Secret no.30 Living in Shangri-La

In his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, James Hilton created the imaginary paradise Shangri-La where people live far longer than the normal human lifespan.

The book was turned into a successful 1937 movie, starring Ronald Colman, and a less successful 1973 musical, starring Peter Finch.

One of the novel’s key characters, Father Perrault, (who it gradually emerges is over 200) explains that his secret is Shangri-La’s  location in the Blue Moon valley, high in the Tibetan mountains. Leaving Shangri-La, he says, would bring rapid ageing and death.

Since Father Perrault is a fictional character (our first in 101 Ways to Live to 100) we ought to listen to his advice with a degree of caution. But is it possible there might be some places whose very location promotes good health and improves our chances of becoming a centenarian?

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 10. We know that location does make a significant difference to lifespan. Men born in London’s Kensington and Chelsea live on average to 83.3 whereas those born in Blackpool will only reach 74.7. However that’s not because the borough of Kensington and Chelsea has magical properties (no matter what the estate agents say) but because its residents have a favourable combination of income level and lifestyle.

Is is possible, though, that certain geographic or topological features of an area might promote good health? Not to the extent of helping people live to 200, of course, but enough to help add a few years at least?

Perhaps inspired by the idea of Shangri-La, the characteristic most explored has been altitude – the idea that fresh, mountain air might be healthier somehow than that at sea level. And there is certainly evidence that high altitude is associated with heart health. Researchers in the United States spent four years examining cause of death of all the counties of the US. They found that men living at higher altitude, in Colorado and Utah, lived 1.2 to 3.6 years longer than those living at sea-level.

However when they took into account socio-economic and other factors, they concluded the benefits of living at high altitude were negligible.

Other studies have suggested that any beneficial effects of living at altitude are caused not by the atmosphere but because it tends to promote physical activity and lower obesity levels (we have seen previously how mountain walking is associated with longer life). And a study in Japan found that longevity was linked to climate but that mild winters were the key rather than altitude.

So while the idea of Shangri-La may have entered popular consciousness since its creation in 1933 it has not been on the basis of its scientific credibility.

But perhaps in the ‘Blue Moon Valley’ we can find a hint of a modern, more scientifically valid concept – the so-called blue zones‘ of Greece, Costa Rica, California, Japan and Italy whose inhabitants do live measurably longer lives, if not quite to the age of 200 that Father Perrault achieved. We’ll explore these in a future post.



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.19 Mountain walking

Centenarian Nellie Sillitoe celebrated her 70th birthday by climbing Mount Snowdon in Wales. Nellie and her husband Reginald were keen mountaineers and climbed peaks in Austria, Italy and Switzerland – a pastime that son Richard, now 71 himself, gives credit for Nellie’s longevity.

18163636_2fc37dc769“My parents were great mountain walkers,” he told the local Stoke Sentinel. We were brought up in that environment, being taught to love the outdoors. I think that all those years of mountaineering were very beneficial. (It may also have had some impact on Richard’s choice of career – he is a professor of geology).

Richard’s account suggests other factors may also have played some part in his mother’s long life: “She has always maintained her mobility and made sure to get lots of fresh air and ate a fairly scrupulous diet. Her most exceptional trait, echoed by a number of people, is that she’s never been known to say a bad word about anyone. She always sees the best in people.” And perhaps in situations. Asked what she thought of her 100th birthday, Nellie said: “It’s just like any other day. You have to make the best of this world.”

But sticking with mountaineering for a moment, is it credible that it could have played a significant role in Nellie’s longevity?

Plausibilty rating: 9 out 10. At first glance, it seems unlikely that mountaineering would improve longevity. It is not without its risks, which the US National Centre for Health Statistics helpfully catalogues each year: So we know that if you choose to climb above 6,000m in the Himalayas then your annual risk of death is around 11 in 100. Even routine mountain climbing puts you at the not insubstantial risk of death of 1 in 1,750. However – though the Stoke Sentinel is not clear on this point – it seems more likely that Nellie and her husband in fact took part in what the NCHS categorises as ‘mountain hiking’. Fortunately for this the chance of death, er, plummets to 1 in 15,700. That still makes it more than twice as risky as scuba diving but it’s certainly not base jumping (1 in 60) or grand prix racing (1 in 100).

So if the risks of mountaineering/mountain walking aren’t such an issue, what about the benefits? These, in turns out, are substantial. The British Mountaineering Council says that regular brisk walking will ‘improve performance of the heart, lungs and circulation, as well as lower blood pressure‘, while regular walking ‘has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke and some cancers’. And don’t get them started on the mental health benefits: walking ‘heals our brains, helps us concentrate, makes us more creative and can help treat depression’. But does it add years to life? Plenty of studies suggest it does. One, in 2012, found that regular, moderate physical exercise such as brisk walking could increase life expectancy by several years. Normal weight people who exercised for at least 150 minutes a week lived over 7 years longer than people who were inactive or obese.

So there we have it. Mountain hiking really could be responsible for some of Nellie’s longevity. It alone may not have got her all the way to 100 but it could well have helped.

photo credit: Mt. Goryu via photopin (license)