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.

 

 

Secret no.41 Vitamin pills

The remarkable thing about centenarian Ida Sass is not so much that she takes part in an exercise class – other 100-year-olds do that. It’s that she runs it, twice a week.  It attracts a dozen or so participants and Ida is part of the draw: “We’ve had a few substitutes but nothing takes her place,” says participant LaVern Rieschl.

Nor could anyone stop her. Her daughter, Joanne Froelke, says: “You don’t tell my mother anything. If she has her mind made up, she will do it.”

That spirit was probably necessary during a lifetime that took in Spanish flu (aged 3, she hid under her bed covers in a vain attempt to avoid the vaccine jab), the Depression (‘Those were horrible years”), the Dust Bowl (“It was 12 noon and it was pitch black”) and the loss of her first child at just a few days old.

Given the exercise classes, it’s no surprise that Ida puts her longevity down to staying active. But perhaps more surprising she adds: “I also take vitamins every day, and I think that has helped.”

Let’s look at the evidence for whether it might have.

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10.

Our bodies certainly need vitamins but there’s still huge debate about whether they need vitamin supplements. With the exception of some at-risk groups, most medical advice is clear that it’s better to get our vitamins from a healthy diet. The problem is that many of us don’t. In the UK, nearly two-thirds of people fail to eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables daily. In the United States, this study found that most people fail to get enough nutrients, with the problem being worse among the disabled.

While some studies suggest vitamin supplements can help fill the nutrient gap, there is little conclusive evidence they make a difference to overall health. This summary of research involving over 90,000 people could find no evidence they affect mortality, cardiovascular disease or cancer. Overall, medical advise is that there’s insufficient evidence to recommend people take a multivitamin and there may even be some risks to taking one. (If you’re ignoring that advice you’re far from alone though: around 40 percent of US people say they take a multivitamin and US$32bn is spent on advertising them).

The exception for older people is vitamin D. It’s difficult to get enough from our food and, particularly in winter, older people may not get enough from its most natural source – sunlight. It’s estimated that half the older people in the US who have hip fractures may be deficient in vitamin D and in the UK medical advice is that everyone over 65 should take a supplement.

All in all, though, there’s not enough to suggest that Ida’s vitamins are what’s got for her to 100. Staying active though – as we’ve seen in lots of previous posts, now that might be a more promising explanation.

photo credit: Vitamin Packaging via photopin (license)