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)




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


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.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

100 this month: the woman who wouldn’t let abuse prevent her getting an education

When Zulee Samuels says she had ‘a very hard childhood’ it is a huge understatement. She faced poverty and an abusive father but overcome them to become a professional dressmaker before finally, after a 45 year struggle, completing her college education. She turned 100 this month (December).

Her humbling story is living testimony to the power of determination, which other centenarians have also cited as key to their long lives.

Samuels grew up in poverty in South Carolina in the care of her abusive father, a Baptist evangelist preacher.

She can remember working to can peaches until two in the morning, only to be woken four hours later by her father and told to get up and cook breakfast. When she stayed in bed, he tore a branch of a bush and beat her with it. ‘He came in an pulled back my bedclothes and my gown midway to my thighs and started whipping me, and I was screaming.’

The abuse simply drove her on, she says.

Her father also refused to let her complete her education. From the age of 8 she was kept out of school to plough fields and plant crops. When she did attend school she performed well and her grandmother, who had been born into slavery, wanted her to become a teacher. ‘But my father, even though he was a minister, said I didn’t need any more education,’ she remembers. ‘I said I’m going to get an education, regardless of that,’ she says. ‘I just kept trying and trying’.

After a number of false starts, that effort finally paid off in 1983 when she graduated from college, alongside students 40 years younger than her. She was even chosen as Homecoming Queen, carried into the auditorium on a float and presented with a dozen red roses.

After graduation, Samuels worked as a literacy tutor and part-time teacher.

She says her only regret is that she couldn’t go to college earlier and teach full time. ‘It was in my heart to teach’.

A remarkable woman.


Source: Centenarian refused to let hardships, abuse keep her from an education

Secret no.32 Hot dogs

3299301399_2c38285f29_oHot dogs? Really?

When Helen Diekman, who died recently at the age of 100, was asked for the secret of her long life she said it might be down to her habit of having hot dog, fries and a Coke two or three times a week.

These regular hot dog lunches at a Chicago restaurant, Portillo’s, only started when Helen was 98 so there is every chance she was joking when she claimed them as her longevity secret. And she did also cite having lots of friends, going to bed early and attending church as other ‘secrets’.

But let’s take her statement at face value. Is it possible that hot dogs might actually have helped her live to 100?

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10. Not in themselves. Hot dogs are made of processed meat which is associated with a risk of a shorter life, not a longer one.

One study of nearly 450,000 people suggested that cutting down on processed meat like hot dogs would reduce the risk of early death by three per cent. Those who ate the most processed meat had a 44 per cent risk of early death.

Though the study couldn’t demonstrate that it was the meat which caused an early death it did suggest a few reasons why that might be the case. Not only is processed meat high in cholesterol and saturated fat, it is also treated with nitrates which cause the formation of carcinogens.

No surprises, then, that this year the World Health Organisation considered over 400 studies and announced its verdict that 50g of processed meat every day increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. That’s about half a hot dog.

(Incidentally, if you want another reason to avoid hot dogs, you could watch this short film on how they’re made. At the very least it’ll make you want to go heavy on the mustard.)

But let’s put this in context. Eating processed meat creates a relatively small additional risk – ‘a bacon sandwich is not as bad as smoking’, as the BBC advises helpfully- and Helen ate hot dogs at most three times a week for just a couple of years.

Plus these regular trips to Portillo’s in her 98th and 99th years sound like fun. Helen was always attended by a carer or relative and she got to know the staff well. After her back injury, she said the goal of her rehab was for her to be  able to walk back into Portillo’s by herself. She didn’t quite make that – she had to use a wheelchair – but for her 100th birthday in November, the restaurant hosted a huge party for her relatives and friends, including many of the staff.

And motivation is as vital in later life as at any time. So it’s not too hard to believe that hot dogs – or perhaps more accurately the trip out to eat them – might just have been a small factor in Helen making it through to that 100th birthday.




photo credit: Hot dog for a cold person via photopin (license)

Secret no.27 Chilli peppers

1796297804_1d9622673e_oDaisy McGhee lives in Ohio and at 100 years old remains a keen gardener, growing garlic, potatoes, parsley, onions – and jalapeno peppers. It’s to these that she credits her long life, according to local paper the Star Beacon.

Born in Cleveland, Daisy skipped school because her mother couldn’t afford the textbooks and started work as a maid. She married twice but lost both of her husbands, the second in 1977. She has one son – who she lives next door to – and four grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren. A rich life then – but surely her fondness for chilli peppers isn’t responsible for the length of it?

Plausibility rating: 6 out of 10. Don’t be so sure. The fiery taste of chilli peppers comes from capsaicin, which is also found in cayenne pepper. Its strength is measured on the Scoville scale – pure capsaicin scores 16 million on the scale and the hottest pepper – the alarmingly named Carolina Reaper – scores around two million units. Daisy’s jalapenos are much, much milder – perhaps 20,000 units at most- but enough to pack a bit of a punch.

Capsaicin doesn’t just give peppers their taste though. It has well-established pain relief properties and is used to treat conditions such as arthritis. It may also aid longevity: one study – admittedly on mice – suggests that the pain-relieving qualities of capsaicin can also extend lifespan by 14 percent. A more recent study points to benefits for humans too. The study used extensive questionnaire data on half a million Chinese and found that those who ate spicy food once or twice a week had a 10 percent reduced chance of death (eating it daily further increased the health benefit but only marginally). NHS Choices, which takes pride in sober analysis of sometimes hysterical health news, gave this one a cautious thumbs up, saying it ‘adds to emerging evidence that capsaicin in chilli pepper may have a positive effect’ on health.

How appropriate then that Daisy celebrates her birthday on October 12th, the day that Columbus landed in the Americas and – among many other things – introduced Europe to the chilli pepper.

Secret no.26 Luck

11423356086_6ee79a969b_oWhen Frederick Crosby turned 100 in Thornlie, Australia, he was clear what it had got him to that age: ‘A bit of luck. There are so many things that can go wrong and they didn’t go wrong,’ he told his local newspaper.

On the other side of the world, Canadian Emily Sharpe turned 100 a couple of weeks later and expressed a similar sentiment when asked for the secret of her long life. ‘Damn luck’ she said. ‘I smoked from the time I was 14 until I was 84. That’s not fair! Some other poor bloke smoked just a a few years and he can’t breathe.’

And in Denver, Paul Marcus agrees. ‘You got to be god damned lucky for 100 years.’

So, is luck really the key to reaching 100?

Plausibility rating: 8 out of 10. Well, it’s certainly one of the keys, though it’s not quite so simple as being ‘born lucky’.

First, we need to extend the concept of ‘luck’ to include ‘chance’. There are bonfires worth of literature about the differences between these two concepts but this paper suggests that, broadly, being ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’ is about whether or not we benefit from the circumstances – the chance events – that come our way randomly. A lucky person seems to be affected by ‘positive’ chance events more often; an unlucky one by ‘negative’ chance events.

And our centenarians certainly do seem to have benefited from chance events, in at least three areas: their genetic inheritance; the environment in which the grew up and their exposure to – or avoidance of – some of the random events that come our way.

Genetics. Paul Marcus wouldn’t take much persuading on this one – in fact his first answer on longevity is ‘You gotta have good genes’. We’ll cover genetics in more detail in a future post but it’s fairly clear that some people are born with genes that make them more likely to live longer. One of the more interesting aspects of this is raised, albeit unwittingly, by Emily when she says that she smoked most of her life and yet has reached 100. Though smokers tend not to make it to 100 (again, a subject for a future post), some do. The world’s oldest recorded person, Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, was a lifelong smoker until her death in 1997 at 122. It seems likely that Emily and Jeanne share a particular set of genes, which researchers suggest, allow some people to smoke but avoid the consequences to their health. This group has the same levels of inflammation, blood pressure and immune system functioning as non-smokers but it doesn’t affect them in the same way. Chance indeed.

Environment. Genetic inheritance is only the first of life’s lotteries. Where you are born and the environment you grow up in are also critical to living to 100. The so-call  ‘Preston Curve‘ demonstrates that if you are born in a relatively prosperous Western country you have a far greater chance of reaching your 100th birthday than if you are born in a poor one. A decent health service, good levels of public hygiene, adequate nutrition and housing: all of these are tip the scales significantly in your favour.

Exposure to random events. We die not just from illness and disease but from what happens around us. Every year in the UK, 18,000 people die from accidents and other external causes. Most of these are in traffic accidents and falls, but some unlucky people are poisoned, electrocuted and, of course, murdered. A few even meet their end from hornets, lightning and rat bites.  There were, of course, a number of major external events that helped shape the fortunes of the generation that is currently reaching 100: they lived (and died) through two major world war, many of them fighting in at least one of them. Both these wars had a major effect on life expectancy. In the US, for example, male life expectancy dropped in 1917 to a startling 37 from a pre-war peak of 52. In the second world war, male life expectancy in the UK fell sharply in 1940 and 1941 and in 1943 in the US (not fully recovering until 1949).

So chance, luck has clearly been a factor for our centenarians. They didn’t die of a range of diseases and they weren’t stung to death by hornets or killed in the second world war.

Yet, as the psychologist Richard Wiseman observes, people are not simply passive; they respond to  the events and circumstances they face. Being ‘lucky’ in his view is not just about what comes for way but how you make it work to your advantage (or at least mitigate its consequences).

Take the impact of the Vietnam War on the lives of young male Americans.  Surely there is no clearer example of the importance of luck on longevity than the 1969 Vietnam Selective Service Lottery, which selected the people to be drafted to fight in Vietnam? In that lottery, the 366 birth days in a year were drawn out at random, with the first dates drawn the ones who would be drafted. (You can find out what would have happened to you here – my birthday, 15th May, came out number 130 so it was more likely than not that I would have been called up).

However, while this makes it look as though being sent to Vietnam was pure chance, in practice it was not. This article explores the various strategies you could employ to avoid being drafted into the US infantry, from where most of the casualties came. You could, for example, volunteer for the airforce or navy (whose casualty rate was very low) rather than wait and run the risk of being drafted. Or you could do a deal and volunteer for a range of hard-to-recruit positions that ran no risk of combat.  And if you’d shaped your life by getting a college degree, you could almost always use this to find a safe administrative role, well away from the combat zone. As a result, of the 8.7m Americans who served in the Military, only a third went to Vietnam and, of these, only 12 percent were in combat and less than two percent were killed. So the lottery didn’t have to determine your fate.

And there is one final way in which chance is becoming less important in reaching 100. In 1932, the chances of living to 100 in the UK was around 1 in 20 for women and one in 20 for men. To get there you had to have an awful lot of things going for you. But, with advances in medicine and public health, today’s children have  a 1 in 3 chance of reaching 100.

So, in that sense, today’s children are luckier than their grandparents.