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