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)

Secret no.45 Brandy

Katarina Pucic, Croatia’s oldest woman, celebrated her 107th birthday in the village of Barban on April 19th this year. Though her sight is failing she remains mentally sharp, to the point of telling a Croatian newspaper that she’s looking for a nice young man – ‘maybe someone 10 years older than me’.

Katarina has three sons (all of whom are still going strong and one of whom still cares for her daily), four grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren. She can remember Croatia from its days of Austrian rule right through to Tito and the present day. She was five years old when Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, plunging the Balkans and the rest of the world into World War 1.

And Katarina’s longevity secret? Along with local ham and cheese, it’s homemade rakija – fruit brandy.

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10.

Brandy has a long tradition of medicinal use, most famously illustrated in the (sadly fictitious) barrels of brandy carried by St Bernard dogs.  However the evidence for it as an aid to long life is harder to find than a traveler in an Alpine snowstorm. One possible helpful ingredients is ellagic acid, which is also found in whisky, and which just might have anti-cancer properties. Another is ethanol, which may have anti-inflammatory properties according to this, very small, study of volunteers drinking red wine,vodka, rum or brandy. But in truth there’s little hard evidence for this version of the hard stuff.

Against that there’s all the evidence for the cancer-causing properties of alcohol even with moderate usage, plus the serious illnesses associated with over-use. And if just the medical evidence doesn’t deter, you might want to consider Edgar Allan Poe’s dependence on brandy to which he resorted as a ‘desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom’. It’s likely that the brandy contributed to the mental anxiety rather than prevented it, of course, and Poe died an alcoholic at 42.

Could Katarina’s local fruit brandy be any different? Unlikely, though you will find lots of articles claiming health properties for it. From one end of the Balkans to the other, rakija is sworn by as a cure for toothache, heartburn, sore throat, anxiety and scores of other ailments. It’s quite common for older Croatians to swear by a morning shot of rakija – and the habit is by no means confined to the Balkans. This study found that brandy was a very common form of self-medication by men over the age of 75 in Finland.

But if none of this has put you off you can either a) holiday in the Balkans or b) make the stuff yourself at home by following this step-by-step guide in Esquire. You will need:

• 6.5 lbs fruit (grapes, plums, apples etc)

• 6.5 lbs sugar

• 2 gallons plus 1 cup warm water

• 1 packet wine yeast

• Large thermal water cooler

• Large stockpot

• 6 small C-clamps

• Cheap meat thermometer

• 10-foot coil of copper tubing (3/8-inch inside diameter)

• Drill

• Tube of silicone sealant

• 3/8-inch rubber grommets

But don’t let that put you off.

photo credit: “ајде живели” via photopin (license)

Secret no.44 Gardening

Woody and his remarkable garden @Orlando Sentinel

It took Woody Blevins 30 years to complete the work on his garden in Lake County, Florida,by which time he had turned 101 and the garden had become a park.

Bordered by oak trees, it has a flagpole at the centre and an intricate irrigation system. It’s home to 200 plants, including bougainvilleas, gardenias and lilies. “I didn’t realize I was making a park,” says Woody. “I just thought my lawn looked good.”

If you happen to be anywhere near you can pay it a visit (it sounds like it would be worth the detour) because Woody has donated the park to the town so that others can enjoy it. The rest of us can enjoy the video here.

Woody would spend up to eight hours a day on the garden-park, his neighbours growing used to the sight of him outside in his straw hat. He puts his longevity down to the work on the garden: “I love working hard and would much rather be outside helping grow something beautiful than out golfing,” Woody says.

A remarkable achievement, then, and a labour of love. But could it really have helped Woody live to 100?

Plausibility rating: 8 out of 10. Instinctively, we seem to realise that being in a green space like a garden is good for us. And lots of small studies have shown improvement in stress levels and psychological benefits of gardens. But until recently it was hard to find solid evidence to demonstrate long term benefits.

However a clever longitudinal study has now shown just that. It looked at the health histories of more than 100,000 woman over time and linked them to the amount of greenery near their homes (identified by satellite imagery). It found that those with the most greenery had a 12% lower risk of dying over the period of the study, irrespective of their age, wealth or other factors.

Why should this be the case?

As well as reducing stress, the authors suggest that having access to a park or garden encourages social engagement which, as we’ve seen, is an important factor in health. That’s certainly been the finding of other studies but it’s not obviously the factor that drove Woody’s long life: his was a largely solitary activity.

However they also suggest access to greenery leads to an increase in physical activity. That’s supported by other studies, including this one in Wales which found that those with allotments took more exercise than those who were waiting for them. That was certainly the case for Woody, who spent eight hours a day digging, weeding, watering and landscaping. And as this article points out, gardening counts as moderate intensity activity, just 2.5 hours of which can reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, stroke, colon cancer and heart disease.

Not surprising then that get gardening‘ is one of the lessons from ‘Blue Zones’, the geographical areas whose inhabitants get to 100 at ten times the average rate. People in Okinawa, one of the blue zones, look after their gardens as a natural part of their day.

And if you’re still not yet convinced, this 28-page report summarises all the many benefits of gardening and food growing (including, of course, the fact that you get to eat what you grow).

All in all, it seems Woody’s two remarkable achievements – reaching 100 and producing his amazing garden – may well have been linked after all.



Secret no.43 A big family

When Edna Owen turned 100 on Hawaii recently she celebrated it with five generations of relatives – three children, eight grandchildren, 16 great grand children, and 11 great, great grandchildren.

And she credits that large family with her longevity: “My secret to a long life is a big family, and mine is all with me today,” said Edna.

We’ve (too briefly) discussed the importance of a loving family but is family more important than other relationships?

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10

This one is going to defeat us. There’s plenty of evidence that social relationships matter. But it’s far more difficult to tease out whether family is more important than other relationships or in fact whether the number of social relationships matters as well as their quality.

To start at the beginning: there’s little doubt that social relationships matter in later life. A huge meta-analysis of 148 studies involving well over 3oo,ooo people found that people were 50% more likely to be alive if they had strong social relations. Being lonely was as much of a risk factor as smoking and more of a risk than obesity.

That study didn’t compare the relative (sic) importance of family and friends. But this analysis of studies involving over 100,000 people did and concluded that family had more of an impact than other relationships. It quotes the Spanish proverb: ‘An ounce of blood is worth more than an pound of friendship’.

Family 1 (2)

This is five generations of my own family at a recent reunion. 

But it’s far from undisputed. This study in Australia found that close contact with children and relatives had little impact on survival over a 10 year period but a strong network of friends and confidants did improve the chances of survival.

It’s also unclear whether the number of social contacts matters. This big study in the United States found that size did matter whereas this one – there’s a pretty clear trend towards inconsistency here, isn’t there? – didn’t.

But perhaps that isn’t so surprising. Our social relationships are extremely complex and unpicking their relationship over time is going to be tough. Perhaps the most likely answer to our questions of whether family and family size matters is – ‘it depends’.

So let’s go back to Edna Owen, who seems to have been ahead of us in this debate. She said a big family was the key to her longevity but she then qualifies that and says: “Have a good family who loves you very much and will do anything for you.”

That echoes the research about why social contacts might matter to our health. One explanation is that they act as a ‘buffer’ between us and the big, bad world – when something goes wrong we have someone to talk to and make ourselves feel better. But the other explanation is that social relationships give us a role in our life and so bring meaning and fulfillment to it.

So when Edna says that she’s loved and that her family would do anything for her perhaps she’s also saying that that she has an importance and status as head of her family. And it’s not hard to see why that might matter very much.

Duck photo credit: “Make Way for Ducklings” via photopin (license)

Centenarian of the week: Armenia’s Doukhik Badoyan

Writing this blog I come across so many 100-year-olds whose stories demand to be told but who don’t have any particular ‘secret’ of longevity to relate. So I’ll write up a few of them, giving a glimpse into what are often remarkable lives.

First up, a rarity: English language coverage of a centenarian from Armenia. But how brilliant that website is there to tell us about the formidable Doukhik Badoyan.

During the course of a lengthy interview, Mrs Badoyan makes a toast to world peace in local moonshine and demands that the journalist, Grisha Balasanyan, drink with her – keeping a wary eye out to make sure that he does.“If you don’t drink my 100th birthday will be for nothing. It’s the first time you’re visiting my house. It would be rude not to drink.”

We get some sense of what must have been an incredibly tough life. She remembers having to grow tobacco, half-starved. And standing line to collect the family’s bread ration, fighting for the best bits.

Mrs. Badoyan lost her husband in WWII and raised their only son by herself. A long period under the Soviets may explain her initial, understandable, caution when the journalist arrives:

–          Have they come to punish me?

–          No, mom.

–          So why are they asking all these questions?

Mrs Badoyan’s son now takes care of her but until last year she was still working in the fields to collect grass for their animals. And she still has plans to grow potatoes to send to her grandkids.

Happy birthday, Mrs Badoyan

Source: Mrs. Badoyan from Gavar: Centenarian Toasts World Peace and Demands We Drink with Her – Hetq – News, Articles, Investigations