NEWS: Forty UK centenarians celebrate birthdays every day

There are some remarkable statistics in the latest Office of National Statistics report on the very old in the UK. But the most eye-catching is the fact that in 2014 there were 14,450 centenarians, a huge rise from the estimated 3,250 just 30 years ago. It means that, on average, 40 centenarians are celebrating their birthdays every single day of the year. Even more remarkably, by 2037 there are expected to be 111,000 centenarians in the UK, meaning that on any given day you could expect over 300 to be celebrating their birthdays.

However if you want to attend a centenarian birthday party today you should go to Japan, which already has around 59,000 people aged 100 and over. That means that on a typical day there will be 163 centenarians celebrating. That number- which is rising by around 5,000 every year – has recently begun to worry a penny-pinching Japanese government. It has traditionally given each centenarian a silver sake cup, or sakazuki, when they hit 100, at an annual cost of £1.3m. The planned response? To make the sakazuki from a cheaper metal.

In the UK there’s no gift but a somewhat cheaper tradition of sending congratulations to centenarians which began in 1908 when Edward VII had a message sent to the Reverend Thomas Lord of Horncastle. It read:

‘I am commanded by the King to congratulate you on the attainment of your hundredth year, after a most useful life.’

But it was not until 1917 and the arrival of King George that it became routine to send messages of congratulations to people celebrating important anniversaries. Today, centenarians receive one on their 100th birthday, 105th birthday and every year after that. For many years, the message was sent in the form of a telegram but is now sent as a card. The tradition has not been left untouched by rising numbers of centenarians though – in 2014 the team organising the cards was expanded to seven to cope with the increasing number of recipients.

My favourite celebration however comes from Australia. Since 1993 Australians hitting 100 have been eligible to join the rather wonderful 100+ Club, which says it ‘aims to bring centenarians together at different events so that they may talk to someone their own age and share their memories and stories!’ It is very much an elite organisation – the only way you can join is to reach 100 – and it even has its own Facebook page.

And the club’s motto? ‘Just Keep Breathing’.

photo credit: Happy Birthday Cake! via photopin (license)


Secret no.24 Whisky

9932066903_a466fa3984What is it with whisky? Lots of our centenarians have thought that a shot or two of Scotch was the reason they’ve made it to 100.

Recently we recorded the death of Ruth Newman, one of the last survivors of the 1903 San Francisco earthquake, who said that her longevity secret was a Scotch and water every night. We’ve also recorded the death at 111 of Nazar Singh, who cited good food, a loving family – and again a tot of whisky every night. And Agnes Fenton upped the alcohol stakes a little by saying her secret was three beers and a whisky chaser.

The most recent advocate is 109 year old Worcestershire woman Grace Jones*, who turned 109 this month (September) and has had a small glass of whisky every night for the last 57 years. Grace has lived through the reigns of five British monarchs, starting with Queen Victoria’s heir, Edward VII, and 22 British Prime Ministers, beginning with Henry Campbell-Bannerman. She’s led a bit of a nomadic life, moving house 27 times with her husband, Leonard but ‘Amazing Grace’, as she is known to her friends, is certainly consistent about her whisky – she told her local newspaper last year, on her 108th birthday: “I never miss it. I don’t drink and all I have is the whisky at night. Whisky is very good for you. He (her doctor) said keep up with the whisky Grace, it’s good for your heart.”

So is it? Or does whisky have some other quality that could possibly have helped Grace and some many other centenarians clock up their 100 years?

*Oddly, Grace is not the first Englishwoman called Grace Jones to hit 100. The ‘other’ Grace Jones lived in south-east London and, until her death in 2013 at the age of 113, was the last British person alive to be born in the 19th century.

Plausibility rating: 6 out of 10. We’ve explored other types of alcohol before and come to the conclusion that the case for it isn’t that strong. True, there is research evidence that a small amount of alcohol consumption is associated with longer life. However that evidence is disputed and once we go beyond a moderate intake, alcohol is associated with a whole lot of harm.

So why would a ‘wee dram’ be any better? Some people do use it as a nighttime sedative – the classic nightcap – so could that somehow help improve longevity? Sadly no. Alcohol may help you get off to sleep but the quality of that sleep is likely to be poorer. It does seem possible that whisky in the form of a hot toddy might help you with the symptoms of the common cold but surely that’s not enough to extend a lifespan.

However there are one or two qualities of whisky that might just put it above your average alcoholic drink and which perhaps justify our plausibility rating. For one thing, it’s relatively low in calories – about 75 in a small measure – about the same as a glass of dry white wine.  More importantly though it’s full of ellagic acid, gallic acid and lyoniresinol – all of which improve the antioxidant properties of your blood (wonderfully, the older the Scotch, the bigger the effect).  It even seems to work in practice – an admittedly small (in truth, tiny) piece of research involving the comparison of red wine, mature Scotch and a younger spirit found the Scotch had the greatest antioxidant effect. The research concludes that the findings are compatible with suggestions that moderate intake ‘decreases the risk of coronary heart disease’.

Which was exactly what Grace’s doctor said, wasn’t it? So we’re giving Grace (and her doctor), Ruth, Nazar, Agnes and Henry the benefit of the doubt and giving whisky a creditable six out of 10 as a longevity secret. Just remember to choose the very best, longest matured, single malt Scotch if you really want to live a long time.

photo credit: Various Whiskies via photopin (license)

Secret no.23 Determination

16580443996_8c5efb0e6aDetermination is the secret to a longer life, says 101-year-old Beatie Johnson – and her opinion is worthy of respect since Beatie must have needed lots of determination in a far-from-easy life.

Beatie’s mother had TB and spent a lot of time in hospital, tragically dying when Beatie was just nine. Beatie was separated from her younger sister and brought up by her grandparents. She went to work aged 14 and married a local lad, Geoff Obrey. But the Second World War intervened when a bomb blew the roof off their home (Beatie was pregnant at the time with their son, David, and only survived because she had taken cover in a garden shelter). Then Geoff was posted to the Far East, leaving Beatie alone to bring up their child. Tragically a second child, Clive, was born prematurely in 1944 and died four days later. Husband Geoff died in 1979, though Beattie married again to a childhood friend, Leslie Johnson.

Beatie now lives in a nursing home and its deputy manager, Michelle Pilgrim, says ‘Beatie is living proof that if you are determined you can achieve anything you want’.

But can a personality trait like determination help you live to 100?

Plausibility rating 8 out of 10: There’s a fair amount of research to suggest that personality does influence lifespan. Psychologists differentiate five personality traits – the Big Five*, as they are rather dramatically known. Of these, the trait that comes closest to determination is ‘conscientiousness’ – defined in this article as ‘self-discipline, achievement striving, reliability, and similar traits related to diligence’. And, would you know it, study after study links it to longer life. Even more importantly for our interest, this study found that the facets of conscientiousness most associated with longer lifespan were the qualities you and I would probably include in our definition of determination – ‘persistent, industrious, organised, disciplined’. Just one word of warning: when determination turns into obsession, perfectionism or compulsion be prepared for a shorter life, not a longer one.

Psychologists are less clear exactly why conscientiousness/determination might lead to longer life. Part of the answer may be in diligent adoption of healthier behaviours. But that doesn’t explain most of it so it’s been suggested that ”conscientious people are better able to anticipate and prepare for future consequences of potential adversities, more organized, and self-disciplined. These qualities could prevent stressful situations from escalating and could also enhance coping.”

Which sounds remarkably like Beatie, doesn’t it?

*The full Big Five are: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience. Of these, there’s some evidence that openness to experience is also linked to longer life. So too is extraversion, provided it doesn’t lead you to smoke.

photo credit: Ayn Rand – Who is going to stop me via photopin (license)

NEWS: That’s another Guinness for me…

3820217887_a430856208_mAnother centenarian has sworn by a daily pint of Guinness. According to her local newspaper, Alice Patten takes no medication – just a glass of the black stuff every day, apparently on the advice of her doctor. Alice has just turned 100 and still gets out and about shopping. ‘She still has all her marbles and is 100 per cent with it,’ says daughter Brenda, who lives with her.

We’ve previously seen how fellow centenarian Gladys Fielden says Guinness is her longevity secret, though sadly we could only give it a disappointing 5 out of 10 as a potential route to a longer life.

Secret no.22 Golf


Let me declare an interest: I play this game and I’d like to believe it’s good for your health. And so, it turns out, would some centenarians. One of these is Ireland’s Maire Godfrey, who accepts that good genes have played a role in her longevity but also puts it down to keeping active by playing golf. She has certainly done that – starting to play in 1942 at the age of 27 and still a member of Elm Park golf club near Dublin.

By an odd coincidence, another centenarian golfer (or nearly – he’s 100 on October 13th) shares her surname but plays his golf in Australia. Ralph Godfrey plays up to three rounds a week and says that the game ‘kept him alive’ after the death of his wife in 2008. ‘I like meeting people and I’ve found that hitting a little white ball around the course for two and half hours makes me forget any problems’. He scored a hole in one in 1956 and no one would begrudge him it: Ralph served four years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese and is now believed to be just one of three surviving members of his battalion of over a thousand men.

Neither Maire or Ralph reveal their handicaps or scores but it is certainly possible to keep playing golf competitively until quite a late age. Ralph won a competition at the age of 90 and this analysis of golf performance by age shows that golfers’ scores and handicaps remain fairly consistent until the age of 70 and even then may only slip a little, at least for a few years. There is even a small group of golfers who have achieved the feat of posting a golf score lower than their age. These ‘age shooters’ include one centenarian, 103-year-old Arthur Thompson, who achieved it in 1972. (If you want to join Arthur and the others, the trick is apparently to get very good in your 40s, 50s, and 60s – and stay there into your 70s.)

So it’s a fun, social and motivating sport that you can keep playing until late in life – but will it help you live to 100?

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10. Well, just possibly. A Swedish study based on data from 300,000 golfers found that – after adjusting for age, sex and socio-economic status – golfers on average lived five years longer than non-golfers.

Professor Anders Ahlbom, who led the study says there are several aspects of the game that are proved to be good for the health: “A round of golf means being outside for four or five hours, walking at a fast pace for six to seven kilometres, something which is known to be good for the health,” he says. “People play golf into old age, and there are also positive social and psychological aspects to the game that can be of help.”

Intriguingly, the increase in lifespan is higher for low handicap golfers than for mere hackers (like myself). The most likely reason: lower handicap golfers have to play and practice often, so are getting more exercise than us higher handicappers.

And surprisingly, some of the risks you might associate with golf turn out to be less frequent than you’d think. There were, for example, only eight US deaths from lightning while playing golf between 2006 and 2012. You’re more at risk fishing, camping or – in fact – riding a bike. And there are appear to be no statistics on the number of deaths after being struck by a golf ball, suggesting that  – a few tragic accidents apart – there is relatively little risk of serious injury from that source. (Stay out of that golf cart though – not only will you get less exercise but there are 13,000 US accidents every year requiring a visit to hospital says this report).

So: play to a decent standard, duck if you hear ‘Fore! – and walk rather than take a cart. Do all that and you might just make it to 100.

NEWS: your odds of reaching 100

11423356086_6ee79a969b_oThe Office for National Statistics has come up with a simple tool that calculates your chances of living until the age of 100 – at which age you’ll be eligible not only for a letter from the ruling monarch but also to pass on your longevity secret to your local newspaper. The tool is here. If you want a benchmark, I apparently have an 11.4% chance of hitting the magic age.

NEWS: 113-year-old San Francisco earthquake survivor dies. Her longevity ‘secret’ was a Scotch and water every night.

5572751884_7f2877d098Ruth Newman, who died earlier this month, was just four when the San Francisco earthquake struck in 1906, leaving over 3,000 people dead.

Her daughter Beverley Dodds, herself now 85, says her mother remembers her father picking her up and running out of the house. ‘She would tell us she remembered my grandmother being upset because they had just milked the cow earlier… and put it in containers that got thrown to the floor’.

The family was living on a ranch 70 miles north of the city and their home was undamaged but many others were not so lucky: half the city’s 400,000 residents were left homeless. The quake lasted less than a minute but ignited fires around the city that burned for three days,

With Ruth Newman’s death there is now just one known survivor of the earthquake still alive, William Del Monte, who was three month’s old at the time.

Having survived the quake, what was the secret for Ruth’s long life? Daughter Beverley told the Daily Mail that it may have been down to good genes and a glass of scotch and water every night before bed. We’ve seen that alcohol is fairly often cited as a cause of longevity and while there’s some evidence for the belief it remains controversial. We’ll address genes in a future blog but there’s little doubt they are critical to longevity and Ruth’s family is strong evidence for that – her older brother Barney lived to 108 and their younger sister Genevieve to 103.

But there are also other possible contributory factors. Ruth stayed active knitting, baking and gardening, and continued to drive and play golf until her mid-90s. In a future blog, we’ll look at whether ‘a good walk spoiled’, as Mark Twain famously called golf, could help you live longer.

photo credit: San Francisco earthquake and fire, 1906 via photopin (license)

NEWS: Is alcohol really such an aid to longer life?

3208521661_587da1bcd9_oMany of our centenarians have thought that a drop or two of whisky, sherry or Guinness have played a part in helping them reach 100. And we’ve seen that there’s apparently a lot of research evidence to support them – moderate drinking has been associated with longer life in several studies.

However, as this BBC article reports, new research raises questions about those studies. Often they have included as ‘non-drinkers’ people who have had to give up alcohol for health reasons. It’s not hard to imagine that this might skew the data and, sure enough, when they’re taken out the health benefits of alcohol disappear almost entirely. Plus, as the article points out, there are 200 diseases and injuries that are linked with alcohol, including 30 that are caused only by alcohol.

So our initial, cautious 5 out of 10 plausibility rating may even be a little too generous.

photo credit: Beers and Cheers 011809 via photopin (license)

Secret no.21 Sense of humour

5238022900_6b565e3cf3Is laughter the best medicine? You might have thought it would be penicillin but New Zealander Geoffrey Farrow disagrees and, after all, he’s the one who’s made it to 100.

On his 100th birthday, Geoffrey told his local paper that a sense of humour ‘is always better than a packet of pills’.  A wry sense of humour stands out strongly in his interview as Geoffrey recalls that though his family was poor his father was a chauffeur ‘so I went to my christening in a Rolls Royce’. He also has a unique take on ageing, arguing that since his step-children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all call him ‘Pop’, he’s not getting any older.

Like many of the centenarians we’ve seen, Geoffrey has had a far-from-easy life, coping with poverty and the death of his father and a brother during his childhood. So when he says that a sense of humour has been important to him, we should probably listen. But is there any scientific support for that view?

Plausibility rating: 6 out of 10. Many people do believe that laughter is good for health. The scientific study of laughter has a name – gelotology, from the Greek root gelos, to laugh (though despite being coined in 1964, the term hasn’t made it into the OED yet). There is an Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, which it defines as ‘any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations.’ If you want, you can join the Laughter Online University or train in laughter yoga through the Laughter Wellness Institute. And for a time there was even a Journal of Nursing Jocularity, from which we have a complete categorisation of 15 types of laughter, beginning with ‘smirk’, taking in ‘snicker’, ‘chortle’ and ‘guffaw’ before finishing – alarmingly for our purposes – with ‘die laughing’ (don’t worry though: the grandfather of therapeutic humour, William Fry, tells us that heat attacks during fits of laughter are so rare there is no medical literature on mirth-provoked heart attacks’).

But where’s the scientific evidence for all this? There’s little doubt that laughing does bring about physiological and psychological changes – one academic, Ronald Berk, lists 15 of them, from reduction of anxiety to increased production of endorphins.  And there’s some research suggesting health benefits. One study of US women in their 60s and 70s found that those who watched a funny video had lower levels of stress and better short-term memory. So could that lead to longer life? Possibly. A study by researchers in Maryland suggested that laughter might help prevent heart attacks.

Some promise then but – as this overview concludes – there isn’t yet enough research evidence to show that a good sense of humour directly prolongs life. All is not lost, though. Laughter may be associated with another factor that might promote longevity – a positive attitude to life – and the thoughts of Geoffrey and many others do suggest that it it least improves the quality of life.

Which is not to be smirked, snickered or chortled at.