Secret no.28 Surviving the 1918 flu epidemic

3031443773_316088e415_oNoeleen Hughes, who died recently in New Zealand at the age of 102, survived the worst pandemic in human history.

The ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic of 1918-19 was a genuine disaster, infecting one in every five people in the world and killing between 20 and 40 million of them. It was more virulent than the plague and, unusually, hit hardest at healthy young adults. It struck a world still recovering from conflict, killing ten times as many Americans as had died in the first world war and depressing life expectancy for a decade.

Noeleen caught the virus but recovered and her son-in-law believes that this was the reason she had such a long and fruitful life – she raised three daughters, taught for over two decades and lived on her family farm.

So is it possible that he’s right?

Plausibility rating: 3 out of 10. We do know now that surviving the ‘flu would have helped Noeleen in one way: it gave lifelong immunity against a recurrence of the virus. Over 90 years after the pandemic, a study found that antibodies extracted from its survivors still protected mice exposed to virus for the first time.

However there’s no reason to believe that it would have offered any greater protection against other illnesses and ageing. And we would know if it did because, despite the huge death toll, surviving the virus was still the norm. Though it was far more virulent than other strains of the flu, the virus still ‘only’ killed 2.5 percent of those infected. And there’s nothing to suggest that the hundreds of millions who survived had extended lives (though it means that Noeleen was in some exalted company – other survivors included Walt Disney, David Lloyd Georgee, Franklin D Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Haile Selasse I and the artists Edward Munch and Georgia O’Keeffe).

So Noeleen’s relatively brief but surely traumatic experience in her teens is very unlikely to have been the reason to her long life.

Son-in-law Philip does however have other possible candidates. ‘Hard work‘ we’ve already covered and surely sometime soon we’ll consider his other explanation, ‘having no vices’.

photo credit: From 1918 Influenza Outbreak via photopin (license)


Secret no.27 Chilli peppers

1796297804_1d9622673e_oDaisy McGhee lives in Ohio and at 100 years old remains a keen gardener, growing garlic, potatoes, parsley, onions – and jalapeno peppers. It’s to these that she credits her long life, according to local paper the Star Beacon.

Born in Cleveland, Daisy skipped school because her mother couldn’t afford the textbooks and started work as a maid. She married twice but lost both of her husbands, the second in 1977. She has one son – who she lives next door to – and four grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren. A rich life then – but surely her fondness for chilli peppers isn’t responsible for the length of it?

Plausibility rating: 6 out of 10. Don’t be so sure. The fiery taste of chilli peppers comes from capsaicin, which is also found in cayenne pepper. Its strength is measured on the Scoville scale – pure capsaicin scores 16 million on the scale and the hottest pepper – the alarmingly named Carolina Reaper – scores around two million units. Daisy’s jalapenos are much, much milder – perhaps 20,000 units at most- but enough to pack a bit of a punch.

Capsaicin doesn’t just give peppers their taste though. It has well-established pain relief properties and is used to treat conditions such as arthritis. It may also aid longevity: one study – admittedly on mice – suggests that the pain-relieving qualities of capsaicin can also extend lifespan by 14 percent. A more recent study points to benefits for humans too. The study used extensive questionnaire data on half a million Chinese and found that those who ate spicy food once or twice a week had a 10 percent reduced chance of death (eating it daily further increased the health benefit but only marginally). NHS Choices, which takes pride in sober analysis of sometimes hysterical health news, gave this one a cautious thumbs up, saying it ‘adds to emerging evidence that capsaicin in chilli pepper may have a positive effect’ on health.

How appropriate then that Daisy celebrates her birthday on October 12th, the day that Columbus landed in the Americas and – among many other things – introduced Europe to the chilli pepper.

Secret no.26 Luck

11423356086_6ee79a969b_oWhen Frederick Crosby turned 100 in Thornlie, Australia, he was clear what it had got him to that age: ‘A bit of luck. There are so many things that can go wrong and they didn’t go wrong,’ he told his local newspaper.

On the other side of the world, Canadian Emily Sharpe turned 100 a couple of weeks later and expressed a similar sentiment when asked for the secret of her long life. ‘Damn luck’ she said. ‘I smoked from the time I was 14 until I was 84. That’s not fair! Some other poor bloke smoked just a a few years and he can’t breathe.’

And in Denver, Paul Marcus agrees. ‘You got to be god damned lucky for 100 years.’

So, is luck really the key to reaching 100?

Plausibility rating: 8 out of 10. Well, it’s certainly one of the keys, though it’s not quite so simple as being ‘born lucky’.

First, we need to extend the concept of ‘luck’ to include ‘chance’. There are bonfires worth of literature about the differences between these two concepts but this paper suggests that, broadly, being ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ is about whether or not we benefit from the circumstances – the chance events – that come our way randomly. A lucky person seems to be affected by ‘positive’ chance events more often; an unlucky one by ‘negative’ chance events.

And our centenarians certainly do seem to have benefited from chance events, in at least three areas: their genetic inheritance; the environment in which the grew up and their exposure to – or avoidance of – some of the random events that come our way.

Genetics. Paul Marcus wouldn’t take much persuading on this one – in fact his first answer on longevity is ‘You gotta have good genes’. We’ll cover genetics in more detail in a future post but it’s fairly clear that some people are born with genes that make them more likely to live longer. One of the more interesting aspects of this is raised, albeit unwittingly, by Emily when she says that she smoked most of her life and yet has reached 100. Though smokers tend not to make it to 100 (again, a subject for a future post), some do. The world’s oldest recorded person, Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, was a lifelong smoker until her death in 1997 at 122. It seems likely that Emily and Jeanne share a particular set of genes, which researchers suggest, allow some people to smoke but avoid the consequences to their health. This group has the same levels of inflammation, blood pressure and immune system functioning as non-smokers but it doesn’t affect them in the same way. Chance indeed.

Environment. Genetic inheritance is only the first of life’s lotteries. Where you are born and the environment you grow up in are also critical to living to 100. The so-call  ‘Preston Curve‘ demonstrates that if you are born in a relatively prosperous Western country you have a far greater chance of reaching your 100th birthday than if you are born in a poor one. A decent health service, good levels of public hygiene, adequate nutrition and housing: all of these are tip the scales significantly in your favour.

Exposure to random events. We die not just from illness and disease but from what happens around us. Every year in the UK, 18,000 people die from accidents and other external causes. Most of these are in traffic accidents and falls, but some unlucky people are poisoned, electrocuted and, of course, murdered. A few even meet their end from hornets, lightning and rat bites.  There were, of course, a number of major external events that helped shape the fortunes of the generation that is currently reaching 100: they lived (and died) through two major world war, many of them fighting in at least one of them. Both these wars had a major effect on life expectancy. In the US, for example, male life expectancy dropped in 1917 to a startling 37 from a pre-war peak of 52. In the second world war, male life expectancy in the UK fell sharply in 1940 and 1941 and in 1943 in the US (not fully recovering until 1949).

So chance, luck has clearly been a factor for our centenarians. They didn’t die of a range of diseases and they weren’t stung to death by hornets or killed in the second world war.

Yet, as the psychologist Richard Wiseman observes, people are not simply passive; they respond to  the events and circumstances they face. Being ‘lucky’ in his view is not just about what comes for way but how you make it work to your advantage (or at least mitigate its consequences).

Take the impact of the Vietnam War on the lives of young male Americans.  Surely there is no clearer example of the importance of luck on longevity than the 1969 Vietnam Selective Service Lottery, which selected the people to be drafted to fight in Vietnam? In that lottery, the 366 birth days in a year were drawn out at random, with the first dates drawn the ones who would be drafted. (You can find out what would have happened to you here – my birthday, 15th May, came out number 130 so it was more likely than not that I would have been called up).

However, while this makes it look as though being sent to Vietnam was pure chance, in practice it was not. This article explores the various strategies you could employ to avoid being drafted into the US infantry, from where most of the casualties came. You could, for example, volunteer for the airforce or navy (whose casualty rate was very low) rather than wait and run the risk of being drafted. Or you could do a deal and volunteer for a range of hard-to-recruit positions that ran no risk of combat.  And if you’d shaped your life by getting a college degree, you could almost always use this to find a safe administrative role, well away from the combat zone. As a result, of the 8.7m Americans who served in the Military, only a third went to Vietnam and, of these, only 12 percent were in combat and less than two percent were killed. So the lottery didn’t have to determine your fate.

And there is one final way in which chance is becoming less important in reaching 100. In 1932, the chances of living to 100 in the UK was around 1 in 20 for women and one in 20 for men. To get there you had to have an awful lot of things going for you. But, with advances in medicine and public health, today’s children have  a 1 in 3 chance of reaching 100.

So, in that sense, today’s children are luckier than their grandparents.

Secret no.25 Sweet potato

4242731514_9753fcb60aWhat does Jamie Oliver have in common with a 111-year-old Lessie Brown from Cleveland, Ohio? They both believe that eating sweet potatoes will help you live to 100. Jamie has fame on his side and a new cookery programme on Channel 4, promoting the health benefits of 14 ‘hero’ ingredients including the sweet potato.

But it’s Lessie who has the wisdom of experience, having been born in Georgia in 1904, over 70 years before Jamie. Georgia produces a lot of sweet potatoes (Ocilla, Georgia even hosts an annual Sweet Potato Festival) and Lessie would have gone through quite a few before she moved to Cleveland in 1922.

There she married, going on to have five children, 24 grandchildren, 44 great-grandchildren and 26 great-great-grandchildren. Her daughter, Bernie Wilson, says her mum used to love sweet potatoes and passed on the advice to others: “She even told a lot of people that would eat sweet potatoes. They thought that would give them longer lives too.”

But could it?

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10. If you’re only going to eat one vegetable, you could do a lot worse than the sweet potato. Not to be confused with a yam (duels have been fought over less), a single medium-sized sweet potato has around double the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A and is rich in Vitamin C, iron and thiamine.

Sweet potatoes are also a great source of the antioxidant beta-carotene which is associated with a range of benefits, including your immune system, protecting against free radicals, and perhaps lowering your risk of heart disease and cancer.

And it’s not just Georgia sweet potatoes that offer the benefits. Jamie’s programme focuses on the inhabitants of the Okinawa islands in Japan, who eat a purple-fleshed variety of the sweet potato as a staple part of their diet. Okinawans famously live a very long, very healthy life. And a well documented one: since 1975, the Okinawa Centenarian Study has recorded how its centenarians ‘age slowly’, delaying or sometimes even escaping the chronic diseases of aging including dementia, cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease and stroke) and cancer.

Overall, this is about as credible as evidence gets (Jamie would perhaps call it ‘pukka’). It is not, of course, all down to sweet potatoes. The study suggests that genes combine with  lifestyle factors to produce the remarkable longevity of the Okinawans. One of the those lifestyle factors is how much you eat, which we considered briefly here, but what you eat is also critical, and high fruit and vegetable consumption is key.

So Lessie would probably have been giving good advice when she told her neighbours to eat sweet potato.

NEWS: Take the ‘Living to 100’ test

Truthfully, no one can tell you whether you’ll live to 100 – but lots of people are willing to take a guess. This ‘Living to 100 Expectancy Calculator‘ is more sophisticated than most, requiring you to answer 40 quick questions about your diet, lifestyle, current health and family background. It’s got some decent science behind it too, having been created by Dr Thomas Perls, the director of the New England Centenarian Study – the largest study of centenarians and their families in the world.

Does it perhaps err on the positive side? When I completed it recently I was told I would live to 92, which is higher than most other similar tests I’ve completed. But, hey, I’m not arguing.

If you want a slightly different take on living to 100, this simple tool from the Office of National Statistics will give you a probability of you reaching the magic age.