Secret no.48 Cycling

imageMalaysian centenarian Daud Seman has a daily habit that marks him out from most 100-year-olds: he cycles to work every day.

“I travel some 1km daily from my village to the market where I sell tobacco to my regular customers, who are also my close friends,” he told Malaysian newspaper The Star. It gives him the chance to have a chat and make some pocket money.

But though Daud’s cycling habit is unusual, it’s not unique among centenarians. Perhaps the most famous is Frenchman Robert Marchand, who celebrated his 103rd birthday in 2014 by cycling up a mountain (a modest feat for Robert, who is an over-100 world record holder for cycling nearly 17 miles in an hour).

Or we could cite Scarborough cyclist Stanley Chadwick who, at 100, cycled part of the route for this year’s Tour de Yorkshire.

So is their love for cycling part of the reason they have lived to 100?

Probability rating: 8 out of 10. Regular cycling leads to better cardiovascular fitness, joint mobility and muscle strength and flexibility. It should be no surprise then that professional cyclists see a benefit: this clever study found Tour de France riders lived on average eight years longer than the rest of us.

But what about leisure or commuter cyclists? Well, cycling is a great example of the moderate aerobic exercise it’s recommended we take part in each week. This research, in Denmark, found a 40% reduction in mortality risk among those who cycled to work compared to those who didn’t. And this study concluded that the Dutch love of cycling saves about 6,500 lives a year and adds over six months to life expectancy.

Cycling isn’t without risks, of course. In the UK it’s become much safer over the last century (in 1934, an astonishing 1,536 cyclists were killed in the UK*) but in 2013 more than 100 cyclists still died. Even then, cycling remains a relatively safe form of transport, with around eight million trips for every death. Overall, this major study of cycling concludes that the benefits of cycling are nine times greater than the combined additional risks from accidents and air pollution.

Plus, cycling takes you places. While for some that may be their office, for others it provides an opportunity to get out into the countryside, see the sights or – as in Daud’s case – meet friends. All the more reason that two wheels are better than none if you want to live to 100.

*Why so high? A clue lies in the fact that the driving test was only introduced in 1935. Poor driving meant that, despite there being far fewer cars on the roads (bicycles still outnumbered them), there were around 6,500 road deaths overall compared to around 2,000 today.

photo credit: 2015-Twilight-Criterium-13 via photopin (license)


Secret no.47 Plenty of water

4345271118_087d0241e1_oOK, so Liverpudlian Nell McEniff doesn’t have the most exciting or unusual longevity secret: “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I drink plenty of water”.

But that belies a life which has lasted 107 years so far and included some dramatic moments – like giving birth to her daughter Alice while the German air force rained bombs on Liverpool in 1940: “I remember lying on the bed and of course, I was in agony, and I could hear the bombs whistling down and it was dark because they used to turn the lights down.

And though she was just five at the time, she can remember the First World War too, including the sad loss of her cousin, Henry: “I remember they were finishing up the war, but he was killed. I was only little but I remember to this day we got a telegram and it was to say that he’d been killed. Everybody just started crying, it was very sad.”

Alice was one of five children, six grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. And the family has longevity in its blood: Her two sisters, Lily and Janie, lived to 102 and 98 respectively and her three brothers died in their 80s.

We know from previous posts the value of avoiding alcohol and not smoking but what about drinking lots of water?

Probability rating: 8 out of 10. Drinking plenty of water is one of the most practical pieces of longevity advice you could wish to hear.

As we get older the risk of dehydration increases. It’s thought to be a widespread problem (no one knows just how widespread but 1 in 4 elderly people admitted to hospital from care homes is dehydrated and the percentage living at home may be just as high). Untreated, it can lead to poorer cognition, delirium and an increased risk of falls. Ultimately it can be fatal: one report suggests that 12,000 people die in UK hospitals because of kidney problems caused by dehydration.

Why not just drink more? The problem is that our sense of thirst and our kidney function both decline as we age, so we may not realise we’re dehydrated.

So Nell’s advice to herself is spot on. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll live to 100 but it will make sure you stand a better chance.

More advice about recognising and preventing dehydration here



photo credit: What’s cooler than being cool? via photopin (license)

World’s oldest woman dies

Susannah Mushatt Jones has died in New York, aged 116.

She gave a number of different explanations for her longevity and we’ve looked at two of them: sleep and bacon. We rated the former a lot more likely than the latter.

Susannah will be mourned by a remarkable 100 nieces and nephews, to whom she was known as ‘T’ (‘auntie’).

The oldest woman in the world is now Italian Emma Morano. Her secret? Raw eggs.

Secret no.46 Celibacy (and jelly babies)

jelly babies109 year old Nellie Wright is in no doubt what has led to her long life.  She told guests at her birthday party in April “I’ve stayed away from men all my life – full stop. That’s my secret, no men. And living off jelly babies – I eat a packet a day.”

Nellie (or Miss Wright as she sometimes likes to be called) has never had a boyfriend and never married. She has previously put her long life down to keeping healthy and hill walkingshe once climbed Ben Nevis. But it was her advice about men that caught the headlines.

And it’s not unique to Nellie. Last year, 109 year old Jessie Gallan said that the “secret to a long life has been staying away from men. They’re just more trouble than they’re worth.” Jessie, who died in March 2015, also never married.

So, is there anything in the idea of celibacy* (or jelly babies) as an aid to long life?

*Obviously, avoiding men and celibacy do not have to be the same thing but the coverage does suggest that’s what Nellie means.

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10. Let’s get the jelly babies out of the way first. There is no health benefit whatsoever to eating them, though some runners do use them as an easy way of getting energy. This blog explains why and tries amusingly to justify it, pointing out that jelly babies include as ingredients black carrot (which has anti-fungicidal properties), stinging nettle and turmeric (which have anti-inflammatory properties) and spinach (which is eaten by Popeye).

Nonner ved St. Elisabeths Hospital i Tromsø

Nuns at St Elisabeth’s hospital in Tromso, Norway

And celibacy? Well the obvious place to turn to understand its impact on life expectancy is nuns. This study looked at over 2,500 Catholic nuns in the United States and found that nuns did indeed live longer. Overall, the nuns were much less likely to die within the five year period of the study, and this effect became more pronounced as the nuns got older. However, was celibacy the main factor? After all, there are lots of other things that nuns don’t do as well as not getting married. One of these is smoking and it is this, the study concludes, that accounts for the main difference rather than celibacy.

The study also shows that, while nuns did live longer overall, they were more likely to die of certain cancers including breast cancer. This is because women who have given birth have higher protection against breast cancer than those who haven’t (the protection increases with the number of births).  As a result of lower exposure to estrogen and progesterone, women who have had five or more children have half the risk of breast cancer to those who have never given birth.

On the other hand, celibacy does reduce the risk of cervical cancer. Virtually all cervical cancers are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is contracted through sex.

So it’s proving difficult to get clarity one way or the other. Can studies in biology help us? Hopes rise at a study headlined ‘Stay celibate to live longer‘ until further reading uncovers that the advice is based on a study of the mealworm beetle. And that celibacy shortens lifespan but only if you’re a fruit fly.

Perhaps our key evidence, though, should be the effect of marriage on longevity. There is a fairly consistent strand of evidence suggesting that marriage is good for you. That could be for a wide range of reasons but we’ve already seen the vital role that family and social relationships play in people’s life expectancy. Loneliness and isolation, we’ve seen, are bad for you. And while it is clearly possible to have wide and strong social relationships over a lifetime outside marriage (and also possible to be lonely and isolated within marriage), on the whole being married is likely to be lead to stronger social relationships.

So while celibacy might have worked well for Nellie and Jessie, it’s not obviously a good strategy if you do want to live a long time. Though, in fairness, it does beat eating jelly babies.

Postscript. Though I’ve kept a fairly light tone throughout this piece, we should note that for thousands of women of Nellie’s generation, celibacy was not, of course, a deliberate choice at all. Nearly a million British men were killed in the First World War and this, added to an existing gender imbalance, left many women with no realistic hope of marriage.  Celibacy, then, was not so much a choice as a necessity.

photo credit: Look behind you… via photopin (license)
photo credit: Nonner ved St. Elisabeths Hospital i Tromsø via photopin (license)