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.42 Travel

100-year-old Margaret Turnbull planned to travel the world with her husband, John, when he retired. Sadly, John died in 1979 before they got the chance but he made Margaret promise to keep to their plans – and she did, visiting Hawaii, Alaska, Africa and Spain.

Margaret thinks that travelling helped her reach 100: she puts her long life down to “good exercise, good healthy meals, good friends – and travel if you can.”*

We know that travel is supposed to broaden the mind but can it increase lifespan as well?

Plausibility rating: 7 out of 10. Just possibly. One study ( a follow-up to the large-scale Framingham heart study which started in the 1960s) found that women who traveled at least twice a year had a lower risk of a heart attack or dying from heart disease than those who traveled less frequently.

For men, a nine-year study found those who did not take an annual vacation had a 20 percent higher risk of death and about a 30 percent greater risk of death from heart disease. The authors conclude: “Vacationing may be good for your health“.

So what might be going on here? Why might it be good for us to travel? This paper for the Global Commission on Aging (admittedly commissioned by the American Travel Association) reviews the evidence and suggests that travel increases physical and mental activity, gets our brains working (how do you say ‘a soy latte and a breakfast muffin please’ in Spanish) and gets us socially engaged, all of which have positive health benefits.

Now if you’re reading this while eating cold airport food in a crowded departure lounge at Luton waiting for a Ryanair flight to Magaluf that’s been delayed for half a day, this may all seem a little idealistic. And it is surely true that, as this research concludes, “poorly planned and stressful vacations eliminate the positive benefit of time away“.

But a good holiday, well planned can be a genuine tonic – and much better for us than spending our money on a new car or a watch. Thomas Gilovich, the Cornell professor who has made a career of studying the subject, shows that spending on experiences such as holidays makes us much happier than spending on objects.

“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” he writes. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”

The sad part for Margaret is that she didn’t get to share those experiences with John. But at least she got to have them.

*As well as the travel, Margaret enjoyed swimming, hiking and gardening. At the age of 80 she was still teaching line dancing and taking ice-cold swims in Saranac Lake.

Secret no.38 Cod liver oil

16448534990_6ee38f6949_oIf your mother used to force feed you spoonfuls of cod liver oil as a child you may hope that 100-year-old Violet Archer is right when she puts her longevity down to the stuff. That might make up for your memory of the taste.

Violet, from Epping Forest in England, turned 100 at the end of 2015. Twice married and widowed, she remains independent and still cooks and cleans for herself. Apart from hearing problems she is renowned for her health. According to her niece Irene Bachelor (herself 85), Violet she puts that down to the cod liver oil: “Seven Seas, she has taken them for years. She takes five a day just on its own and is a really healthy lady.”

But could it really be the cod liver oil?

Plausibility rating: 8 out of 10. It certainly could help – but not necessarily for the reasons people first started taking it. A generation of children grew up with the taste of cod liver oil in the mouths not because they thought they’d live longer but because it was believed to protect against a scourge of childhood for centuries – rickets. And it did, though no one knew why.

Then around a century ago, cod liver oil was found to contain two nutrients that helped promote healthy growth and bones. The two nutrients were named ‘vitamins’ (A and D as it happens), and folk wisdom was vindicated. Not only that but a generation of parents now had sound scientific reasons to force cod liver oil on their unwilling offspring.

However as society grew healthier and children better fed, the threat of rickets declined* and so too did the sales of cod liver oil. There were other, easier ways to get your vitamins A and D, without that oily, fishy taste.

But then scientists began to wonder why Inuits had such healthy hearts, even though they have a high fat diet. The discovery of the health properties of omega-3 fatty acids in fish brought attention back to cod liver oil

As the evidence stacked up, the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition concluded there was very strong evidence of the beneficial effects of fish oils on the heart. And more recently research suggests that benefit may translate into longer life. This study, for example, found that people who ate a lot of oily fish had a 35% less risk of dying of heart disease. Oh, and as an additional benefit it helps with arthritis.

The UK government now recommends that you have at least two portions of fish a week, of which one should be oily fish. If you don’t like fish or don’t cook that much, you can get your dose from cod liver oil.

The taste hasn’t improved much, though, which is why can you find video advice about how to take it without gagging. If that advice doesn’t work you can use capsules, which are more expensive but less unpleasant (though not entirely without side effects: you might experience the self-explanatory ‘fish burp’. Avoidance hint: take the capsules with meals).

All in all, while Violet’s longevity secret is no longer much of a secret: it really could help you live longer.

*Or at least it had been. Now rickets is making something of a come back, a situation blamed on children spending too much time indoors and so not getting their daily dose of vitamin D from its most natural source: sunshine.

photo credit: capsules via photopin (license)

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)

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)