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)


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.39 A fried breakfast

3627037828_cd296af6c2_oAt 105, Kathleen Hilton has earned the right to eat what she wants for breakfast. And what she wants is bacon, sausage, tomatoes, eggs and beans – the ‘full English’.

Her son David told eager national newspapers: “Kath loves her weekly breakfast. It must be the fry ups which are giving her the long lease of life. That and good genes.”

Born in Grimsby, Kathleen left school at 15 to work as a bookkeeper in the docks, met her husband Matt in the town and married him at the Old Clee church there (wearing blue rather than white in recognition of the tragic death of a brother, Leslie). Matt died in 1984 but Kathleen continued to lived alone and independent until the age of 100. She is now a resident at Homefield House care home. Angela Dannett, who works there, confirms Kathleen’s fondness for a full English: “She loves it. If she could have a cooked breakfast every day, she would.”

So could the full English be a factor in Kathleen’s long life?

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10. We’ve grown up with the advice of US nutritionist Adele King ringing in our ears: ‘Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper‘. Unfortunately there’s really no definitive evidence to support it. While some studies do suggest that breakfast is good for you, the weight of evidence really doesn’t demonstrate any benefit to eating your biggest meal in the morning*.

Nor is a cooked breakfast the best breakfast you can eat. While tomatoes are good, eggs are fine (again in moderation) and baked beans are great (if a bit heavy on sugar), altogether they’re laden with calories (upwards of 800), fat and salt. And the sausage and bacon  are prime examples of the processed meat we’re encouraged to eat in moderation because of an association with cancer.

All of which is probably why Kathleen doesn’t have it every day. In a bit of the story that’s all too easily overlooked, her son David told the local newspaper that, while she has the full-English every Saturday morning, ‘she has porridge throughout the week’.

Now that’s more like it as a real longevity secret. It might not have grabbed the attention and made it into the national newspapers though and Kathleen would have missed her brief bit of fame. Let’s home she enjoyed it as much as her weekly fry-up.

* Despite this the very enthusiastic Mr Breakfast website (‘All breakfast, all the time’) lists every piece of positive research about breakfast that’s been published, as well as a database of all 1,528 cereals every made, from Addams Family Cereal to Zoe’s O’s.

I am grateful to Christine Miller at Independent Age for finding this longevity secret for me. Thanks Christine!

photo credit: The Full English via photopin (license)

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.

Secret no.25 Sweet potato

4242731514_9753fcb60aWhat does Jamie Oliver have in common with a 111-year-old Lessie Brown from Cleveland, Ohio? They both believe that eating sweet potatoes will help you live to 100. Jamie has fame on his side and a new cookery programme on Channel 4, promoting the health benefits of 14 ‘hero’ ingredients including the sweet potato.

But it’s Lessie who has the wisdom of experience, having been born in Georgia in 1904, over 70 years before Jamie. Georgia produces a lot of sweet potatoes (Ocilla, Georgia even hosts an annual Sweet Potato Festival) and Lessie would have gone through quite a few before she moved to Cleveland in 1922.

There she married, going on to have five children, 24 grandchildren, 44 great-grandchildren and 26 great-great-grandchildren. Her daughter, Bernie Wilson, says her mum used to love sweet potatoes and passed on the advice to others: “She even told a lot of people that would eat sweet potatoes. They thought that would give them longer lives too.”

But could it?

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10. If you’re only going to eat one vegetable, you could do a lot worse than the sweet potato. Not to be confused with a yam (duels have been fought over less), a single medium-sized sweet potato has around double the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A and is rich in Vitamin C, iron and thiamine.

Sweet potatoes are also a great source of the antioxidant beta-carotene which is associated with a range of benefits, including your immune system, protecting against free radicals, and perhaps lowering your risk of heart disease and cancer.

And it’s not just Georgia sweet potatoes that offer the benefits. Jamie’s programme focuses on the inhabitants of the Okinawa islands in Japan, who eat a purple-fleshed variety of the sweet potato as a staple part of their diet. Okinawans famously live a very long, very healthy life. And a well documented one: since 1975, the Okinawa Centenarian Study has recorded how its centenarians ‘age slowly’, delaying or sometimes even escaping the chronic diseases of aging including dementia, cardiovascular disease (coronary heart disease and stroke) and cancer.

Overall, this is about as credible as evidence gets (Jamie would perhaps call it ‘pukka’). It is not, of course, all down to sweet potatoes. The study suggests that genes combine with  lifestyle factors to produce the remarkable longevity of the Okinawans. One of the those lifestyle factors is how much you eat, which we considered briefly here, but what you eat is also critical, and high fruit and vegetable consumption is key.

So Lessie would probably have been giving good advice when she told her neighbours to eat sweet potato.

NEWS: 113-year-old San Francisco earthquake survivor dies. Her longevity ‘secret’ was a Scotch and water every night.

5572751884_7f2877d098Ruth Newman, who died earlier this month, was just four when the San Francisco earthquake struck in 1906, leaving over 3,000 people dead.

Her daughter Beverley Dodds, herself now 85, says her mother remembers her father picking her up and running out of the house. ‘She would tell us she remembered my grandmother being upset because they had just milked the cow earlier… and put it in containers that got thrown to the floor’.

The family was living on a ranch 70 miles north of the city and their home was undamaged but many others were not so lucky: half the city’s 400,000 residents were left homeless. The quake lasted less than a minute but ignited fires around the city that burned for three days,

With Ruth Newman’s death there is now just one known survivor of the earthquake still alive, William Del Monte, who was three month’s old at the time.

Having survived the quake, what was the secret for Ruth’s long life? Daughter Beverley told the Daily Mail that it may have been down to good genes and a glass of scotch and water every night before bed. We’ve seen that alcohol is fairly often cited as a cause of longevity and while there’s some evidence for the belief it remains controversial. We’ll address genes in a future blog but there’s little doubt they are critical to longevity and Ruth’s family is strong evidence for that – her older brother Barney lived to 108 and their younger sister Genevieve to 103.

But there are also other possible contributory factors. Ruth stayed active knitting, baking and gardening, and continued to drive and play golf until her mid-90s. In a future blog, we’ll look at whether ‘a good walk spoiled’, as Mark Twain famously called golf, could help you live longer.

photo credit: San Francisco earthquake and fire, 1906 via photopin (license)

STORY SO FAR: top-rated ways to live to 100

Twenty entries in to our ‘101 ways to live to 100′ and already one or two trends are emerging. Alcohol and religion both turn up in quite a few of our centenarians’ secrets to longevity, as does chocolate. So far, no one has mentioned genetics (though a few have mentioned ‘family’). And our surprise leader is mountaineering.

Our league table below is surely the only time these words have ever appeared in a list together:

9/10: Mountaineering
8/10: A loving family; Be happy and enjoy life;
7/10: A good doctor; praising God
6/10: One meal a day; sleep; hard work
5/10: ChocolateMonogamy; Guinness; Yoga; a lot of booze
4/10: Two raw eggs;
3/10: Work less overtime;
2/10: Bacon
1/10: Water from a wishing well
0/10: Pearls
No score: Good food; stem cells

Back soon with: Does a sense of humour help you live longer?

Secret no.10 Two raw eggs

3870440483_edab3789d8_oEmma Morano is a remarkable 115 years old and lives, alone, in Verbania, northwest Italy. Emma has lived by herself since she left her husband in 1938 because of domestic abuse. Her niece comes by twice a day.

After what is described as a ‘sickly’ childhood, her doctor recommended she eat two raw eggs a day, a regime she’s stuck to ever since. She added the 150 grams of steak after about of anemia. Unusually, she eats little fruit or vegetables which leads her current doctor, Carlo Bava, to observe: “Emma sees to go against everything that could be considered the guidelines for correct nutrition… But she’s gotten this far.”

Another unusual element to her diet is the biscuits and chocolates that her niece leaves out every night and which, by the morning, are always gone. Not bad for a woman whose movements are now limited, whose eyesight is bad and hearing weak.

This nocturnal roaming may be one illustration of Emma’s positive outlook on live, a factor that Dr Bava believes has contributed to her longevity. Indeed when a journalist visited her she burst out into verses of a 1930s Italian love song, lamenting only at the end: “Ahh, I don’t have my voice anymore”.

Dr Bava also believes that genes have played a role in Emma’s longevity, a theory supported by the fact that Emma’s sister lived until 97.

We’ll save our discussion of genes and a positive outlook for another day. And we’ve covered chocolate here. But what about the eggs? Could they have had an effect?

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 10.  Eggs have had a chequered history when it comes to health advice. On the one hand, as EggInfo (the website of the British Egg Information Service) tell us, they are full of nutrients: protein, vitamins D, A, B2, B12, folate and iodine. On the other, for many years we were advised to limit intake to two a week because of fears about cholesterol and heart disease. On that basis, Emma would have been virtually killing herself for nearly a century.

Now however there is no suggested limit on the number of eggs you eat and heart disease is blamed much more on saturated fat than on cholesterol. However before you decide to go out and buy some hens, there are a couple of good reasons for thinking that eggs might not be such an aid to longevity.

There is limited research on eggs and longevity but the main piece isn’t positive. A long-term study of Harvard physicians found that eating up to six eggs a week was fine but more than that increased the risk of death by nearly a quarter.

And In the UK the elderly are still advised to avoid raw or runny eggs because of the risk of salmonella (in truth the risk is minimal if you stick to pasteurised eggs).

On the whole then, while the health concerns about eggs have declined, there’s little to suggest that they are a secret aid to longevity, and too many of them might perhaps have the opposite effect.

All in all, given that we’ve already said bacon isn’t the secret of a long life either, that’s most of the great British breakfast ruled out. Porridge anyone?

photo credit: two eggs via photopin (license)