Secret no.36 Not smoking

2825492280_1fc9706512_oThough it now seems obvious, when 100-year-old Reg Hallam was growing up smoking was not commonly seen as a health risk. This US TV commercial from the 1950s sold Camels on the basis that ‘more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette‘ while Winston’s even recruited the Flintstones to sell its products. Meanwhile, in this terrific 1951 Walt Disney cartoon, Goofy found that quitting was difficult because so many people around him still smoked.

Though there was mounting research evidence of a link between smoking and lung cancer, the tobacco companies fought hard to refute it and at least half of US and UK adults remained smokers. It was not until 1965 that the UK government banned cigarette advertising on television, followed by the United States in 1970. Even today, nearly 1 in 5 UK adults still smoke.

However Reg ignored the hype and relied on the evidence of his own eyes and ears in deciding not to smoke: “When I was a boy, I had two uncles who were cough, cough, cough all day and that put me off.”

Now he sees that decision as the key to his long life, which saw him celebrate his 100th birthday in May 2015. His liking for the fresh air and exercise from playing golf might also have helped, as it has other centenarians.

So was Reg right to take notice of his uncles’ poor health?

Probability rating: 9 out of 10. If you are prepared to take only one action to help you live to 100, avoiding smoking is probably the one.

Smoking still accounts for 80,000 deaths a year in the UK alone and one in two smokers will die from the habit. The damage is not just confined to the lungs. It affects the brain, circulation, heart, stomach, mouth and throat, skin and even your bones.

All things considered, you’d expect no centenarians to be smokers. But of course you’d be wJeanne Calment 1rong: some centenarians have smoked all their lives (like the pictured Jeanne Calment, who lived to 122 -the longest-lived person in history – and smoked until she was 117).

Recent research however suggests that Calment and other long-lived smokers may share an unique set of genes that allow them to puff away for years but not suffer the health effects. That’s by no mean conclusive though and other studies have found that long-lived smokers suffer worse health as a result of their habit.

But even if the magic genes theory is correct, would you want to smoke? You’ll still have clothes that reek of cigarettes and food that doesn’t taste as good. And then there’s the monetary cost. If you started smoking today at the age of 20 and smoked a pack a day, by the time you reach 100 you’d have spent over £260,000.  

Plus, as this handy ready-reckoner shows, the time you take to smoke those cigarettes would effectively have knocked over seven years off your life (and that doesn’t include the time you take to find somewhere you’re allowed to smoke). So you’d be back to 93.

Can’t be worth it, surely.

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What do 100-year-olds die from?


Well it’s not quite what you might expect.

Figures just published in the United States show that the main causes of death for centenarians in 2014 were heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, cancer, and influenza/pneumonia. Remember that last one.

As you’d expect, the causes of death for 15-24 year olds are very different (and very violent): this database shows the top five were road traffic accidents, suicide, homicide, poisoning and other injuries.

As we get older,we start to die more from disease than from sudden events. At 65-74, what gets us (or at least, gets Americans) is heart disease, lung cancer, lung disease, stroke and diabetes. Over 75, it’s a similar list except that Alzheimer’s replaces diabetes.

But as we’ve seen, when you’re over 100 influenza and pneumonia come back into the equation. Why does that matter?

Well it suggests that right to the end of their lives centenarians maintained a degree of protection against developing those nasty chronic illnesses like cancer which did away with people 30 years younger than them.

Instead what got them was a nasty acute illness like the ‘flu.

That’s supported by a UK study which also found that centenarians are more likely to have causes of death certified as pneumonia and frailty and less likely to have causes of death of cancer or heart disease. The authors suggest that centenarians are a group who have ‘outlived’ chronic diseases which are common as causes of death among ‘younger’ older cohorts.

All of which suggests that centenarians are not simply people who have managed to hang on for longer than the rest of us. Instead, they were different from us to begin with.

How? Well, we’ll start to explore that in our next blog on ‘not smoking’…

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Source: Products – Data Briefs – Number 233 – January

Secret no.35 A can of Dr Pepper for breakfast

onehundred_2At 100, Jane Rogers is not much younger than the beverage she drinks first thing every morning – Dr Pepper, the oldest soft drink in the United States. And she shares a few characteristics with it.

Firstly, they’e both Texan. The drink was created in Waco, Texas, barely a two hour driver from Jane’s birthplace in Wills Point, Texas.

Then there’s the name: both were (kind of) named after doctors.  Jane was christened not Jane but ‘Odoska’, the name apparently inspired by the daughter of a doctor that her mother knew. (By contrast, no one knows where the name Dr Pepper comes from, though there are plenty of attempts to explain it, none of them entirely convincing).

The drink also prides itself on its unique, vintage quality, something that Jane probably wouldn’t mind being applied to her as well. She grew up going to school on a horse or in an open wagon, in all weathers. She lived through a bout of malaria aged 10 (her mother also had it and was expected to die, but didn’t). She married at 19 to a farm worker and went to live on the farm. “I’d help milk the cows every morning and sell the cream, and did other work. It was hard, but we managed.”

In 1952, she moved with her husband, Elmer, to a ranch in Calera, Oklahoma. Though Elmer died in 1987, Jane continues to live there and – though she uses a walker – is in good health. Could that daily can of Dr Pepper play any part in that?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 10. Though Dr Pepper may have ‘23 fruit flavors‘ it doesn’t have much in the way of the fruits’ goodness. Its ingredients are carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, phosphoric acid, natural and artificial flavors, sodium benzoate and caffeine. A typical can has 150 calories and the equivalent of a whopping nine teaspoons of sugar.

But Jane has a balanced diet apart from her unusual breakfast (the other part is a honey bun) and at 100 she clearly feels she’s entitled to her morning indulgence. As her local paper put it: “After a century of living, this friendly, little lady with a sweet tooth has earned the right to start her day any way she pleases.”

Exactly. Dr Pepper won’t have helped Jane get to 100 but it’s clearly helping her get the most out of the experience.





Alcohol ‘a threat to life, not a secret to extending it’

6919247795_3e388d13d7_oThe UK’s top doctor has dismissed one of the most consistent centenarian longevity ‘secrets’ – a daily glass of beer, Scotch, wine or Guinness.

Rather than extending life, says the government’s Chief Medical Officer, any amount of daily alcohol is a risk to it. Dame Sally Davis says alcohol increases the risk of many cancers and its protective effect against heart disease has been overstated. She outlined new official guidance which says people should not drink every day and should limit their weekly intake to the equivalent of seven glasses of wine, though even this relatively small amount brings an element of increased risk.

There is some slight comfort for women over 55, for whom  drinking up to five units of red wine may still protect the heart. That though is no more than two and a half glasses of wine a week.

The new recommendations stem from a view that previous research studies showing a much larger protective effect of drinking alcohol were flawed. We have covered that concern here.

The new advice means that UK has some of the toughest advice on drinking. Would-be centenarians who have a daily glass of red wine, a shot of whisky or – as in this recent centenarian’s storya daily Martini for lunch get no support for their habit.

It remains to be seen whether other countries will follow the UK’s lead. And – just guessing here – I think it’s unlikely to alter many centenarians’ beliefs about alcohol and longevity, at least in the short term.


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How to live to 100 : History’s centenarians

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Saturday 15 March 1930 © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The British Newspaper Archive has had the inspired idea of looking at the longevity secrets of centenarians from the past, as reported in the newspapers of their day. And it turns out they are very similar to modern 100 year olds.

We learn that in 1930 Mrs Caroline Trickey put her longevity down to being content with her lot and ‘never eating more than I want to’. Shades here of Mary Williams, who said her secret was eating just one meal a day.

In complete contrast to Mrs Trickey, 100-year-old Miss Fanny Daniel of Combe Martin said her secret was ‘eating well’. In 1926 she told her local newspaper: ‘I have always had substantial food. My people used to kill a bullock for the house so you see I have always lived well’. There’s an echo there of Ruby Byford, whose family said her secret was ‘eating for England’.

And in 1927 Mrs Sophia Ellis was telling the Cornishman that her secret was ‘hard work‘: ‘I was left with seven children after my husband died. It was a battle to get along’. A perfect match with Vera Walsh, who told us that her secret was also ‘hard work’.

Most entertaining however was Mr Zaro Agha, who claimed to be 160 and to have fought in six wars (one at the age of 100), been married 12 times and met Napoleon. His secret – told to the Dundee Evening Telegraph in 1934 – included being vegetarian. That’s similar to Dr Ellsworth Wareham, whose secret was veganism.

However there are some differences. No one recently has suggested that lifespan can lengthened by an injection from the testes of monkeys. The offer of that rejuvenating ‘moneky gland’ treatment was made by a Dr Serge Voronoff but rejected on the not unreasonable grounds that it was unnecessary: Mr Agha was already pretty old and ‘had never felt younger’. It seems that he had not got to 100 (or 160 even) without being able to know a charlatan when he saw one.

Source: How to live to 100 : History’s centenarians reveal their secrets