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Have you ever wondered where the world’s longest-lived individuals are from? And what is their secret?
1. The Caucasus
Popular culture says that reaching 150 years old is not an oddity in this part of the world. This geographical area between Europe and Asia was home to the world’s longest-lived man. Shirali Muslimov, from Azerbaijan, lived to be 168 years old. His age was later questioned by many, but he claimed that “once you reach this age, 20 or 30 years do not make a difference”.
Muslimov was a farmer and a shepherd. He was a promoter of an active lifestyle, claiming that “idleness leads to death”. He did not drink or smoke, and ate only what was necessary.
Another documented case is that of Khfaf Lasouria, an Abkhazian woman who lived past 130 years old and was totally lucid when she was interviewed. And Zabani Khakimova, a woman from the Chechnyan mountains, lived a not less impressive life of 124 years.
Did these super-centenarians have a secret? Most of them attributed their longevity to hard work, living in a clean environment, and eating simple but healthy food. They all ate the vegetables they grew in their gardens, which were obviously chemical and pesticide-free. Kefir is also a common staple in this part of the world. This “miracle food”, made of fermented goat’s milk, is rich in proteins, calcium, antioxidants and polysaccharides (the latter being complex carbohydrates and therefore excellent energy sources). Some of these super-centenarians also drank white mulberry juice on a regular basis. This fruit is used to prevent heart disease, since it is a natural anti-coagulant. It is also teeming with vitamin C, antioxidants, iron and many other essential minerals.
And finally, family history can be another factor influencing longevity. Mr Muslimov’s father and brother both lived past the 110-year mark.
Many super-centenarians were Japanese. Shigechiyo Izumi lived to be 105. Niwa Kawamoto reached 113 years old, while Tane Ikai and Kamato Hongo both reached the 116 year-old mark. Like Mr Muslimov, Ms Hongo never smoked, and led a vegetable protein-based diet. All these super-centenarians consumed soy products instead of dairy. And like their Caucasian counterparts, they worked hard and kept physically active throughout their lives.
Maria Gomes Valentim was a Brazilian woman who lived 114 years. She lived her entire life in the small town of Carangola, which enjoys fresh mountain air year-round. Mrs Gomes enjoyed the occasional treat, such as a glass of wine, but her diet was vegetable-based and supplemented by linseed (also known as flaxseed), one of the best sources of Omega-3 acids found in nature.
Also from Brazil was Maria Lucimar Pereira, an indigenous woman who is currently alive at the age of 121. Ms Pereira has always lived in the Amazon rainforest, regularly eating some of the super-foods directly available from nature, such as manioc and acai berries. She also consumed meat, although in low quantities, and claims not to ingest refined sugars or salt.
4. North America
It is thought that the United States has the highest number of centenarians. Elizabeth Bolden died at the age of 116, while Sarah Knauss outlived her by three years.
Ms Bolden had a varied and well-balanced diet, which included everything from pork and fish to fruits and sweet treats. Sarah Knauss was known to be a lover of chocolate and cashews. But, can we affirm that diet alone was the key to these women’s long lives? It is significant to note that these women lived in rural, peaceful areas of Tennessee and Pennsylvania. Surely, environmental factors contributed to their longevity.
Still in North America, Canada was home to Marie Louise Meilleur, who died at the age of 117. Ms Meilleur was a vegetarian, condimented her meals with olive oil, and enjoy occasional treats like port wine or chocolate. But she did not only put down her longevity to her meat-free diet. Ms Meilleur kept physically active past the 100 year-old mark, with cycling being her favourite sport. To add to the intrigue, she was a smoker until the age of 90.
5. Andean and Alpine mountain villages
Maria Esther Capovilla was an Ecuadorian woman who lived to the age of 116. She opposed drinking alcohol and smoking, and had a balanced diet, in which legumes, chicken and coffee featured strongly.
Equally interesting is the case of Jeanne Calment, a French woman who lived 122 years. Ms Calment ingested massive amounts of chocolate, which she counterbalanced by keeping active, regularly practising tennis, fencing and riding her bike. And, after all, perhaps chocolate gets a bad press undeservedly, as it is believed that dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, lowers cholesterol levels, and contains lots of mono-unsaturated fats (also known as “healthy” fats).
Ecuador is home to the “Valley of Longevity”, nestled among the Andes; Arles, Ms Calment’s hometown, borders the French Alps. A peaceful, pollution-free environment, combined with a healthy diet and physical exercise seem to be the key to a long life. But, what do the experts say?
Greek researcher Antonia Trichopoulou, from the Athens School of Medicine, carried out a large-scale study with the objective of establishing the links between a traditional Mediterranean diet and increased longevity.
Researchers identified the key features of a Mediterranean diet: high consumption of olive oil, fruits, vegetables and legumes, and low consumption of meat and dairy. Olive oil is widely known for its beneficial properties, its high levels of mono-unsaturated fats being among the most important. Many studies affirm that the continuous consumption of this “liquid gold” aids in the prevention of many diseases, like coronary heart disease, and thus contributes to a longer and healthier lifespan.
The original Trichopoulou study was carried out in Greece. However, studies were also replicated in Denmark, Australia, and Spain, among elderly individuals who followed a Mediterranean diet. The Australian study in particular yielded significant results. Mediterranean diet-followers were compared to those with different dietary habits (mainly those from an Anglo-Celtic background). It was found that the first group had a 17% reduction in overall mortality when compared to the second group. Similarly, elderly individuals who had had a Mediterranean diet for most of their lives showed a 31% reduction in mortality in the Spanish study.
So what specifically did the people from the study eat? We have already mentioned olive oil. In addition to being used in the prevention of heart disease, recent studies demonstrate that olive oil helps reducing the risk of developing osteoporosis and diabetes.
Leafy and greens were also common in the diets of those being studied. Vegetables like horta, spinach, chard, asparagus, and cabbage are packed with flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants. Wine is also a good source of flavonoids, and as you may know, Mediterranean countries are known for favouring a glass of wine with every meal. Subjects under study also consumed large amounts of fresh fruit, whose regular consumption has been proven to reduce cancer risks.
Based on the data collected, researchers at the Trichopoulou study came up with a nutritional pyramid thought to increase longevity. At the top of the pyramid we find the foodstuffs that should be consumed on a monthly / weekly basis. These are animal products such as meat, eggs, and fish. Refined sweets also fall into this category. At the bottom of the pyramid we find the products that should be consumed daily, such as legumes, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Cooking with olive oil, limiting the intake of salt, doing moderate exercise and drinking plenty of water were additional tips found to help in achieving a long and healthy life.
In less than a century, Japan went from having an average life expectancy of 36 years, to being the country whose citizens have the longest life expectancy in the developed world. What made possible the Japanese miracle?
Scientific studies point at three main reasons attesting to the Japanese extended longevity. These are:
Caloric intake: A 2006 study performed on elderly Okinawans found that a restricted caloric intake was positively associated with a longer lifespan. Researchers claimed that a low-calorie diet helped reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (the hardening of the arteries as a direct result of an accumulation of fatty residues). The risk of cancer, stroke and cardiovascular disease was also reduced in this group of elderly Japanese, who lived well into their eighties and nineties.
High consumption of antioxidants – low consumption of animal products: Like their Mediterranean counterparts, Okinawans were found to consume large amounts of leafy greens and only a moderate amount of animal-derived products and protein. The ubiquitous green tea is also a great source of antioxidants.
Cultural habits: A traditional Japanese saying states that you should eat “until you are 80% full”. Many Western nutritionists encourage this habit too, claiming that showing a little self-control at the dinner table goes a long way.
All in all, Okinawans can expect to live up to a decade longer than individuals from other developed nations.
What can we learn from this study? Most calories derive from fatty foods, such as refined sugars, lard, fish oils and full-fat dairy products. By reducing the number of calories we obtain from these foods, and increasing our consumption of vitamin and antioxidant-laden fruits and vegetables, we might be on the right track to living a long life.
Longevity and lifestyle: the importance of daily habits
So much for the importance of diet in achieving a long life, but you may wonder if that is all there is to it. What can be said about lifestyle?
You may remember the cases quoted in the beginning of this article: 117-year-old Canadian Marie Louise Meilleur and 122-year-old Jean Calment both smoked during a great part of their long lives. And, haven’t we always heard that smoking kills?
A Harvard study investigated the relationship between an increased mortality risk and lifestyle, taking into account cigarette smoking. There were over 10,000 individuals under observation, 476 of which passed away while the study was being conducted. Of these 476, 208 died from cardiovascular disease, and 156 from cancer. As you may know, smoking is a prime cause of cardiovascular disease, raised blood pressure and lung cancer. Smokers are thought to be twice as likely to suffer from angina, stroke or heart attack, when compared to non-smokers. Data collected by cancer research organizations show that 80% of lung cancers in the UK are caused by smoking.
However, the Harvard study concluded that the single most significant factor contributing to decreased longevity was a sedentary lifestyle. Low or non-existent levels of physical activity were strongly linked to a premature death. Conversely, individuals who spent 3,500 calories per week doing exercise had a risk of death 50% lower than sedentary individuals.
So, how could some of the world’s longest living women be heavy smokers and still surpass the 100-year mark? As of yet, we do not know all the elements involved in a long-lived existence. What seems clear is that having one or more high-risk characteristics (a history of smoking, being overweight and doing little or no exercise) decreases life expectancy. Scientists working at the Harvard study believed that if we could eliminate the main risk factors, the premature death rate would go down by 41%. Perhaps these women smoked throughout their lives, but they certainly kept active, had an adequate body-mass index, and a generally balanced diet. And we must not forget that genes play a role too.
So what can you do in order to live a long and healthy life? There is no magic key to longevity. Interlocking factors such as genetic make-up, lifestyle and diet affect life expectancy. Make the most of nature’s super-foods, research the diet that is most adequate to your needs, keep active (there is no need to be at the gym every day), quit smoking and other unhealthy habits, and who knows, you could live to be the next super-centenarian!