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)

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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.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.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.

photo credit: Red… Red… Red… Wine……. via photopin (license)

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.

 

photo credit: the problem of sympathy via photopin (license)

Secret no.24 Whisky

9932066903_a466fa3984What is it with whisky? Lots of our centenarians have thought that a shot or two of Scotch was the reason they’ve made it to 100.

Recently we recorded the death of Ruth Newman, one of the last survivors of the 1903 San Francisco earthquake, who said that her longevity secret was a Scotch and water every night. We’ve also recorded the death at 111 of Nazar Singh, who cited good food, a loving family – and again a tot of whisky every night. And Agnes Fenton upped the alcohol stakes a little by saying her secret was three beers and a whisky chaser.

The most recent advocate is 109 year old Worcestershire woman Grace Jones*, who turned 109 this month (September) and has had a small glass of whisky every night for the last 57 years. Grace has lived through the reigns of five British monarchs, starting with Queen Victoria’s heir, Edward VII, and 22 British Prime Ministers, beginning with Henry Campbell-Bannerman. She’s led a bit of a nomadic life, moving house 27 times with her husband, Leonard but ‘Amazing Grace’, as she is known to her friends, is certainly consistent about her whisky – she told her local newspaper last year, on her 108th birthday: “I never miss it. I don’t drink and all I have is the whisky at night. Whisky is very good for you. He (her doctor) said keep up with the whisky Grace, it’s good for your heart.”

So is it? Or does whisky have some other quality that could possibly have helped Grace and some many other centenarians clock up their 100 years?

*Oddly, Grace is not the first Englishwoman called Grace Jones to hit 100. The ‘other’ Grace Jones lived in south-east London and, until her death in 2013 at the age of 113, was the last British person alive to be born in the 19th century.

Plausibility rating: 6 out of 10. We’ve explored other types of alcohol before and come to the conclusion that the case for it isn’t that strong. True, there is research evidence that a small amount of alcohol consumption is associated with longer life. However that evidence is disputed and once we go beyond a moderate intake, alcohol is associated with a whole lot of harm.

So why would a ‘wee dram’ be any better? Some people do use it as a nighttime sedative – the classic nightcap – so could that somehow help improve longevity? Sadly no. Alcohol may help you get off to sleep but the quality of that sleep is likely to be poorer. It does seem possible that whisky in the form of a hot toddy might help you with the symptoms of the common cold but surely that’s not enough to extend a lifespan.

However there are one or two qualities of whisky that might just put it above your average alcoholic drink and which perhaps justify our plausibility rating. For one thing, it’s relatively low in calories – about 75 in a small measure – about the same as a glass of dry white wine.  More importantly though it’s full of ellagic acid, gallic acid and lyoniresinol – all of which improve the antioxidant properties of your blood (wonderfully, the older the Scotch, the bigger the effect).  It even seems to work in practice – an admittedly small (in truth, tiny) piece of research involving the comparison of red wine, mature Scotch and a younger spirit found the Scotch had the greatest antioxidant effect. The research concludes that the findings are compatible with suggestions that moderate intake ‘decreases the risk of coronary heart disease’.

Which was exactly what Grace’s doctor said, wasn’t it? So we’re giving Grace (and her doctor), Ruth, Nazar, Agnes and Henry the benefit of the doubt and giving whisky a creditable six out of 10 as a longevity secret. Just remember to choose the very best, longest matured, single malt Scotch if you really want to live a long time.

photo credit: Various Whiskies via photopin (license)

NEWS: That’s another Guinness for me…

3820217887_a430856208_mAnother centenarian has sworn by a daily pint of Guinness. According to her local newspaper, Alice Patten takes no medication – just a glass of the black stuff every day, apparently on the advice of her doctor. Alice has just turned 100 and still gets out and about shopping. ‘She still has all her marbles and is 100 per cent with it,’ says daughter Brenda, who lives with her.

We’ve previously seen how fellow centenarian Gladys Fielden says Guinness is her longevity secret, though sadly we could only give it a disappointing 5 out of 10 as a potential route to a longer life.