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.

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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.

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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.


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.

Photo Credit: postbear via Compfight cc

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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

Secret no.34 Optimism

17611776216_1183fb5a65_oAlice Herz-Sommer led a remarkable and, at times, tragic life. Born to a Jewish family in Prague before the second world war, she was a gifted musician and mixed with talents like Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka. Following the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, however, she was interned in a concentration camp (where, incredibly, she was able to play in over 150 musical concerts). She survived, along with her son, but her husband and other family members did not. After the war she became a renowned concert pianist and died in 2014 at the age of 110.

The key to her long life, she said, was optimism. “I have lived through many wars and have lost everything many times Yet, life is beautiful, and I have so much to learn and enjoy. I have no space nor time for pessimism and hate.”

On the face of it, Alice’s extraordinary life has little in common with that of Cloe Wintle, other than that she is also a centenarian. Born with sight problems, Cloe has lived in the south west of England all her life and had a long marriage to her late husband, Albert, who ran a shoe shop. Yet Cloe share’s the belief that a positive outlook on life is key to her longevity.

“I never thought I would reach this age but I have. I have had good friends and family around me who have helped through the difficult times but I have lived well. There have been bad times but what’s the good of moping around. You just have to get on with life and fight through the difficulties.”

Similarly William Delgesso, 100 in 2014. Born in Atlantic City, he worked for the New Jersey Bell telephone company for 32 years and was married to his wife Mary for 74. He turned 100 in 2014 and has had a lifelong love of dancing. His local newspaper wrote that if positive attitude alone could keep someone alive, Delgesso would live to be 200. “I feel great,” he told the paper. “Any better I couldn’t stand it. I just don’t feel old. I eat what I want. I drink what I want. Activities, I go to them. I even do some dancing at the senior center.”

Whether we call it optimism or positive attitude (or a range of other terms that psychologists link together, as we’ll see below), there is a widespread belief that many centenarians possess it. In fact one poll of centenarians found that 60 percent described themselves as ‘positive people’.

But are positive people more likely to get to 100? Or are they simply more positive because they have done?

Plausibility rating: 8 out of 10. Yes, shout it out loud – being positive can improve your physical health and may help you live longer.

This major study in 2008 looked at results from 35 research projects and concluded that people with ‘positive psychological well-being’ do indeed have better health. It defined positive psychological mood very widely to include emotional well-being, positive mood, joy, happiness, vigor and energy and also dispositions such as life satisfaction, hopefulness, sense of humor and – yes – optimism.

Another big study –  this one looking just at optimism – considered 83 studies (with just a hint of ‘my meta-analysis is bigger than your meta-analysis’) and concluded that being optimistic is good for you across pretty much all health conditions.

Both studies also concluded that even people who were already unwell gained from being positive and optimistic. That lends weight to the idea that our centenarians were positive people to begin with, not just because they’d already made it to 100.

And this study  makes the link to longer life. It looked at four characteristics of ‘positive attitude to life’ – optimism, easygoing, laughter, and introversion/outgoing- and concluded that these personality traits might well ‘play an important role in achieving positive health outcomes and exceptional longevity’.

So we’re leaning towards benefits of thinking that the glass is half full rather than half empty. But if you’re naturally more Eeyore than Tigger, don’t despair (or do, I suppose, if that’s what you prefer). If we look hard enough we can find studies suggesting that looking on the bright side may not always be the best approach.

For example, this study in Germany found that older people who were overly optimistic about their futures were more likely to experience ill health and die earlier than those who were accurate or overly pessimistic in their assessments.

This may be an example of what has been called the ‘Pangloss Paradox‘ after Voltaire’s fictional hero who believed naively that ‘all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. Being positive is one thing, it suggests, but being ridiculously positive can also get you into trouble psychologically if things don’t work out as you’d expected.

Still, overall it’s pretty clear that being positive really can help you live to 100. Time for a new year’s resolution?

Happy New Year.

photo credit: Positive energy for your soul/Positive Energie for deine Seele via photopin (license)