Secret no.40 Catholicism

2678931707_e533aeef22_oIt’s now well established that religious faith is associated with living longer. But does it matter which faith you believe in?

Myrtle Dallmann from Wisconsin, United States, and Alda Philo in the Seychelles are both over 100 – and both believe the Catholic faith helps explain their long lives.

Alda says that prayer, work, good nutrition and a simple life explain her longevity: “It is the Lord that keeps us alive and we need to love our God. If I am to live some more years it is all up to him.”

For Myrtle the key is ‘hard work, and eating lot of fresh vegetables and fruit, exercising and saying the Rosary every day,” according to her daughter Nadine Voegeli.

They have famous support. The film actress Maureen O’Hara, asked in her 80s for the secret of her longevity, replied: “Say your Hail Mary every night when you go to bed.” She lived to 95.

So is there any reason to believe that Catholicism – or any other specific religion for that matter – is associated with longer life?

Probability rating: 8 out of 10. As we’ve seen, religious faith is strongly associated with a longer life. Virtually all the evidence comes from the United States, however, and focuses on the main Christian denominations and Judaism.

If we accept those considerable limitations, there is evidence from these US studies that Catholics do live longer than some other faiths. On average, Catholics have a 23 percent lower risk of dying in any given year than atheists and agnostics, but also a gain over black and evangelical Protestants. This positive effect remains, albeit reduced, when we control for demographic factors such as income and lifestyle factors such as healthy eating.

We don’t need to look to metaphysics to explain these results. There is a broad consensus that the benefit comes from the psychological and social benefits of attending religious services. Religious faith gives a purpose and meaning to life, and going to services provides vital social connections and a support network. Faiths that involve most attendance at services should, these surveys suggest, offer most benefit.

Catholics are not the longest-lived faith in the United States: Protestants and Jews both live slightly longer. However all are put into the shade by two smaller religions: Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons. 

Seventh Day Adventists believe in the imminent Second Coming of Jesus and observe Saturday (the seventh day in Jewish and Christian calendars) as their holy day. A study followed 34,000 Adventists in California, from 1976 to 1988 and found Adventists lived far longer than non-Adventists: 7.3 years longer for men, 4.4 years for women.

The Mormons – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – do even better. A 25-year study found that men who were highly committed to the Mormon lifestyle had a life expectancy 9.8 years longer than US white males, while highly committed females had a life expectancy 5.6 years longer than US white females. 

Once again, metaphysics isn’t needed to explain the results. In both cases, in addition to the social support of a close-knit community, the key factor was lifestyle. The Adventist study found five behaviors that accounted for their longevity: eating a plant-based diet, never smoking, consuming nuts several times per week, exercising regularly and maintaining a normal weight. For the Mormons, the keys were avoidance of alcohol and tobacco and a limit on meat consumption in favor of grains, fruits and vegetables.

Which is fitting because when we revisit Myrtle and Aldo’s longevity secrets we find that they share that belief. While both identify faith as a factor in their lifespan, both also identify lifestyle: nutrition, exercise and – for both – hard work. What you believe matters but how you live matters too.

And if there is one clear demonstration of this it is found in a study of one group of Catholics who do particularly well in life expectancy. Nuns live significantly longer than US women generally but the benefit appears to be due to one simple lifestyle difference: they don’t smoke.


photo credit: Embrace of the Cross via photopin (license)


Secret no.39 A fried breakfast

3627037828_cd296af6c2_oAt 105, Kathleen Hilton has earned the right to eat what she wants for breakfast. And what she wants is bacon, sausage, tomatoes, eggs and beans – the ‘full English’.

Her son David told eager national newspapers: “Kath loves her weekly breakfast. It must be the fry ups which are giving her the long lease of life. That and good genes.”

Born in Grimsby, Kathleen left school at 15 to work as a bookkeeper in the docks, met her husband Matt in the town and married him at the Old Clee church there (wearing blue rather than white in recognition of the tragic death of a brother, Leslie). Matt died in 1984 but Kathleen continued to lived alone and independent until the age of 100. She is now a resident at Homefield House care home. Angela Dannett, who works there, confirms Kathleen’s fondness for a full English: “She loves it. If she could have a cooked breakfast every day, she would.”

So could the full English be a factor in Kathleen’s long life?

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10. We’ve grown up with the advice of US nutritionist Adele King ringing in our ears: ‘Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper‘. Unfortunately there’s really no definitive evidence to support it. While some studies do suggest that breakfast is good for you, the weight of evidence really doesn’t demonstrate any benefit to eating your biggest meal in the morning*.

Nor is a cooked breakfast the best breakfast you can eat. While tomatoes are good, eggs are fine (again in moderation) and baked beans are great (if a bit heavy on sugar), altogether they’re laden with calories (upwards of 800), fat and salt. And the sausage and bacon  are prime examples of the processed meat we’re encouraged to eat in moderation because of an association with cancer.

All of which is probably why Kathleen doesn’t have it every day. In a bit of the story that’s all too easily overlooked, her son David told the local newspaper that, while she has the full-English every Saturday morning, ‘she has porridge throughout the week’.

Now that’s more like it as a real longevity secret. It might not have grabbed the attention and made it into the national newspapers though and Kathleen would have missed her brief bit of fame. Let’s home she enjoyed it as much as her weekly fry-up.

* Despite this the very enthusiastic Mr Breakfast website (‘All breakfast, all the time’) lists every piece of positive research about breakfast that’s been published, as well as a database of all 1,528 cereals every made, from Addams Family Cereal to Zoe’s O’s.

I am grateful to Christine Miller at Independent Age for finding this longevity secret for me. Thanks Christine!

photo credit: The Full English via photopin (license)

Secret no.38 Cod liver oil

16448534990_6ee38f6949_oIf your mother used to force feed you spoonfuls of cod liver oil as a child you may hope that 100-year-old Violet Archer is right when she puts her longevity down to the stuff. That might make up for your memory of the taste.

Violet, from Epping Forest in England, turned 100 at the end of 2015. Twice married and widowed, she remains independent and still cooks and cleans for herself. Apart from hearing problems she is renowned for her health. According to her niece Irene Bachelor (herself 85), Violet she puts that down to the cod liver oil: “Seven Seas, she has taken them for years. She takes five a day just on its own and is a really healthy lady.”

But could it really be the cod liver oil?

Plausibility rating: 8 out of 10. It certainly could help – but not necessarily for the reasons people first started taking it. A generation of children grew up with the taste of cod liver oil in the mouths not because they thought they’d live longer but because it was believed to protect against a scourge of childhood for centuries – rickets. And it did, though no one knew why.

Then around a century ago, cod liver oil was found to contain two nutrients that helped promote healthy growth and bones. The two nutrients were named ‘vitamins’ (A and D as it happens), and folk wisdom was vindicated. Not only that but a generation of parents now had sound scientific reasons to force cod liver oil on their unwilling offspring.

However as society grew healthier and children better fed, the threat of rickets declined* and so too did the sales of cod liver oil. There were other, easier ways to get your vitamins A and D, without that oily, fishy taste.

But then scientists began to wonder why Inuits had such healthy hearts, even though they have a high fat diet. The discovery of the health properties of omega-3 fatty acids in fish brought attention back to cod liver oil

As the evidence stacked up, the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition concluded there was very strong evidence of the beneficial effects of fish oils on the heart. And more recently research suggests that benefit may translate into longer life. This study, for example, found that people who ate a lot of oily fish had a 35% less risk of dying of heart disease. Oh, and as an additional benefit it helps with arthritis.

The UK government now recommends that you have at least two portions of fish a week, of which one should be oily fish. If you don’t like fish or don’t cook that much, you can get your dose from cod liver oil.

The taste hasn’t improved much, though, which is why can you find video advice about how to take it without gagging. If that advice doesn’t work you can use capsules, which are more expensive but less unpleasant (though not entirely without side effects: you might experience the self-explanatory ‘fish burp’. Avoidance hint: take the capsules with meals).

All in all, while Violet’s longevity secret is no longer much of a secret: it really could help you live longer.

*Or at least it had been. Now rickets is making something of a come back, a situation blamed on children spending too much time indoors and so not getting their daily dose of vitamin D from its most natural source: sunshine.

photo credit: capsules via photopin (license)

Most Americans Want to Live to 100 

We have bad news. While 77% of Americans want to live to 100 their real chances aren’t so great. But 90? Well, that’s a lot more likely.

The American Society of Actuaries maintains a simple Excel-based spreadsheet that allows you to calculate your chances of living to… well, 95 (for some reason it doesn’t predict beyond that). And a woman aged 65 has just a 1 in 10 chance of reaching 95 and a man just four percent.

However the third of Americans who expect to make it to 90 aren’t that far off the mark. At 65, an American woman has a 28% chance of making it to 90 while men have a 17% chance. Bear in mind these figures don’t take into account important factors for life expectancy like education level, income and ethnicity.

In the UK, the Department of Work and Pensions has also released data to tell you your chances of reaching 100. From it, I learned that I have a 13.6% chance of getting that celebratory card from the Queen. Again, these figures don’t take into account lifestyle factors.

In a previous post, I’ve highlighted a more complex, probably more precise, way of calculating your odds of reaching 100.

In terms of how long you want to live, well the poll reported in Time is in line with previous ones – 90 to 100 is seen as the idea age. This handy ready reckoner shows how your views on ideal longevity match the rest of the US population.







Source: Most Americans Want to Live to 100: Survey

Secret no.37 Four bottles of red wine a day

2168719824_3567a9588f_oYou might think that Antonio Docampo Garcia – who died last week – was lucky to make it to 57 let alone 107. The owner of a vineyard in north-west Spain, he claimed to drink four bottles of red wine each day – two at lunch and two with dinner.

His nephew Jeronimo, who has inherited the vineyard but hopefully not the drinking habit, told reporters“He sold the majority of the wine he produced, but still kept a decent amount back for himself. If he produced 60,000 litres a year he would keep 3,000 litres for himself

“He always said that was his secret to living so long.”

Could it possibly have been?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 10. Not a chance. As we’ve seen, there is increasing evidence that any amount of alcohol, let alone four bottles a day, may be a danger to health.

The UK’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies recently advised we drink no more than a few glasses of wine a week, spread out over a few days and said that even that amount involved risk. She told MPs: “When I reach for my glass of wine I think, ‘Do I want my glass of wine or do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?*’And I take a decision each time I have a glass.”

Ironically, by her own advice Dame Sally is one of the relatively few people who could drink red wine without guilt – women over the age of 55 are the only group for whom the benefits to the heart of red wine are thought to outweigh the cancer risk.

But if moderate drinking is bad for us, how about four bottle of wine a day? Well, unsurprisingly, heavy drinking is linked to a whole range of health risks. This article chronicles ten of them, from liver disease to accidental injury. And, again unsurprisingly, the more you drink the more you risk health effects.

What is surprising, though, is how many heavy drinkers there are (at least in the United States). To make it into the top 30% of drinkers in the US, you’d only have to drink a glass of wine a night. But to make it into the top 10% is a whole different story. For that you’d have to drink 18 bottles of wine a week – two and half bottles a day – and you’d still be in the company of 24 million other people.

But in case that gets us thinking of following Antonio Docampo’s, we should consider the tragic case of Hazel Birnie. Like Antonio, Hazel drank four bottles of wine a day – but for her it had catastrophic effects. In July last year, at the age of 48 she had advanced liver disease, was struggling to breath and had been told she had just weeks to live. She spoke out because she wanted others to be aware of the dangers: “I’ve brought this on myself,” she said. “It’s my own fault.”**

A literally sobering, cautionary tale for anyone tempted to follow Antonio’s example. Getting to 107 was surely despite his heavy drinking, not because of it.

*If you read this quote carefully, you’ll realise it makes no sense. She means: “Do I want this glass of wine or do I want to restrict my risk of breast cancer?”. But that’s what being quizzed by MPs does to you.

**I’ve been unable to find out what happened to Hazel. Hopefully her prognosis was not as drastic as it appeared.

photo credit: Red… Red… Red… Wine……. via photopin (license)

Do 100-year-olds feel life is worthwhile?

A recent post about centenarians’ causes of death received this succinct response: ‘Why on earth would you want to live to 100?

It was one illustration of the sense many people have that, after a certain age, life gets worse and worse – and then we die.

And in fairness it’s clear that while many of the centenarians we’ve seen are living active, engaged lives, many are not. It’s easy to view them from afar and conclude that they’re not happy. Now the UK Office of National Statistics has produced survey data looking at  how our sense of well-being changes as we age and it provides some support to the pessimists.

It looks at four aspects of well-being: life satisfaction, the feeling that life is worthwhile, happiness and lack of anxiety.

Overall it shows that wellbeing follows a u-shaped curve, starting high in childhood, dipping in middle age and then rising again after 60. However it also suggests that wellbeing peaks at age 75 and then declines again. For three of the measures – life satisfaction, happiness and lack of anxiety – the decline is slow enough that even when people are over 90 they are still registering higher levels of wellbeing than those in middle age. But for the feeling that life is worthwhile the decline is steeper: people in their 90s feel that life is less worthwhile than at any stage of their lives.

The ONS suggests that the findings could relate to poor health and loneliness. That seems credible since health does decline with age, even if there is huge variation in the degree to which people 90+ experience it. And it’s also true that older people are more likely to be living alone once their partner, if they had one, has died.

So does all this apply to our centenarians? Do they also feel that life is becoming less worthwhile after they’ve hit 100? Well, while the data does suggest that trend, it’s possible that they might not, or at least not quite so much.  For one thing, we know that centenarians are different: they tend to enjoy better health than people who die earlier – that is, of course, the main reason they get to 100. So, if the ONS is right in saying that declining health is the cause of declining wellbeing, it may apply less to 100-year-olds.

And there’s also evidence that 100-year-olds tend to look on the bright side anyway. This research suggests they may be more optimistic than older people generally. So even if health is beginning to take it toll, centenarians may not feel it affects their wellbeing quite so much.

That’s supported by this poll in the US which suggests that centenarians are, by and large, happy. In fact half of them say they wouldn’t change anything in their lives. And that’s a pretty high bar: if you can say that about your own life, you’re not doing so badly.