscuit and then three more during the evening while I do my knitting,” she says.

Mabel has been drinking G&Ts for 82 years and has even worked out how many she’s had in her lifetime. “I worked it out one night when I couldn’t get to sleep.” she told her local newsaper. “Instead of counting sheep, I counted gins. You get around 35 measures in a bottle, so as I always have six a day it takes me around a week to get through a bottle. I know this because I buy one every Wednesday from the Co-Op. On that basis I buy 52 bottles a year, making 4,264 bottles since I started. That’s quite an achievement!”

“I swear the gin keeps me young!”

But does it?

Plausibility rating: two out of ten. Whatever is keeping Mabel young, it’s not her drinking habit.

There is something to be said for a moderate consumption of gin. As alcohol goes it’s low in calories: a 25ml shot of gin only contains 54 calories which, as this handy calculator illustrates, you could run off in five minutes if you put your mind to it.

And you could probably persuade yourself it’s good for you. Gin is derived from the Dutch liquor Jenever, which was originally sold as a medicine because it contained Juniper berries. Juniper has a reputation for helping with digestive problems, though you will struggle to find strong research evidence for this and whether it would survive the process of turning it into gin is a further question.

You could, though, turn your attention to the mixer in your G&T since tonic water really does have health benefits. It was invented by Brits in colonial India, who added sugar and soda water to their daily dose of quinine to protect against malaria. However these days the amount of quinine is too low to make it an effective prophylactic (and in any case Mabel lives in Suffolk, England, which is hardly plagued by malaria-carrying mosquitoes). Quinine also has uses in treating leg cramps but, though these are unpleasant, they are not life-threatening and so avoiding them won’t help you get to 100.

And in any case, while very moderate drinking may possibly be beneficial for older women, six gins a day counts as heavy drinking and is likely to shorten your life rather than lengthen it. Since Mabel has also survived being a smoker (she only gave up at 97), it’s more likely that she has the fortunate mix of genes that allows some people to break all the rules of healthy living and still make it to 100.

You can ponder on the fairness of that as, instead of a G&T, you sip your low-calorie tonic water on the verandah of your house, watching the sun go down.

photo credit: Gin N Tonic via photopin (license)

Centenarian of the week: Ron Atkins (UK’s oldest ex-MP)

16141565010_cb431eec6b_bNew centenarian Ron Atkins has a terrific claim to fame as the oldest ex-MP in the UK, having represented the seat of Preston North from 1974-1979. He’s a lifelong socialist, was the oldest member of Preston Council and is still active in the Labour Party (he made a welcome speech for Jeremy Corbyn when he visited Preston last year).

He’s married to Elizabeth, a former Labour councillor 42 years younger than him, who describes him as a ‘powerhouse’ of intellect: “When I met Ron again in recent years, I told anybody who would listen that having a conversation with Ron was like academic keep-fit. You can’t let lazy statements get past Ron.”

And he’s obviously a bit of scrapper, having fought for workers’ rights but also against severe psoriasis all his life.

And the secret of his longevity? Ron has four, all of which we’ve covered at in 101 ways to live to 100: genes, an active lifestyle (we’ve covered hill walking and cycling), wild Atlantic salmon (we covered fish oils here) and luck.

Happy birthday, Ron.

Source: ‘Powerhouse’ Ron Atkins celebrates 100th birthday – Lancashire Evening Post

photo credit: DSC_0089 via photopin (license)

Secret no.49 Good genes


Mary Belle Roach and Mae Belle Powell (known as the ‘Wallace sisters’ because of their maiden names) are identical twins. Throughout their lives they’ve rarely been apart. They live together in the Kentucky house in which they grew up. They dress alike and do most things together. They’ve both outlived their husbands. And in May 2016 they became centenarians together.

Why do they think they’ve both reached 100?

“Good genes. Our mother lived to be 97,” says Mae Belle. But she adds: “We didn’t smoke cigarettes. We didn’t smoke that pot. We never drank beer.”

Let’s take that first answer (we’ll get to the tobacco, drugs and alcohol later). Is the Wallace sisters’ longevity down to their genes?

Plausibility rating: 10 out of 10.  Genes play a big role in our longevity and it appears to become even more important the older we getLet’s try and tease out the facts.

The first place to turn are studies of identical twins like the Wallaces. Twins share identical genetic make-ups so if genes were to determine everything about our longevity we’d expect both twins to have the same length of life.

But they don’t: some die much earlier than their twin, some much later. In fact, this major study of twins estimated that just 20%-30% of longevity is inherited. The rest, it said, is down to their environment.

However those studies weren’t looking just at centenarian twins but at twins who died at all ages. Could it be that those who make it to 100 share a different genetic make-up to those that don’t, perhaps with a higher amount of heritability?

Almost certainly yes. One strong piece of evidence for this is a major study of over 2,000 family members of centenarians. It found that, compared to the population as a whole, male children of 100-year-olds were at least 17 times as likely to get to 100 themselves, while females were at least eight times as likely.

This suggests that genes are playing a much larger role than the 20-30% in the population as a whole. It helps to explain why extreme longevity often clusters in families (the Guinness Book of Records award for the highest combined total for nine siblings is an incredible 818 years, awarded to the Melis family of Sardinia in 2012). And certainly centenarian twins turn up much more frequently than you might expect if genetics played a limited role.

Why might that be? Gerontologists talk about something called the ‘compression of morbidity’ hypothesis. Basically, this is the tendency for some people to stave off illness and disability until much later in their lives than most people.

Some achieve it because they look after themselves. This study of Seventh Day Adventists in the United States suggests that diet, exercise and other factors can help get the ‘average’ person well into their 80s, adding up to 10 years to longevity.

However not only do centenarians get this benefit for longer, many of them seem to have it granted them naturally: it’s in their genes. This research in Japan for example found that at 92% of people who went onto become centenarians were still living independently at 92. That genetic tendency may even include some degree of protection from habits that are usually pretty disastrous for health, like smoking. This research for example claims to have identified a gene that makes smokers less likely to die from their habit than the rest of the population (though it’s by no means definitive: we cover the subject in a bit more depth here). And we’ve previously seen that very long-lived people like centenarians are less likely to die of conditions like cancer.

So it’s fairly clear that genetics does play a large role in whether you’ll live to 100. However there plenty of reasons why we should be wary of assuming that genes completely determine our lifespan. For a start, despite intense efforts, scientists have struggled to find a gene or even a set of genes that correlate closely with longevity. And even if we can identify the genes that aid longevity, we may find that they are shared by quite a large number of people.

Secondly, our environment influences how our genes express themselves, including turning individual genes on and off. So despite having identical genomes, even identical twins like the Wallace Sisters may differ across a range of factors such as susceptibility to illness.

And finally, lots of other factors can also influence how long we live. As we’ve seen in the previous 48 ways of living to 100, these include what we eat and drink, how much exercise we take and the strength of our social networks. Changing these factors alone can make a significant difference to our longevity. Which reminds us that the Wallace sisters wisely ascribed their longevity not just to their genes but also to not drinking and not smoking (especially ‘that pot’).

Overall, our genetic make-up is perhaps best seen as strongly shaping our ‘potential’ longevity, with our environment and own behaviours then influencing how much of that potential we actually achieve. But the honest truth is that we really don’t know for sure.

photo credit: Chromosomes and DNA double helix via photopin (license)


Secret no.48 Cycling

imageMalaysian centenarian Daud Seman has a daily habit that marks him out from most 100-year-olds: he cycles to work every day.

“I travel some 1km daily from my village to the market where I sell tobacco to my regular customers, who are also my close friends,” he told Malaysian newspaper The Star. It gives him the chance to have a chat and make some pocket money.

But though Daud’s cycling habit is unusual, it’s not unique among centenarians. Perhaps the most famous is Frenchman Robert Marchand, who celebrated his 103rd birthday in 2014 by cycling up a mountain (a modest feat for Robert, who is an over-100 world record holder for cycling nearly 17 miles in an hour).

Or we could cite Scarborough cyclist Stanley Chadwick who, at 100, cycled part of the route for this year’s Tour de Yorkshire.

So is their love for cycling part of the reason they have lived to 100?

Probability rating: 8 out of 10. Regular cycling leads to better cardiovascular fitness, joint mobility and muscle strength and flexibility. It should be no surprise then that professional cyclists see a benefit: this clever study found Tour de France riders lived on average eight years longer than the rest of us.

But what about leisure or commuter cyclists? Well, cycling is a great example of the moderate aerobic exercise it’s recommended we take part in each week. This research, in Denmark, found a 40% reduction in mortality risk among those who cycled to work compared to those who didn’t. And this study concluded that the Dutch love of cycling saves about 6,500 lives a year and adds over six months to life expectancy.

Cycling isn’t without risks, of course. In the UK it’s become much safer over the last century (in 1934, an astonishing 1,536 cyclists were killed in the UK*) but in 2013 more than 100 cyclists still died. Even then, cycling remains a relatively safe form of transport, with around eight million trips for every death. Overall, this major study of cycling concludes that the benefits of cycling are nine times greater than the combined additional risks from accidents and air pollution.

Plus, cycling takes you places. While for some that may be their office, for others it provides an opportunity to get out into the countryside, see the sights or – as in Daud’s case – meet friends. All the more reason that two wheels are better than none if you want to live to 100.

*Why so high? A clue lies in the fact that the driving test was only introduced in 1935. Poor driving meant that, despite there being far fewer cars on the roads (bicycles still outnumbered them), there were around 6,500 road deaths overall compared to around 2,000 today.

photo credit: 2015-Twilight-Criterium-13 via photopin (license)

Secret no.47 Plenty of water

4345271118_087d0241e1_oOK, so Liverpudlian Nell McEniff doesn’t have the most exciting or unusual longevity secret: “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I drink plenty of water”.

But that belies a life which has lasted 107 years so far and included some dramatic moments – like giving birth to her daughter Alice while the German air force rained bombs on Liverpool in 1940: “I remember lying on the bed and of course, I was in agony, and I could hear the bombs whistling down and it was dark because they used to turn the lights down.

And though she was just five at the time, she can remember the First World War too, including the sad loss of her cousin, Henry: “I remember they were finishing up the war, but he was killed. I was only little but I remember to this day we got a telegram and it was to say that he’d been killed. Everybody just started crying, it was very sad.”

Alice was one of five children, six grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. And the family has longevity in its blood: Her two sisters, Lily and Janie, lived to 102 and 98 respectively and her three brothers died in their 80s.

We know from previous posts the value of avoiding alcohol and not smoking but what about drinking lots of water?

Probability rating: 8 out of 10. Drinking plenty of water is one of the most practical pieces of longevity advice you could wish to hear.

As we get older the risk of dehydration increases. It’s thought to be a widespread problem (no one knows just how widespread but 1 in 4 elderly people admitted to hospital from care homes is dehydrated and the percentage living at home may be just as high). Untreated, it can lead to poorer cognition, delirium and an increased risk of falls. Ultimately it can be fatal: one report suggests that 12,000 people die in UK hospitals because of kidney problems caused by dehydration.

Why not just drink more? The problem is that our sense of thirst and our kidney function both decline as we age, so we may not realise we’re dehydrated.

So Nell’s advice to herself is spot on. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll live to 100 but it will make sure you stand a better chance.

More advice about recognising and preventing dehydration here



photo credit: What’s cooler than being cool? via photopin (license)

World’s oldest woman dies

Susannah Mushatt Jones has died in New York, aged 116.

She gave a number of different explanations for her longevity and we’ve looked at two of them: sleep and bacon. We rated the former a lot more likely than the latter.

Susannah will be mourned by a remarkable 100 nieces and nephews, to whom she was known as ‘T’ (‘auntie’).

The oldest woman in the world is now Italian Emma Morano. Her secret? Raw eggs.

Secret no.46 Celibacy (and jelly babies)

jelly babies109 year old Nellie Wright is in no doubt what has led to her long life.  She told guests at her birthday party in April “I’ve stayed away from men all my life – full stop. That’s my secret, no men. And living off jelly babies – I eat a packet a day.”

Nellie (or Miss Wright as she sometimes likes to be called) has never had a boyfriend and never married. She has previously put her long life down to keeping healthy and hill walkingshe once climbed Ben Nevis. But it was her advice about men that caught the headlines.

And it’s not unique to Nellie. Last year, 109 year old Jessie Gallan said that the “secret to a long life has been staying away from men. They’re just more trouble than they’re worth.” Jessie, who died in March 2015, also never married.

So, is there anything in the idea of celibacy* (or jelly babies) as an aid to long life?

*Obviously, avoiding men and celibacy do not have to be the same thing but the coverage does suggest that’s what Nellie means.

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10. Let’s get the jelly babies out of the way first. There is no health benefit whatsoever to eating them, though some runners do use them as an easy way of getting energy. This blog explains why and tries amusingly to justify it, pointing out that jelly babies include as ingredients black carrot (which has anti-fungicidal properties), stinging nettle and turmeric (which have anti-inflammatory properties) and spinach (which is eaten by Popeye).

Nonner ved St. Elisabeths Hospital i Tromsø

Nuns at St Elisabeth’s hospital in Tromso, Norway

And celibacy? Well the obvious place to turn to understand its impact on life expectancy is nuns. This study looked at over 2,500 Catholic nuns in the United States and found that nuns did indeed live longer. Overall, the nuns were much less likely to die within the five year period of the study, and this effect became more pronounced as the nuns got older. However, was celibacy the main factor? After all, there are lots of other things that nuns don’t do as well as not getting married. One of these is smoking and it is this, the study concludes, that accounts for the main difference rather than celibacy.

The study also shows that, while nuns did live longer overall, they were more likely to die of certain cancers including breast cancer. This is because women who have given birth have higher protection against breast cancer than those who haven’t (the protection increases with the number of births).  As a result of lower exposure to estrogen and progesterone, women who have had five or more children have half the risk of breast cancer to those who have never given birth.

On the other hand, celibacy does reduce the risk of cervical cancer. Virtually all cervical cancers are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is contracted through sex.

So it’s proving difficult to get clarity one way or the other. Can studies in biology help us? Hopes rise at a study headlined ‘Stay celibate to live longer‘ until further reading uncovers that the advice is based on a study of the mealworm beetle. And that celibacy shortens lifespan but only if you’re a fruit fly.

Perhaps our key evidence, though, should be the effect of marriage on longevity. There is a fairly consistent strand of evidence suggesting that marriage is good for you. That could be for a wide range of reasons but we’ve already seen the vital role that family and social relationships play in people’s life expectancy. Loneliness and isolation, we’ve seen, are bad for you. And while it is clearly possible to have wide and strong social relationships over a lifetime outside marriage (and also possible to be lonely and isolated within marriage), on the whole being married is likely to be lead to stronger social relationships.

So while celibacy might have worked well for Nellie and Jessie, it’s not obviously a good strategy if you do want to live a long time. Though, in fairness, it does beat eating jelly babies.

Postscript. Though I’ve kept a fairly light tone throughout this piece, we should note that for thousands of women of Nellie’s generation, celibacy was not, of course, a deliberate choice at all. Nearly a million British men were killed in the First World War and this, added to an existing gender imbalance, left many women with no realistic hope of marriage.  Celibacy, then, was not so much a choice as a necessity.

photo credit: Look behind you… via photopin (license)
photo credit: Nonner ved St. Elisabeths Hospital i Tromsø via photopin (license)

Secret no.45 Brandy

Katarina Pucic, Croatia’s oldest woman, celebrated her 107th birthday in the village of Barban on April 19th this year. Though her sight is failing she remains mentally sharp, to the point of telling a Croatian newspaper that she’s looking for a nice young man – ‘maybe someone 10 years older than me’.

Katarina has three sons (all of whom are still going strong and one of whom still cares for her daily), four grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren. She can remember Croatia from its days of Austrian rule right through to Tito and the present day. She was five years old when Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, plunging the Balkans and the rest of the world into World War 1.

And Katarina’s longevity secret? Along with local ham and cheese, it’s homemade rakija – fruit brandy.

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10.

Brandy has a long tradition of medicinal use, most famously illustrated in the (sadly fictitious) barrels of brandy carried by St Bernard dogs.  However the evidence for it as an aid to long life is harder to find than a traveler in an Alpine snowstorm. One possible helpful ingredients is ellagic acid, which is also found in whisky, and which just might have anti-cancer properties. Another is ethanol, which may have anti-inflammatory properties according to this, very small, study of volunteers drinking red wine,vodka, rum or brandy. But in truth there’s little hard evidence for this version of the hard stuff.

Against that there’s all the evidence for the cancer-causing properties of alcohol even with moderate usage, plus the serious illnesses associated with over-use. And if just the medical evidence doesn’t deter, you might want to consider Edgar Allan Poe’s dependence on brandy to which he resorted as a ‘desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom’. It’s likely that the brandy contributed to the mental anxiety rather than prevented it, of course, and Poe died an alcoholic at 42.

Could Katarina’s local fruit brandy be any different? Unlikely, though you will find lots of articles claiming health properties for it. From one end of the Balkans to the other, rakija is sworn by as a cure for toothache, heartburn, sore throat, anxiety and scores of other ailments. It’s quite common for older Croatians to swear by a morning shot of rakija – and the habit is by no means confined to the Balkans. This study found that brandy was a very common form of self-medication by men over the age of 75 in Finland.

But if none of this has put you off you can either a) holiday in the Balkans or b) make the stuff yourself at home by following this step-by-step guide in Esquire. You will need:

• 6.5 lbs fruit (grapes, plums, apples etc)

• 6.5 lbs sugar

• 2 gallons plus 1 cup warm water

• 1 packet wine yeast

• Large thermal water cooler

• Large stockpot

• 6 small C-clamps

• Cheap meat thermometer

• 10-foot coil of copper tubing (3/8-inch inside diameter)

• Drill

• Tube of silicone sealant

• 3/8-inch rubber grommets

But don’t let that put you off.

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