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 www.hetq.am 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

Secret no.42 Travel

100-year-old Margaret Turnbull planned to travel the world with her husband, John, when he retired. Sadly, John died in 1979 before they got the chance but he made Margaret promise to keep to their plans – and she did, visiting Hawaii, Alaska, Africa and Spain.

Margaret thinks that travelling helped her reach 100: she puts her long life down to “good exercise, good healthy meals, good friends – and travel if you can.”*

We know that travel is supposed to broaden the mind but can it increase lifespan as well?

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10. Just possibly. One study ( a follow-up to the large-scale Framingham heart study which started in the 1960s) found that women who traveled at least twice a year had a lower risk of a heart attack or dying from heart disease than those who traveled less frequently.

For men, a nine-year study found those who did not take an annual vacation had a 20 percent higher risk of death and about a 30 percent greater risk of death from heart disease. The authors conclude: “Vacationing may be good for your health“.

So what might be going on here? Why might it be good for us to travel? This paper for the Global Commission on Aging (admittedly commissioned by the American Travel Association) reviews the evidence and suggests that travel increases physical and mental activity, gets our brains working (how do you say ‘a soy latte and a breakfast muffin please’ in Spanish) and gets us socially engaged, all of which have positive health benefits.

Now if you’re reading this while eating cold airport food in a crowded departure lounge at Luton waiting for a Ryanair flight to Magaluf that’s been delayed for half a day, this may all seem a little idealistic. And it is surely true that, as this research concludes, “poorly planned and stressful vacations eliminate the positive benefit of time away“.

But a good holiday, well planned can be a genuine tonic – and much better for us than spending our money on a new car or a watch. Thomas Gilovich, the Cornell professor who has made a career of studying the subject, shows that spending on experiences such as holidays makes us much happier than spending on objects.

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” he writes. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

The sad part for Margaret is that she didn’t get to share those experiences with John. But at least she got to have them.

*As well as the travel, Margaret enjoyed swimming, hiking and gardening. At the age of 80 she was still teaching line dancing and taking ice-cold swims in Saranac Lake.

Secret no.41 Vitamin pills

The remarkable thing about centenarian Ida Sass is not so much that she takes part in an exercise class – other 100-year-olds do that. It’s that she runs it, twice a week.  It attracts a dozen or so participants and Ida is part of the draw: “We’ve had a few substitutes but nothing takes her place,” says participant LaVern Rieschl.

Nor could anyone stop her. Her daughter, Joanne Froelke, says: “You don’t tell my mother anything. If she has her mind made up, she will do it.”

That spirit was probably necessary during a lifetime that took in Spanish flu (aged 3, she hid under her bed covers in a vain attempt to avoid the vaccine jab), the Depression (‘Those were horrible years”), the Dust Bowl (“It was 12 noon and it was pitch black”) and the loss of her first child at just a few days old.

Given the exercise classes, it’s no surprise that Ida puts her longevity down to staying active. But perhaps more surprising she adds: “I also take vitamins every day, and I think that has helped.”

Let’s look at the evidence for whether it might have.

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10.

Our bodies certainly need vitamins but there’s still huge debate about whether they need vitamin supplements. With the exception of some at-risk groups, most medical advice is clear that it’s better to get our vitamins from a healthy diet. The problem is that many of us don’t. In the UK, nearly two-thirds of people fail to eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables daily. In the United States, this study found that most people fail to get enough nutrients, with the problem being worse among the disabled.

While some studies suggest vitamin supplements can help fill the nutrient gap, there is little conclusive evidence they make a difference to overall health. This summary of research involving over 90,000 people could find no evidence they affect mortality, cardiovascular disease or cancer. Overall, medical advise is that there’s insufficient evidence to recommend people take a multivitamin and there may even be some risks to taking one. (If you’re ignoring that advice you’re far from alone though: around 40 percent of US people say they take a multivitamin and US$32bn is spent on advertising them).

The exception for older people is vitamin D. It’s difficult to get enough from our food and, particularly in winter, older people may not get enough from its most natural source – sunlight. It’s estimated that half the older people in the US who have hip fractures may be deficient in vitamin D and in the UK medical advice is that everyone over 65 should take a supplement.

All in all, though, there’s not enough to suggest that Ida’s vitamins are what’s got for her to 100. Staying active though – as we’ve seen in lots of previous posts, now that might be a more promising explanation.

photo credit: Vitamin Packaging via photopin (license)

World’s oldest barber still cutting hair at 105

Anthony Mancinelli started cutting hair when Calvin Coolidge was in the White House. Now he is believed to be he oldest working barber in the world, with no plans retire. He celebrated his 105th birthday earlier this month. 

He’s been cutting hair so long that in a previous interview he said he could remember the days when barbers doubled up as doctors. He had a bottle of leeches which he’d use if a customer had high blood pressure or a black eye.

But Anthony himself seems never to be ill, putting his longevity variously down to eating well and never drinking or smoking. Others say his two regular aspirin a day may have something to do with it.

Whatever it is, it seems to be working: not only does Anthony cut his customers’ hair but his own as well.

Source: World’s oldest barber still on cutting edge in Orange County at age 104

100-year-old British woman credits longevity to yoga

“Great grandmother Jean Dawson celebrated her 100th birthday on February 20, and she credits her longevity to a simple habit she picked up when she was 67: yoga”.

It’s a lovely story and there is lots of evidence that yoga adds to quality of life. It also feels like it should be good for you. But as I’ve said in a previous post there’s surprisingly little hard evidence that yoga leads to a longer life. The best I could find was this small study from India which suggests that there may be health benefits and they might improve longevity. However a larger review into the health benefits of yoga in preventing cardiovascular disease concluded that the few positive studies were ‘small, short term and low quality’.

So until we have some positive results from large, long-term and high quality studies you should probably continue with yoga for the sense of wellbeing rather than any extra years.

Source: 100 year old British woman credits longevity to yoga

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)