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.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.

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.20 Chocolate

Blogger Penny Walford recently wrote a touching piece about her great aunt Marie, who had died aged 106. Marie sounds a remarkable woman, who travelled the world in her youth by hitching rides on cargo ships. Penny first met her later in life, when she would follow her favourite ice hockey team, the Ottowa Senators on TV and, when her eyesight failed, on the radio.

Penny describes how Marie was a strong and active woman who swam every day when she was younger and walked every day as she got older. Even at 106 she was still taking a turn around her nursing home. So surely this explains her long life?


Well not according to Marie. She and Penny had a shared love – chocolate. And it is to this that Marie gave credit for her long life. Penny describes how Marie ate it every day, with half-hidden stashes of it near her bed and usually a couple of bar wrappers in or around the wastepaper bin. (In the interests of accuracy, I should also say that Penny thinks Marie’s love of chatting and storytelling also helped her live longer and we’ll return to this theme in a later post).

So is this possible? Could Cadbury and Hershey be manufacturing the key to a longer life?

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 10. While at first the idea of chocolate as a superfood seems outlandish, it turns out Marie is not the only centenarian to give it credence. Bernard LaPallo is 110 and he too says, chocolate (along with four other ‘superfoods’) is the reason while 105-year-old Edna Sandys also thought it had played a part. And perhaps we were wrong to focus on the two raw eggs that Emma Morano eats (No. 12 of our 101 ways) and should instead have followed the evidence of the chocolate that goes missing in the night.

So what about the science part? Well, there is some reported evidence to support chocolate’s credentials. It is high in polyphenols, which may protect against heart disease (along with lots of other, healthier-sounding, foods like blueberries, cereal bran and green tea). It may also help lower blood pressure and some studies suggest a reduction in heart attack, stroke and diabetes. Certainly the internet is full of articles with titles like ‘the 9 health benefits of chocolate’ and ‘7 reasons why chocolate is healthy’.

However, on closer examination the benefits of chocolate do tend to dissolve, a little like cocoa powder in hot milk. Many of the studies are small and still need confirmation. And they tend to focus on either cocoa or strong dark chocolate, not the mass-produced stuff that most of us eat and which is made up mainly of milk fat and sugar. Alison Hornby of the British Dietetic Association brings us down to earth: “Chocolate is an energy-dense food that could contribute to weight gain and a higher risk of disease. As an occasional treat, chocolate can be part of a healthy diet. Eaten too frequently, it is an unhealthy choice.”

I fear this is good, sensible advice  – even if Marie, Bernard, Edna and Emma were all able to ignore it and still make their way to 100. Kit Kat, anyone?

photo credit: Geknöppel via photopin (license)