Secret no.34 Optimism

17611776216_1183fb5a65_oAlice Herz-Sommer led a remarkable and, at times, tragic life. Born to a Jewish family in Prague before the second world war, she was a gifted musician and mixed with talents like Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka. Following the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, however, she was interned in a concentration camp (where, incredibly, she was able to play in over 150 musical concerts). She survived, along with her son, but her husband and other family members did not. After the war she became a renowned concert pianist and died in 2014 at the age of 110.

The key to her long life, she said, was optimism. “I have lived through many wars and have lost everything many times Yet, life is beautiful, and I have so much to learn and enjoy. I have no space nor time for pessimism and hate.”

On the face of it, Alice’s extraordinary life has little in common with that of Cloe Wintle, other than that she is also a centenarian. Born with sight problems, Cloe has lived in the south west of England all her life and had a long marriage to her late husband, Albert, who ran a shoe shop. Yet Cloe share’s the belief that a positive outlook on life is key to her longevity.

“I never thought I would reach this age but I have. I have had good friends and family around me who have helped through the difficult times but I have lived well. There have been bad times but what’s the good of moping around. You just have to get on with life and fight through the difficulties.”

Similarly William Delgesso, 100 in 2014. Born in Atlantic City, he worked for the New Jersey Bell telephone company for 32 years and was married to his wife Mary for 74. He turned 100 in 2014 and has had a lifelong love of dancing. His local newspaper wrote that if positive attitude alone could keep someone alive, Delgesso would live to be 200. “I feel great,” he told the paper. “Any better I couldn’t stand it. I just don’t feel old. I eat what I want. I drink what I want. Activities, I go to them. I even do some dancing at the senior center.”

Whether we call it optimism or positive attitude (or a range of other terms that psychologists link together, as we’ll see below), there is a widespread belief that many centenarians possess it. In fact one poll of centenarians found that 60 percent described themselves as ‘positive people’.

But are positive people more likely to get to 100? Or are they simply more positive because they have done?

Plausibility rating: 8 out of 10. Yes, shout it out loud – being positive can improve your physical health and may help you live longer.

This major study in 2008 looked at results from 35 research projects and concluded that people with ‘positive psychological well-being’ do indeed have better health. It defined positive psychological mood very widely to include emotional well-being, positive mood, joy, happiness, vigor and energy and also dispositions such as life satisfaction, hopefulness, sense of humor and – yes – optimism.

Another big study –  this one looking just at optimism – considered 83 studies (with just a hint of ‘my meta-analysis is bigger than your meta-analysis’) and concluded that being optimistic is good for you across pretty much all health conditions.

Both studies also concluded that even people who were already unwell gained from being positive and optimistic. That lends weight to the idea that our centenarians were positive people to begin with, not just because they’d already made it to 100.

And this study  makes the link to longer life. It looked at four characteristics of ‘positive attitude to life’ – optimism, easygoing, laughter, and introversion/outgoing- and concluded that these personality traits might well ‘play an important role in achieving positive health outcomes and exceptional longevity’.

So we’re leaning towards benefits of thinking that the glass is half full rather than half empty. But if you’re naturally more Eeyore than Tigger, don’t despair (or do, I suppose, if that’s what you prefer). If we look hard enough we can find studies suggesting that looking on the bright side may not always be the best approach.

For example, this study in Germany found that older people who were overly optimistic about their futures were more likely to experience ill health and die earlier than those who were accurate or overly pessimistic in their assessments.

This may be an example of what has been called the ‘Pangloss Paradox‘ after Voltaire’s fictional hero who believed naively that ‘all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. Being positive is one thing, it suggests, but being ridiculously positive can also get you into trouble psychologically if things don’t work out as you’d expected.

Still, overall it’s pretty clear that being positive really can help you live to 100. Time for a new year’s resolution?

Happy New Year.

photo credit: Positive energy for your soul/Positive Energie for deine Seele via photopin (license)


100 this month: the woman who wouldn’t let abuse prevent her getting an education

When Zulee Samuels says she had ‘a very hard childhood’ it is a huge understatement. She faced poverty and an abusive father but overcome them to become a professional dressmaker before finally, after a 45 year struggle, completing her college education. She turned 100 this month (December).

Her humbling story is living testimony to the power of determination, which other centenarians have also cited as key to their long lives.

Samuels grew up in poverty in South Carolina in the care of her abusive father, a Baptist evangelist preacher.

She can remember working to can peaches until two in the morning, only to be woken four hours later by her father and told to get up and cook breakfast. When she stayed in bed, he tore a branch of a bush and beat her with it. ‘He came in an pulled back my bedclothes and my gown midway to my thighs and started whipping me, and I was screaming.’

The abuse simply drove her on, she says.

Her father also refused to let her complete her education. From the age of 8 she was kept out of school to plough fields and plant crops. When she did attend school she performed well and her grandmother, who had been born into slavery, wanted her to become a teacher. ‘But my father, even though he was a minister, said I didn’t need any more education,’ she remembers. ‘I said I’m going to get an education, regardless of that,’ she says. ‘I just kept trying and trying’.

After a number of false starts, that effort finally paid off in 1983 when she graduated from college, alongside students 40 years younger than her. She was even chosen as Homecoming Queen, carried into the auditorium on a float and presented with a dozen red roses.

After graduation, Samuels worked as a literacy tutor and part-time teacher.

She says her only regret is that she couldn’t go to college earlier and teach full time. ‘It was in my heart to teach’.

A remarkable woman.


Source: Centenarian refused to let hardships, abuse keep her from an education

Secret no.33 Elves, reindeer and “helper’s high”

4215933572_8b27760dbe_oAt this time of year, who best to ask about the secret of longevity than Santa Claus? At a cautious estimate Santa – or St Nicholas as he was originally known – is well over 1,500 years old and yet he still manages to get all the way around the world delivering presents in just one night. So what’s his secret?

In  rare interview, Santa says one secret is keeping active. Managing all those elves and reindeer keeps his mind working, while the sheer scale of his task every years sets him plenty of problems to solve. That chimes with recent research by the University of Illinois, which found that people stay healthier for longer if they carry on working rather than retire.

Santa’s marriage to Mrs Claus is another secret because it stops him becoming stressed by his work. “I have to give her credit for making sure I take care of myself and keeping from obsessing too much over my work”. Certainly we’ve seen in a previous post that men and women do seem to live longer if they’re married.

But Santa’s real secret may well be even simpler: handing out presents. Giving time or money delivers health benefits such as strengthening the immune system. That warm feeling we get from generosity even has a name – ‘helper’s high(suggesting there might be a benefit not just for Santa but for his elves as well) – and might lead to increased longevity: a 2003 study found that giving to others not only felt good but was associated with longer life. So giving out presents gets Santa a special, festive

Plausibility Rating: 8 out of 10 (which is a little generous but that’s rather the point).

Of course, not all Santa’s behaviours promote long life and there are those who say he could do more to look after his health. For example, it has been suggested that Santa should have an annual physical exam, get a flu shot and take precautions against the effects of extreme cold at the North Pole.

And the Santa Institute (I swear I’m not making this up) at the University of Mississippi Medical Centre has even suggested that Santa could do to lose a few a pounds for fear of developing type 2 diabetes.

All fair points in themselves.

But really, how can you argue health with a man who’s 1,735?

Happy Christmas everyone.

photo credit: Wanted: Reindeer, must fly via photopin (license)






Secret no.32 Hot dogs

3299301399_2c38285f29_oHot dogs? Really?

When Helen Diekman, who died recently at the age of 100, was asked for the secret of her long life she said it might be down to her habit of having hot dog, fries and a Coke two or three times a week.

These regular hot dog lunches at a Chicago restaurant, Portillo’s, only started when Helen was 98 so there is every chance she was joking when she claimed them as her longevity secret. And she did also cite having lots of friends, going to bed early and attending church as other ‘secrets’.

But let’s take her statement at face value. Is it possible that hot dogs might actually have helped her live to 100?

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10. Not in themselves. Hot dogs are made of processed meat which is associated with a risk of a shorter life, not a longer one.

One study of nearly 450,000 people suggested that cutting down on processed meat like hot dogs would reduce the risk of early death by three per cent. Those who ate the most processed meat had a 44 per cent risk of early death.

Though the study couldn’t demonstrate that it was the meat which caused an early death it did suggest a few reasons why that might be the case. Not only is processed meat high in cholesterol and saturated fat, it is also treated with nitrates which cause the formation of carcinogens.

No surprises, then, that this year the World Health Organisation considered over 400 studies and announced its verdict that 50g of processed meat every day increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. That’s about half a hot dog.

(Incidentally, if you want another reason to avoid hot dogs, you could watch this short film on how they’re made. At the very least it’ll make you want to go heavy on the mustard.)

But let’s put this in context. Eating processed meat creates a relatively small additional risk – ‘a bacon sandwich is not as bad as smoking’, as the BBC advises helpfully- and Helen ate hot dogs at most three times a week for just a couple of years.

Plus these regular trips to Portillo’s in her 98th and 99th years sound like fun. Helen was always attended by a carer or relative and she got to know the staff well. After her back injury, she said the goal of her rehab was for her to be  able to walk back into Portillo’s by herself. She didn’t quite make that – she had to use a wheelchair – but for her 100th birthday in November, the restaurant hosted a huge party for her relatives and friends, including many of the staff.

And motivation is as vital in later life as at any time. So it’s not too hard to believe that hot dogs – or perhaps more accurately the trip out to eat them – might just have been a small factor in Helen making it through to that 100th birthday.




photo credit: Hot dog for a cold person via photopin (license)