Secret no.51 Dancing naked in front of a mirror

26766726774_2e61352645_bThis is a novel longevity secret in two ways: it’s not quite from a centenarian and it’s really a gentle dig at the whole idea of longevity secrets.

Its author is the scriptwriter Norman Lear, who’s 94 on July 27th. Lear has a string of US TV successes to his name, most famously All in the Family, which created the character Archie Bunker. As with the UK original Til Death Us Do Part (and the equivalent British character Alf Garnett), it broke taboos around discussing race on TV. It still makes terrific viewing, tackling racist attitudes with wit and warmth.

Lear has been raising issues as a writer and political activist since 1945, when he returned from the three years’ services as a US Air Force gunner in the second world war. A documentary about his life has just opened in New York.

And his longevity secret of “dancing naked in front of a full-length mirror every day”? “Well it just could be,” Lear told the Huffington Post. “I don’t know of a scientist on the planet who has said it is not the secret to longevity.” And, he adds: “I have a dozen such secrets.”

Probability rating: doesn’t apply.

The concept of a longevity secret is fair game for Lear. We love to believe (in fact we’re probably programmed to believe) in patterns and causes but there isn’t always a simple reason why someone lives a long time.

It can be fun trying to explore the subject though. And it’d make a great subject for a sitcom, Norman.

photo credit: ode to Ana via photopin (license)

 

 

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Secret no.50 Gin and tonic

4537590128_f7618daeaf_oWhat a very civilized longevity secret this would be: a gin and tonic, with a slice of lime, perhaps sipped slowly on a verandah while watching the sun go down.

Except that 100-year-old Mabel Jackson downs not just one but six. “I have two at lunchtime, one at tea time with a biscuit and then three more during the evening while I do my knitting,” she says.

Mabel has been drinking G&Ts for 82 years and has even worked out how many she’s had in her lifetime. “I worked it out one night when I couldn’t get to sleep.” she told her local newsaper. “Instead of counting sheep, I counted gins. You get around 35 measures in a bottle, so as I always have six a day it takes me around a week to get through a bottle. I know this because I buy one every Wednesday from the Co-Op. On that basis I buy 52 bottles a year, making 4,264 bottles since I started. That’s quite an achievement!”

“I swear the gin keeps me young!”

But does it?

Plausibility rating: two out of ten. Whatever is keeping Mabel young, it’s not her drinking habit.

There is something to be said for a moderate consumption of gin. As alcohol goes it’s low in calories: a 25ml shot of gin only contains 54 calories which, as this handy calculator illustrates, you could run off in five minutes if you put your mind to it.

And you could probably persuade yourself it’s good for you. Gin is derived from the Dutch liquor Jenever, which was originally sold as a medicine because it contained Juniper berries. Juniper has a reputation for helping with digestive problems, though you will struggle to find strong research evidence for this and whether it would survive the process of turning it into gin is a further question.

You could, though, turn your attention to the mixer in your G&T since tonic water really does have health benefits. It was invented by Brits in colonial India, who added sugar and soda water to their daily dose of quinine to protect against malaria. However these days the amount of quinine is too low to make it an effective prophylactic (and in any case Mabel lives in Suffolk, England, which is hardly plagued by malaria-carrying mosquitoes). Quinine also has uses in treating leg cramps but, though these are unpleasant, they are not life-threatening and so avoiding them won’t help you get to 100.

And in any case, while very moderate drinking may possibly be beneficial for older women, six gins a day counts as heavy drinking and is likely to shorten your life rather than lengthen it. Since Mabel has also survived being a smoker (she only gave up at 97), it’s more likely that she has the fortunate mix of genes that allows some people to break all the rules of healthy living and still make it to 100.

You can ponder on the fairness of that as, instead of a G&T, you sip your low-calorie tonic water on the verandah of your house, watching the sun go down.

photo credit: Gin N Tonic via photopin (license)

Centenarian of the week: Ron Atkins (UK’s oldest ex-MP)

16141565010_cb431eec6b_bNew centenarian Ron Atkins has a terrific claim to fame as the oldest ex-MP in the UK, having represented the seat of Preston North from 1974-1979. He’s a lifelong socialist, was the oldest member of Preston Council and is still active in the Labour Party (he made a welcome speech for Jeremy Corbyn when he visited Preston last year).

He’s married to Elizabeth, a former Labour councillor 42 years younger than him, who describes him as a ‘powerhouse’ of intellect: “When I met Ron again in recent years, I told anybody who would listen that having a conversation with Ron was like academic keep-fit. You can’t let lazy statements get past Ron.”

And he’s obviously a bit of scrapper, having fought for workers’ rights but also against severe psoriasis all his life.

And the secret of his longevity? Ron has four, all of which we’ve covered at in 101 ways to live to 100: genes, an active lifestyle (we’ve covered hill walking and cycling), wild Atlantic salmon (we covered fish oils here) and luck.

Happy birthday, Ron.

Source: ‘Powerhouse’ Ron Atkins celebrates 100th birthday – Lancashire Evening Post

photo credit: DSC_0089 via photopin (license)

Secret no.49 Good genes

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Mary Belle Roach and Mae Belle Powell (known as the ‘Wallace sisters’ because of their maiden names) are identical twins. Throughout their lives they’ve rarely been apart. They live together in the Kentucky house in which they grew up. They dress alike and do most things together. They’ve both outlived their husbands. And in May 2016 they became centenarians together.

Why do they think they’ve both reached 100?

“Good genes. Our mother lived to be 97,” says Mae Belle. But she adds: “We didn’t smoke cigarettes. We didn’t smoke that pot. We never drank beer.”

Let’s take that first answer (we’ll get to the tobacco, drugs and alcohol later). Is the Wallace sisters’ longevity down to their genes?

Plausibility rating: 10 out of 10.  Genes play a big role in our longevity and it appears to become even more important the older we getLet’s try and tease out the facts.

The first place to turn are studies of identical twins like the Wallaces. Twins share identical genetic make-ups so if genes were to determine everything about our longevity we’d expect both twins to have the same length of life.

But they don’t: some die much earlier than their twin, some much later. In fact, this major study of twins estimated that just 20%-30% of longevity is inherited. The rest, it said, is down to their environment.

However those studies weren’t looking just at centenarian twins but at twins who died at all ages. Could it be that those who make it to 100 share a different genetic make-up to those that don’t, perhaps with a higher amount of heritability?

Almost certainly yes. One strong piece of evidence for this is a major study of over 2,000 family members of centenarians. It found that, compared to the population as a whole, male children of 100-year-olds were at least 17 times as likely to get to 100 themselves, while females were at least eight times as likely.

This suggests that genes are playing a much larger role than the 20-30% in the population as a whole. It helps to explain why extreme longevity often clusters in families (the Guinness Book of Records award for the highest combined total for nine siblings is an incredible 818 years, awarded to the Melis family of Sardinia in 2012). And certainly centenarian twins turn up much more frequently than you might expect if genetics played a limited role.

Why might that be? Gerontologists talk about something called the ‘compression of morbidity’ hypothesis. Basically, this is the tendency for some people to stave off illness and disability until much later in their lives than most people.

Some achieve it because they look after themselves. This study of Seventh Day Adventists in the United States suggests that diet, exercise and other factors can help get the ‘average’ person well into their 80s, adding up to 10 years to longevity.

However not only do centenarians get this benefit for longer, many of them seem to have it granted them naturally: it’s in their genes. This research in Japan for example found that at 92% of people who went onto become centenarians were still living independently at 92. That genetic tendency may even include some degree of protection from habits that are usually pretty disastrous for health, like smoking. This research for example claims to have identified a gene that makes smokers less likely to die from their habit than the rest of the population (though it’s by no means definitive: we cover the subject in a bit more depth here). And we’ve previously seen that very long-lived people like centenarians are less likely to die of conditions like cancer.

So it’s fairly clear that genetics does play a large role in whether you’ll live to 100. However there plenty of reasons why we should be wary of assuming that genes completely determine our lifespan. For a start, despite intense efforts, scientists have struggled to find a gene or even a set of genes that correlate closely with longevity. And even if we can identify the genes that aid longevity, we may find that they are shared by quite a large number of people.

Secondly, our environment influences how our genes express themselves, including turning individual genes on and off. So despite having identical genomes, even identical twins like the Wallace Sisters may differ across a range of factors such as susceptibility to illness.

And finally, lots of other factors can also influence how long we live. As we’ve seen in the previous 48 ways of living to 100, these include what we eat and drink, how much exercise we take and the strength of our social networks. Changing these factors alone can make a significant difference to our longevity. Which reminds us that the Wallace sisters wisely ascribed their longevity not just to their genes but also to not drinking and not smoking (especially ‘that pot’).

Overall, our genetic make-up is perhaps best seen as strongly shaping our ‘potential’ longevity, with our environment and own behaviours then influencing how much of that potential we actually achieve. But the honest truth is that we really don’t know for sure.

photo credit: Chromosomes and DNA double helix via photopin (license)

 

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.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.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)