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)

Secret no.28 Surviving the 1918 flu epidemic

3031443773_316088e415_oNoeleen Hughes, who died recently in New Zealand at the age of 102, survived the worst pandemic in human history.

The ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic of 1918-19 was a genuine disaster, infecting one in every five people in the world and killing between 20 and 40 million of them. It was more virulent than the plague and, unusually, hit hardest at healthy young adults. It struck a world still recovering from conflict, killing ten times as many Americans as had died in the first world war and depressing life expectancy for a decade.

Noeleen caught the virus but recovered and her son-in-law believes that this was the reason she had such a long and fruitful life – she raised three daughters, taught for over two decades and lived on her family farm.

So is it possible that he’s right?

Plausibility rating: 3 out of 10. We do know now that surviving the ‘flu would have helped Noeleen in one way: it gave lifelong immunity against a recurrence of the virus. Over 90 years after the pandemic, a study found that antibodies extracted from its survivors still protected mice exposed to virus for the first time.

However there’s no reason to believe that it would have offered any greater protection against other illnesses and ageing. And we would know if it did because, despite the huge death toll, surviving the virus was still the norm. Though it was far more virulent than other strains of the flu, the virus still ‘only’ killed 2.5 percent of those infected. And there’s nothing to suggest that the hundreds of millions who survived had extended lives (though it means that Noeleen was in some exalted company – other survivors included Walt Disney, David Lloyd Georgee, Franklin D Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Haile Selasse I and the artists Edward Munch and Georgia O’Keeffe).

So Noeleen’s relatively brief but surely traumatic experience in her teens is very unlikely to have been the reason to her long life.

Son-in-law Philip does however have other possible candidates. ‘Hard work‘ we’ve already covered and surely sometime soon we’ll consider his other explanation, ‘having no vices’.

photo credit: From 1918 Influenza Outbreak via photopin (license)