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Longevity: people & places where they live longest

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LongevityBy gradually shaping and changing our daily habits it is easy to become ingrained with the practices that give ourselves the best chance of a high quality life – one that will see us stick around for all the unfolding benefits the 21st century is sure to bring.

Be inspired by the story of the magical Okinawa population.

The archipelago of 161 islands of Okinawa between Japan and Taiwan contains some of the longest living people on the planet. In a population of 1.3 million there are more than 400 centenarians – four times the proportion of centenarians in Western countries. Meanwhile the average age of death is 81.2 years, five years older than Westerners.

This group of people are also least likely to be inflicted by coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer – the biggest killers in the west. In fact Dr Bradley Willcox, fellow in geriatric medicine at Harvard University, says 97% of life expectancy of the Okinawans is disability free.

Inspiration

The Okinawa Centenarian study began in 1976 concentrating on genetics and lifestyle. An inspirational factor was that though researchers found genetics played a part in the long life phenomenon, the most successful key of their good aging came down to lifestyle.

The Okinawa population have a low calorie intake; a diet high in fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and fibre; they have low body fat, high levels of physical activity and a high intake of protective antioxidants such as flavonoids.

Part of their cultural habit is called “hara hachi bu” which means stopping eating when they are 80% full. They also dance, do soft marital arts, walk and garden.

This population was also found to be at extremely low risk of hormone dependant cancers, with levels of breast, ovarian and prostrate cancer a quarter of that in the West and a colon cancer rate half of that in the West.

The study showed that Okinawans who had grown up in other countries with a different lifestyle tended to have a higher early death rate.

Japanese people on the whole are among the longest living people in the world: Japanese women expect to live 83.59 years and men 77.01 – an occurrence many attribute to the high plant-based diet of that country.

Mysterious English town

Then there is the mysterious small town of Pershore in Worcestershire, England which has a large number of women aged over 100 and many other male and female inhabitants in their 80s and 90s and still going strong.

The older residents, including the centenarians, have strong health and good minds. Any drug prescriptions they have tended to be for mild health conditions: prolific romance writer Barbara Cartland, who died in her mid 90s, was born in the town.

Theories as to why longevity reigns in Pershore are mixed – but it is located in a rich agricultural valley which means that high quality vegetables have always been available. The town is also well away from the rat race and free of big city pressures.

Healthy emotions

Studies have also shown that a good mental attitude is imperative in ageing well: staying optimistic, happy and realising that to a large extent, life is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Two Harvard scientists who studied more than 100 centenarians found that personality plays a part in a long life – particularly people who continually accept mental challenges, remain optimistic despite hardships and have a sense of humour.

These centenarians also reported they always ate in moderation, had good friends, were healthy and above all, active.

Sex is another important factor. Dr David Weeks, principal neuropsychologist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital spent 10 years studying 3500 youthful-looking people around the world. His findings?

“The secret is to be active in mind and body and pay a lot of attention to your sex life.” His research looked at people from the top of Scotland to the health-obsessed Californians.

Healthy habits

He also found these people sleep deeply and well; are vigorous and athletic and prefer sports like swimming and mountain walking; they travel widely and often; have low or normal blood pressure; read more and watch less television; have good posture; are more likely to be truthful and not give a false impression of themselves; are extrovert and outgoing and have parents who lived to a healthy old age.

They were also passionate and romantic with healthy robust sex lives, frequently having love affairs with people much younger than themselves. Dr Weeks said they tended to be serial monogamists rather than promiscuous.

Many were also vegetarian. The biggest aging factors according to Dr Weeks? Smoking and too much sun exposure.

Meanwhile another study by a University of Kentucky professor found that negative emotional states such as anxiety, hatred and anger have a cumulative effect on the body and are more likely to lead to heart disease and strokes.

The same goes with people who “catastrophise” in that they see bad things that happen to them as part of a global plan of evil and pain that everyone is exposed to.

Men who catastrophise are 25% more likely to die before they are 65 and are much more likely to die by accident or suicides according to the Terman Life-Cycle Study which has followed a group of 1500 healthy preadolescent Californian children since 1921.

We become what we expect to see

The new mind/body medicine of psychoneuroimmunology shows us this from a different angle. We become what we expect to become: see life as dangerous and painful and that is likely to become your reality.

Don’t be disheartened about negative emotional states though – but rather seek help to change old beliefs through reading inspirational material, making needed changes to your life, seeking skilled help from a holistic therapist or investigating revolutionary new healing modalities like Aura Soma colour therapy.

Faith also plays a part in aging well. A 28-year study of more than 5000 residents of Alameda Country, California found death rates amongst those who do not go to church was 36% higher than those who did.

Researchers speculated this might be due to improved heath practices, increased social contact and more stable marriages.

The longevity advocates

Dr Robert Goldman, who is in his mid 40s but claims to have a physiological age of 18, is co-founder of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. He is also a former adviser to the US Olympic Committee.

His message on aging well is to exercise. “If you have a high performance car you treat it well, you take it on the highway for a good run and give it high quality fuel. Do the same with your body,” he says.

His personal regime includes getting up at 6am and training for an hour, including 40 minutes of high intensity aerobics plus resistance training using a glider machine.

Dr Goldman also eats a low fat diet to maintain lean body mass – dried oats with water for breakfast; a light or no lunch and salad for dinner. He drinks very little alcohol but lots of water (though only bottled water).

He doesn’t expect to have aged much by the time he turns 60. Like other anti-aging experts, he says those in their 30s and 40s who look after themselves can look forward to a very extended lifespan and younger people can even expect to live to 120.

Exercise and nutrition – fundamental keys

Other doctors agree – exercise and sound nutrition are vital in staying younger for longer. Many add a range of nutritional supplements, especially the antioxidants such as A, C and E.

Some also advocate natural hormones – testosterone, human growth hormone, melatonin, DHEA (a hormone produced by the adrenal glands) to help maintain hormones at levels they would have had at a younger age.

Dr Edmund Chein, who founded the Life Extension Institute in California, advocates a hormone replacement treatment regime with human growth hormone (HgH).

His treatment plan is controversial; those on it love what it does for them and their bodies, but critics say long term effects are unknown and people could be putting themselves at risk of cancer and heart problems. Dr Chein’s treatment is expensive - around $1200 a month.

Today doctors such as Chein and Goldman also offer a range of age tests – patients can undergo a battery of over 110 computerised tests to check their physique, fitness levels, metabolism and calculate their physiological age and the rapidness of which they are aging. Patients can pay up to $1500 for such a consultation.

Advice is then given on diet, exercise, nutrition and hormonal supplementation based on deficiencies that show up in blood tests.

New Zealand connection

South African doctor Ron Goedeke, now based in New Zealand, has opened one of this country’s first anti-aging clinics in Albany, Auckland.

As well as offering traditional appearance medicine such a Botox, Dr Goedeke, whose background is in sports medicine, is interested in anti-aging and preventative health care.

While he uses some natural hormones in his treatments, his primary interest is guiding people to longevity through diet, exercise and natural supplements.

“When you see what is happening in the US and what 60, 70 and 80-year-olds can look like when they are doing these sorts of things it’s very easy to be convinced,” he says. “These people are looking at nutrition, supplements, exercise and their hormonal health profile.”

He stresses nutrition is the first line of defence when it comes to good aging. Maintaining lean muscle mass is also important. “Even if you run 100km a week, your muscle mass decreases by 10% every 10 years so you can end up at 70 or 80 years old relatively weak.”

Resistance training vital

Resistance training is vital says Dr Goedeke.

His advice: work each muscle group once a week (arms, back, torso) with three sets each group – with each set going to fatigue around the 12th repetition. “At repetition 10 you should be nearly dead, at 12 you’re gone.”

He says that by maintaining such healthy lean muscle mass you are helping keep your hormone profile far closer to that of a 25-year-old.

Cardiovascular health is important as well. Dr Goedeke suggests doing around 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three times a week, getting your pulse rate up to 120 beats per minute.

In terms of nutrition he advocates plenty of fruit and vegetables, good quality protein like turkey and chicken, nuts and seeds (though no more than a handful a day as they are high in fat), soya food like tofu – but he is not a fan of dairy food. “We are the only species who drinks someone else’s milk,” he says.

Dr Goedeke also stresses the need for low glycemic index foods. “Everything should be based around controlling insulin.”

Dr Goedeke’s suggested menu:

Breakfast – low glycemic foods like oats with milk or ideally soya milk and/or an omelette. Dr Goedeke says egg whites can be freely consumed up to six a day, though only one yolk

Lunch – high quality protein with vegetables

Dinner – a little protein and heavy on the vegetables

Snacks – nuts and fruit and plenty of water

Which path to choose?

While there is much promising news on the longevity horizon, modern diets comprising of highly processed, high calorie, high fat and chemically-laden food are proving a killer.

A British nutritionist has recently announced that such modern ways of eating could put paid to the great strides humans have made in longevity stakes over the past 100 years.

People are now getting fatter at a younger age – unlike the last great stride forward in human nutrition two centuries ago when better diets meant taller people.

About 30,000 people in Britain die of obesity-related illnesses each year, cutting an average of nine years off their lives.

Children raised on high fat, fast food diets are exercising less and becoming a wave of obese adolescents giving rise to an increase of Type II diabetes and other weight-related illnesses. These young people are setting themselves up for a lifetime of poor health.

Professor Andrew Prentice of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says an estimated 28% of people in the US and 20% in Europe are obese and many more are overweight – all of which makes obesity the fastest growing health epidemic of the last 20 years.

Whichever way you look at the longevity issue, the message from all the experts is in agreement: lifestyle counts.

Anti-Aging diet pointers:

  • Plenty of fruit and vegetables – this is the number one anti-aging weapon. Include plenty of fresh green leafy vegetables such as spinach and silverbeet; orange coloured vegetables such as carrots, pumpkin, sweet corn rich in carotene; red coloured foods such as tomatoes laden with the health giving lycopene; cabbages and Brussels sprouts for their anti-cancer effect; citrus fruit and berries for vitamin C; mango, pawpaw and rock melon which are also rich in carotene
  • Nuts and seeds – increasing work done on almond research points to their benefit for a healthy body and heart, though doctors expect they will eventually find the same results with other nuts and seeds. These foods are rich in vitamin E, which plays a role in the aging process and in preventing disease
  • Fish – salmon, mackerel, sardine and tuna are all rich in Omega 3 fatty acids which are anti-aging, decrease the risk of heart disease and even help lift your mood. Include plenty of other fish, a good source of selenium and the co-enzyme Q10
  • Aim for a low fat, high nutrition diet – avoid chemicals and processed food in favour of fresh, natural meals made from scratch. When it comes to chicken, buy organic – in fact make as much of your diet organic as possible. Many health experts also suggest eliminating smoked and pickled food and foods containing lots of spices and herbs
  • Cut down on sugars and grains – both groups increase your insulin levels. For best results, cut out refined sugar completely and make fruit and a little honey your only source of dietary sugar
  • Drink plenty of water – but make sure it’s clean and filtered. Go easy on alcohol and coffee
  • Eat less to live longer – tests on rats whose food intake has been restricted seems to indicate that they have higher levels of antioxidants, which work against the damaging free radicals. In one study monkeys who were fed 30% less than another group died at about half the rate. Natural health experts don’t advise you starve yourself – but maybe think about those inspiring Okinawans and eat until you are 80% full

Story: Kimberley Paterson

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