Secret no.31 Southern African ‘bush food’

3504120832_3c64899444_oWhen Martha Afrikaner, who died recently in Namibia, was asked her secret of longevity she used a word few of us would recognise: ‘veldkos’. We are in good company: even the mighty Google finds only 6,000 documents that use the word. So what does it mean?

Veldkos translates literally in Afrikaans as ‘bush food’ and describes the wild fruits and vegetables that are eaten across southern Africa. (Not to be confused with ‘bush meat’, which – as the name implies – refers to the wide range of small animals eaten in the bush, particularly in West Africa.) As this beautifully illustrated article explains, these range from manketti fruit and nuts, corky monkey orange, water root kambro, horned melon, Kalahari truffle and omajowa mushrooms.

Martha grew up foraging for bush food like this in German colonial Namibia, not least because it is likely her family was very poor and veldkos is free. Along with a strong Christian faith, it sustained her during a life which led to six children, 17 grandchildren and 44 great grandchildren.

Pre-war Namibia wasn’t too precise on record-keeping so there is some doubt about Martha’s actual age, though no one disputes that she was well over 100 when she died. How likely is it though that veldkos directly contributed to that very long life?

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10.  We know a little about the nutritional qualities of some – though probably not all – veldkos. The manketti (or mongongo) nut for example is packed full of protein, fat, calcium, minerals and vitamin E. The horned melon contains vitamins C, E and B6. Corky monkey orange has high vitamin C, iron, fibre and zinc.

However none of that necessarily means that you’ll live longer. Yes fruits, nuts and vegetables are good for you but they are often highly seasonal so can’t be relied on year-round. You also need a lot of them to meet your daily nutritional needs.

The closest current diet to that of veldkos is probably the !Kung tribe who live in the Kalahari and, while eating some meat when they can get it, essentially eat veldkos. And, as this academic paper argues, studies of the !Kung do not depict a Garden of Eden. Rather it suggests that foragers like the !Kung are small in size because of malnutrition. This doesn’t sound like the recipe for a long life.

However the honest answer is we just don’t know. Despite being such an ancient diet, there are no longevity studies to compare it with others. Our safest bet is to recognise that veldkos is essentially vegan, based around fruit, vegetables and nuts. We do have studies assessing the longevity effect of veganism and, while they’re not conclusive, they do suggest that a vegan diet, correctly followed, can be beneficial.

Which is why veldkos gets a seven out of ten even if, in truth, there’s a fair amount of guesswork in there.

photo credit: Sunset at Kalahari Lodge – Namibia via photopin (license)


NEWS: 106-year-old says she’s been drinking beer for 100 years

Centenarians often list beer as one of their ‘secrets’ for a longer life. Most recently and famously the remarkable Pauline Spagnola announced that her longevity secret was ‘a lot of booze’.

What distinguishes Sadie Snyder is the claim that she’s been drinking beer since she was six years old. If true, that means she’s been drinking for a full century.

Sadie, from Massachusetts, says that her father worked in the brewing industry and every week would bring home a case of beer. Sadie would stay up for him so that she could have some and ‘by the end of the week it was gone’.

While this may not have done Sadie any harm, it’s definitely not advice that others should follow. Moderate alcohol consumption has been consistently linked with longer life (though even that is disputed), but excessive consumption really is not. And if you start when you’re six? Well that’s a subject that’s not even been properly researched. However studies of older children and adolescents a document a long list of dangers from usage.

So if Sadie has been drinking since the age of six it truly is remarkable that she’s reached 106. Alternatively, maybe a little exaggeration is at work. You decide.

Source: 106-Year-Old Woman Says Beer Is The Secret To Her Longevity

Secret no.30 Living in Shangri-La

In his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, James Hilton created the imaginary paradise Shangri-La where people live far longer than the normal human lifespan.

The book was turned into a successful 1937 movie, starring Ronald Colman, and a less successful 1973 musical, starring Peter Finch.

One of the novel’s key characters, Father Perrault, (who it gradually emerges is over 200) explains that his secret is Shangri-La’s  location in the Blue Moon valley, high in the Tibetan mountains. Leaving Shangri-La, he says, would bring rapid ageing and death.

Since Father Perrault is a fictional character (our first in 101 Ways to Live to 100) we ought to listen to his advice with a degree of caution. But is it possible there might be some places whose very location promotes good health and improves our chances of becoming a centenarian?

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 10. We know that location does make a significant difference to lifespan. Men born in London’s Kensington and Chelsea live on average to 83.3 whereas those born in Blackpool will only reach 74.7. However that’s not because the borough of Kensington and Chelsea has magical properties (no matter what the estate agents say) but because its residents have a favourable combination of income level and lifestyle.

Is is possible, though, that certain geographic or topological features of an area might promote good health? Not to the extent of helping people live to 200, of course, but enough to help add a few years at least?

Perhaps inspired by the idea of Shangri-La, the characteristic most explored has been altitude – the idea that fresh, mountain air might be healthier somehow than that at sea level. And there is certainly evidence that high altitude is associated with heart health. Researchers in the United States spent four years examining cause of death of all the counties of the US. They found that men living at higher altitude, in Colorado and Utah, lived 1.2 to 3.6 years longer than those living at sea-level.

However when they took into account socio-economic and other factors, they concluded the benefits of living at high altitude were negligible.

Other studies have suggested that any beneficial effects of living at altitude are caused not by the atmosphere but because it tends to promote physical activity and lower obesity levels (we have seen previously how mountain walking is associated with longer life). And a study in Japan found that longevity was linked to climate but that mild winters were the key rather than altitude.

So while the idea of Shangri-La may have entered popular consciousness since its creation in 1933 it has not been on the basis of its scientific credibility.

But perhaps in the ‘Blue Moon Valley’ we can find a hint of a modern, more scientifically valid concept – the so-called blue zones‘ of Greece, Costa Rica, California, Japan and Italy whose inhabitants do live measurably longer lives, if not quite to the age of 200 that Father Perrault achieved. We’ll explore these in a future post.



Secret no.29 Being vegan

4817783254_5688eb7d4f_oIf you want to live to 100, you probably hope to be like the remarkable Dr Ellsworth Wareham who retired as a heart surgeon just five years ago at the age of 95. He still drives regularly and his health is excellent: ‘I don’t have any trouble with my joints, my hands are steady, my balance is good, I don’t have to walk with a cane,’ he told CCTV America.

His ‘secret’? He’s been a vegan for 50 years. And unlike most of our centenarians, he became took up the practice specifically because he believed it would help him stay well. He noticed that the vegetarians on his operating table had cleaner and smoother arteries than the meat eaters. Going vegan was ‘a very easy thing’ as he ‘had never cared for animal products’.

So was a half century of abstinence a good investment by Dr Wareham? Or could he have been eating sausages every day since the 1950s and still made it to 100?

Plausibility rating 7 out of 10. The difficulty with assessing the impact of veganism over a lifetime is that the concept hasn’t been around for very long. Though the Vegan Society traces the roots of modern veganism to the early 19th century, it wasn’t until 1944 that the name was invented (formed from the beginning and the end of  the word ‘vegetarian’) and the idea really took hold. There are now upwards of 150,000 vegans in the UK and in a 2011 poll one percent of the US public said they never eat fish, meat or dairy products. However there are few longitudinal studies to tell us how healthy they are or how long they might be expected to live compared to the rest of the population. And studies that do exist tend to focus on the broader group of vegetarians rather than focusing just on vegans.

Those limitations aside, overall the research does suggest people benefit from a vegan/vegetarian diet, especially for heart health, diabetes prevention and lowering blood pressure.  One major study of 73,000 people found that those who followed a vegetarian diet (including the subgroup of vegans) were 12 percent less likely to die over the course of the six years of the study. They had a lower rate of death due to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and renal disorders such as kidney failure. Other studies – though admittedly not all of them – have found similar benefits of vegetarianism or veganism.

It is however hard to identify the precise causes. Rather than avoidance of animal products, the benefits may stem from higher consumption of health-giving staples of a vegetarian or vegan diet: fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Or it might be from cutting out red meat, high consumption of which brings health risks. And, because vegetarians tend to be slimmer than meat-eaters, some or all of the benefit might come from having a lower body mass index. As one research study puts it, ‘Vegetarianism is a form of food restriction and, in our overfed society, food restriction is a plus unless it results in nutritional deficiency.’

So while veganism does look on balance to improve health (providing you get your vitamin B12 from somewhere), it’s not at all clear that it’s a significant improvement on any other diet that is nutritionally balanced, high in fruit and vegetables and low in red meat.

And one final qualification for our purposes: this study found that the health benefits of vegetarianism had largely disappeared by the time people got into their 90s. So it might help you live longer but maybe not all the way to 100.

photo credit: Raw vegan avocado mushroom salad / Ensalada vegana de champiñones crudos y aguacate via photopin (license)

NEWS: Will you live 3.5 years longer if you move south?

These latest statistics seem to suggest that if you really want to live to 100 you might consider moving home. There are significant, deep routed differences in life expectancy in England and Wales, with people in the north of England and Wales, typically living shorter lives than those in the south and south-east.

Here are the top places to be living at 65 if you want to live a long life: Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, Harrow, East Dorset, St Albans, Waverley, Chiltern, East Cambridgeshire, Camden, East Devon.

And these are the worst places: Rhondda Cynon Taf, Liverpool, Burnley, Middlesborough, Bolsover, Stoke on Trent, Kingston upon Hull, Blackpool, Blaenau Gwent and Manchester.

I was born in Hull but moved to London in the early 1980s and now live in the borough of Barnet. In theory, that move will have put another 3 and a half years on my lifespan. In Hull at age 65 I could expect to live another 16.8 years but in Barnet I can expect to live another 20.3 years.

The reality is, of course, far more complicated. The difference in average life expectancy is related to issues of deprivation such as low income and poor housing. But these factors will differ widely even within different parts of  Hull and Barnet – people in the posher suburbs will tend to live longer than those on run-down estates.

Similarly, on average the more deprived the area I live in the more likely I am to be affected by lifestyle factors like smoking and obesity. Yet this tells us little about individuals: obviously there are lots of wealthy people who smoke and lots of healthy-weight people on low incomes.

And all of this is influenced – sometimes heavily – by individual genetic make-up and exposure to random events (see ‘luck’, Ways to Live to 100 no. 27). If I do smoke, I may be one of the lucky few who have genes that appear to protect me against its effects. But I still might get struck by lightning or die in a car accident.

So some people in deprived areas will still live to 100 while some in wealthy enclaves will die at birth. Moving to Barnet might have helped nudge the odds a little in my favour but it’s no guarantee of a longer life.

Source: Life expectancy at birth and at age 65 by local areas in England and Wales, 2012 to 2014 – ONS