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.




What do 100-year-olds die from?


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

Secret no.29 Being vegan

4817783254_5688eb7d4f_oIf you want to live to 100, you probably hope to be like the remarkable Dr Ellsworth Wareham who retired as a heart surgeon just five years ago at the age of 95. He still drives regularly and his health is excellent: ‘I don’t have any trouble with my joints, my hands are steady, my balance is good, I don’t have to walk with a cane,’ he told CCTV America.

His ‘secret’? He’s been a vegan for 50 years. And unlike most of our centenarians, he became took up the practice specifically because he believed it would help him stay well. He noticed that the vegetarians on his operating table had cleaner and smoother arteries than the meat eaters. Going vegan was ‘a very easy thing’ as he ‘had never cared for animal products’.

So was a half century of abstinence a good investment by Dr Wareham? Or could he have been eating sausages every day since the 1950s and still made it to 100?

Plausibility rating 7 out of 10. The difficulty with assessing the impact of veganism over a lifetime is that the concept hasn’t been around for very long. Though the Vegan Society traces the roots of modern veganism to the early 19th century, it wasn’t until 1944 that the name was invented (formed from the beginning and the end of  the word ‘vegetarian’) and the idea really took hold. There are now upwards of 150,000 vegans in the UK and in a 2011 poll one percent of the US public said they never eat fish, meat or dairy products. However there are few longitudinal studies to tell us how healthy they are or how long they might be expected to live compared to the rest of the population. And studies that do exist tend to focus on the broader group of vegetarians rather than focusing just on vegans.

Those limitations aside, overall the research does suggest people benefit from a vegan/vegetarian diet, especially for heart health, diabetes prevention and lowering blood pressure.  One major study of 73,000 people found that those who followed a vegetarian diet (including the subgroup of vegans) were 12 percent less likely to die over the course of the six years of the study. They had a lower rate of death due to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and renal disorders such as kidney failure. Other studies – though admittedly not all of them – have found similar benefits of vegetarianism or veganism.

It is however hard to identify the precise causes. Rather than avoidance of animal products, the benefits may stem from higher consumption of health-giving staples of a vegetarian or vegan diet: fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Or it might be from cutting out red meat, high consumption of which brings health risks. And, because vegetarians tend to be slimmer than meat-eaters, some or all of the benefit might come from having a lower body mass index. As one research study puts it, ‘Vegetarianism is a form of food restriction and, in our overfed society, food restriction is a plus unless it results in nutritional deficiency.’

So while veganism does look on balance to improve health (providing you get your vitamin B12 from somewhere), it’s not at all clear that it’s a significant improvement on any other diet that is nutritionally balanced, high in fruit and vegetables and low in red meat.

And one final qualification for our purposes: this study found that the health benefits of vegetarianism had largely disappeared by the time people got into their 90s. So it might help you live longer but maybe not all the way to 100.

photo credit: Raw vegan avocado mushroom salad / Ensalada vegana de champiñones crudos y aguacate via photopin (license)