Secret no.10 Two raw eggs

3870440483_edab3789d8_oEmma Morano is a remarkable 115 years old and lives, alone, in Verbania, northwest Italy. Emma has lived by herself since she left her husband in 1938 because of domestic abuse. Her niece comes by twice a day.

After what is described as a ‘sickly’ childhood, her doctor recommended she eat two raw eggs a day, a regime she’s stuck to ever since. She added the 150 grams of steak after about of anemia. Unusually, she eats little fruit or vegetables which leads her current doctor, Carlo Bava, to observe: “Emma sees to go against everything that could be considered the guidelines for correct nutrition… But she’s gotten this far.”

Another unusual element to her diet is the biscuits and chocolates that her niece leaves out every night and which, by the morning, are always gone. Not bad for a woman whose movements are now limited, whose eyesight is bad and hearing weak.

This nocturnal roaming may be one illustration of Emma’s positive outlook on live, a factor that Dr Bava believes has contributed to her longevity. Indeed when a journalist visited her she burst out into verses of a 1930s Italian love song, lamenting only at the end: “Ahh, I don’t have my voice anymore”.

Dr Bava also believes that genes have played a role in Emma’s longevity, a theory supported by the fact that Emma’s sister lived until 97.

We’ll save our discussion of genes and a positive outlook for another day. And we’ve covered chocolate here. But what about the eggs? Could they have had an effect?

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 10.  Eggs have had a chequered history when it comes to health advice. On the one hand, as EggInfo (the website of the British Egg Information Service) tell us, they are full of nutrients: protein, vitamins D, A, B2, B12, folate and iodine. On the other, for many years we were advised to limit intake to two a week because of fears about cholesterol and heart disease. On that basis, Emma would have been virtually killing herself for nearly a century.

Now however there is no suggested limit on the number of eggs you eat and heart disease is blamed much more on saturated fat than on cholesterol. However before you decide to go out and buy some hens, there are a couple of good reasons for thinking that eggs might not be such an aid to longevity.

There is limited research on eggs and longevity but the main piece isn’t positive. A long-term study of Harvard physicians found that eating up to six eggs a week was fine but more than that increased the risk of death by nearly a quarter.

And In the UK the elderly are still advised to avoid raw or runny eggs because of the risk of salmonella (in truth the risk is minimal if you stick to pasteurised eggs).

On the whole then, while the health concerns about eggs have declined, there’s little to suggest that they are a secret aid to longevity, and too many of them might perhaps have the opposite effect.

All in all, given that we’ve already said bacon isn’t the secret of a long life either, that’s most of the great British breakfast ruled out. Porridge anyone?

photo credit: two eggs via photopin (license)


Secret no.9 Hard work

You’ve got to like Vera Walsh. Asked what it felt like to be 100 she responded: ‘The same as it did to be 99’. Next question please.

A similar pragmatism is expressed in her ‘secret’ of living a long time: ‘Hard work and having fun. Lots of times you have to make your own fun – that’s the way to go’.

We have plenty of examples of Vera’s hard work – her jobs included long spells in retail – and also of having fun: she was an avid sportsman, taking part in track and field, curling and bowls. ‘I was always involved in sports and I’d advise people to do that and to coach and keep an eye on those people who are learning’.

Vera hit 100 on June 20th in Edson, Canada. She has a little extra advice for would-be centenarians: ‘Be happy. Laugh and the world laughs with you – cry and you cry alone’.

Plausibility rating: 6 out of 10. A famous Stanford Longevity study found that those who were most committed and involved in their jobs lived longer. But a caution here (and the clue is in the title of the study): it followed 1,500 bright, middle-class American kids who tended to go on to be lawyers, doctors and, yes, university professors. Low paid, dull, repetitive or dangerous (self-evidently) work, might not have the same effect. We’ll explore that in more detail later.

Secret no.8 Be happy and enjoy life

If we envisage living to 100, we probably want to to get there like John Clement. He says he’s so busy he ‘can hardly get through the day’, he tracks his exercise routine with a Fitbit and carries an iPhone 6 (‘I always get the latest one’). And he carves wooden figurines, though he says ‘they’re not very good’.

He’s trying to think of a snappy, one-liner for people who ask him how he’s lived so longer. But he told his local newspaper the real reason: ‘I think life is all what you make of it. If you’re happy and enjoy life, why not live a little longer?”.

John hit 100 in Toledo, where he grew up. A pre-war Cornell engineering student, he was called up as a second lieutenant but spent his war in Michigan, overseeing factories turning out arms. After the war, he ran the family business Bock Laundry Machine Co with this twin brother, Carl. That hit legal difficulties, which John says wrecked the company and him. He retired in 1985 (briefly flirting with real estate but giving up after selling one house).

Plausibility rating: 8 out of 10. If we translate ‘being happy’ into longevity jargon as ‘a high level of subjective wellbeing’, then there seems a pretty strong correlation with longer life. The UK Officeof National Statistics says that it can add four to 10 years to life compared to low levels of ‘subjective wellbeing’. We’ll look at this in more detail in a future post.

Secret no.7 Work less overtime

Women in Okinawa, Japan, live longer than just about anywhere else in Japan – on average to 87 (and, come on, that’s quite a long way to 100).

Their secret, suggests at least one report, is work-life balance. Women are more likely to be in the workforce than the Japanese average but work fewer overtime hours. How does that play out in longevity? No, I’m not sure either. The report suggests that partners have more time to raise a family and that seems a vaguely plausible reason for the study’s other main finding – that Okinawan women have more children. But longer life? Hmmm.

Plausibility rating: 3 out of 10. Fewer overtime hours by itself seems an unlikely major cause for a longer life. But there are other reasons not to work to hard as the famous quotation, variously attributed to US author Larry Kushner or politician Paul Tsongas, reminds us: ‘No one ever said on their deathbed ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’.

Secret no.6 Good food

Actually, this way to live to 100 is a bit of cheat.

Ruby Byford – better known as Peggy – celebrated her 103rd birthday on 23rd June 2015 in the Colchester care home where she has lived for the past couple of years. According to local media reports Peggy still enjoys walks in the garden. Her family also says she ‘eats for England’ and until recently she had a glass of sherry every day, with champagne at celebrations.

And these comments have, with a little journalistic licence, become the possible secrets for her longevity in the local newspaper report. Peggy appears never to have said them or to have claimed them as the keys to her long life.

So just as reasonably it could have said that a strong family was the key: Ruby has two children, five grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. Or an active working life: Ruby and her late husband Edward ran a small bakery and she worked in a pharmacy after the death of Edward 40 years ago.

Feasibility: n/a. Ruby herself doesn’t seem to have attributed her long life to any one factor, which may be very wise of her. If she had, eating well would certainly be a factor in longevity (assuming ‘well’ doesn’t mean ‘too much’) and there is variable evidence about the importance of a small amount of alcohol. Good walks could certainly help. But without Peggy’s blessing, we’ll let this one slide.

Secret no.5 Sleep

5582704539_0e7a834910_bSusannah Mushatt Jones is due to celebrate her 116th birthday on July 6th 2015 – she is officially the world’s oldest person. Her secret, she told the New York Daily News, is sleep. Susannah even offered the reporter a demonstration, laying back in her recliner and pulling a blanket over her head as if for an afternoon nap.

Susannah – known as ‘Miss Susie’ – has sight and hearing problems but is still active and takes just two medications a day.

Though she never married and has no children, Susannah has a remarkable 100 nieces and nephews, to whom she is known simply as T (‘auntie’).

She is a fan of Barack Obama and the New York Daily News suggested that a phone call from the President would make her birthday.

Plausibility rating: 6 out of 10. Susannah’s faith in the longevity powers of sleep is quite well placed. Studies often shown a link between low levels of sleep and incidence of major, life-threatening illnesses such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease. ‘It’s now clear that a solid night’s sleep is essential for a long and healthy life,’ says NHS Choices. The Daily Mirror neatly reported a 2010 study – suggesting a 12% increased risk of death if you get less than six hours sleep – with the headline ‘Not enough sleep leads to a wake’.

However, that study also suggested a link between too much sleep (nine hours or more) and an even higher risk of premature death so it is possible to get too much of a good thing.
photo credit: Sleep via photopin (license)

Secret no.4a God again

(Note to readers: the subject of faith doesn’t get the attention it deserves here. I cover it in more detail in this post).

This is becoming a bit of a theme.

Maryland resident Robert Cox says he didn’t expect to reach 100 but, now that he has, he credits God and says that he feels like he has a ‘pretty long way to go yet’.

Robert has been living in an assisted living facility since 2012. He uses a walker and has hearing problems but his mind remains sharp. He also offers sound advice on marriage, having been married for 65 years until his wife died in 2003. ‘You treat your woman as your sweetheart. You treat her well, all the time,’ he told the local online news site.

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10. As we’ve seen religious faith is associated with longer life but it’s unlikely that it’s due to divine intervention. More plausibly, religion offers a focus and purpose to life and it’s this which adds years.

Secret no.4 Praising God

(Note to readers: the subject of faith doesn’t get the attention it deserves here. I cover it in more detail in this post).

107-year-old Alabama resident Virginia Wright is clear why she has lived so long: “Ain’t no secret. Praising God and going to God for his grace”.

Virginia was born on Nov 25th 1907 and – as of June 2015, remained active. “She can walk around the house, holding on to something,” her daughter, Clairee Washington, told a local newspaper. Clairee, who is herself 89, added “She’ll make her bed. She can wash dishes.”

“We let her do those things to occupy her mind,” said Virginia’s granddaughter, Patricia Lee. “She’ll move around. She likes to stay active. She’ll ask what she can do.”When she folds clothes, “she’ll fold them up and she’ll do it fast so she can get done,” Lee said.

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10. We can discount the Bible’s claims that Methuselah lived to 969 but being religious has been associated with longevity in several studies. So too though has having a more general ‘sense of purpose’ so it may be this rather than religious faith which is the key factor.

Secret no.3 Stem cells

115 year old Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper gave her ‘advice’ about longevity posthumously. A tissue sample showed that Mrs van Andel-Schipper still had two stem cells active producing white blood cells, whereas most of us have lost them by the time we die. So that could be the explanation for her remarkable long life. Or it might not. We really don’t know.

Plausibility: ? Not a clue. Check back in a decade or so.

Secret no.2 A lot of booze

Pennsylvanian Pauline Spagnola told a local reporter that ‘a lot of booze’ is the key to her reaching 100. The video of that advice briefly made her an internet star and also earned her three crates of free beer from the local Lion brewery, her favourite (though Pauline is also quoted as saying ‘Anything they buy me – I drink it’). This was reported by the local TV station as “Booze Drinkin’ Granny Gets Free Brew”.

Those crates may not have lasted long: Pauline says she has ‘one at noon, one in the evening and one going to sleep – put me to sleep’. You can almost hear the nervousness in the director of the supported housing where Pauline lives, who is quoted as saying cautiously: ‘As long as there’s no restrictions with medication or any type of dependency issues, there’s nothing wrong with having a beer here or there.’ And in fairness, Pauline did say she planned to share her free drink with friends.

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10. There is plenty of evidence that alcohol – particularly but not exclusively, red wine – can improve health and longevity. Typically, the studies find that drinkers even have a lifespan advantage over teetotallers. However the research is disputed and studies also tend to suggest that moderation is key. Too much alcohol is generally found to limit life rather than extend it.

We cover the subject of alcohol and its impact on longevity more fully in the posts on WhiskyGuinness and brandy, and the effects of heavier drinking in gin and tonic and – incredibly – four bottles of red wine a day.