Secret no.44 Gardening

Woody and his remarkable garden @Orlando Sentinel

It took Woody Blevins 30 years to complete the work on his garden in Lake County, Florida,by which time he had turned 101 and the garden had become a park.

Bordered by oak trees, it has a flagpole at the centre and an intricate irrigation system. It’s home to 200 plants, including bougainvilleas, gardenias and lilies. “I didn’t realize I was making a park,” says Woody. “I just thought my lawn looked good.”

If you happen to be anywhere near you can pay it a visit (it sounds like it would be worth the detour) because Woody has donated the park to the town so that others can enjoy it. The rest of us can enjoy the video here.

Woody would spend up to eight hours a day on the garden-park, his neighbours growing used to the sight of him outside in his straw hat. He puts his longevity down to the work on the garden: “I love working hard and would much rather be outside helping grow something beautiful than out golfing,” Woody says.

A remarkable achievement, then, and a labour of love. But could it really have helped Woody live to 100?

Plausibility rating: 8 out of 10. Instinctively, we seem to realise that being in a green space like a garden is good for us. And lots of small studies have shown improvement in stress levels and psychological benefits of gardens. But until recently it was hard to find solid evidence to demonstrate long term benefits.

However a clever longitudinal study has now shown just that. It looked at the health histories of more than 100,000 woman over time and linked them to the amount of greenery near their homes (identified by satellite imagery). It found that those with the most greenery had a 12% lower risk of dying over the period of the study, irrespective of their age, wealth or other factors.

Why should this be the case?

As well as reducing stress, the authors suggest that having access to a park or garden encourages social engagement which, as we’ve seen, is an important factor in health. That’s certainly been the finding of other studies but it’s not obviously the factor that drove Woody’s long life: his was a largely solitary activity.

However they also suggest access to greenery leads to an increase in physical activity. That’s supported by other studies, including this one in Wales which found that those with allotments took more exercise than those who were waiting for them. That was certainly the case for Woody, who spent eight hours a day digging, weeding, watering and landscaping. And as this article points out, gardening counts as moderate intensity activity, just 2.5 hours of which can reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, stroke, colon cancer and heart disease.

Not surprising then that get gardening‘ is one of the lessons from ‘Blue Zones’, the geographical areas whose inhabitants get to 100 at ten times the average rate. People in Okinawa, one of the blue zones, look after their gardens as a natural part of their day.

And if you’re still not yet convinced, this 28-page report summarises all the many benefits of gardening and food growing (including, of course, the fact that you get to eat what you grow).

All in all, it seems Woody’s two remarkable achievements – reaching 100 and producing his amazing garden – may well have been linked after all.

 

 

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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)

What do 100-year-olds die from?

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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’…

photo credit: Cementerio de Monturque via photopin (license)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: Products – Data Briefs – Number 233 – January

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)