You can be live to 122, AND smoke, drink and devour chocolate. You can also do all those things and die young. Researchers try to unlock the secret to hyper-longevity.
RIO DE JANEIRO - She rode her bicycle until she was 100 years old, walked unassisted at 115 and smoked until 117. She ate a kilogram of chocolate every week and drank a glass of port wine every day. All of this, until her death, at 122.
The explantions for the "hyper-longevity" of people like Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) fascinate regular folk and researchers alike. Genes? Diet? Exercise? Positive attitude? Social life? Science knows that genes count for 30% of longevity. The rest is believed to be a result of lifestyle and socio-environmental factors, many of which can be changed and adapted.
Researchers understand that not everyone can become a "super centenarian," who are those that live past 110. Today, there are 70 of them in the world (65 women and five men). Another 400 say they belong to this category, but lack documents to confirm it. In Brazil, according to government statistics there are almost 24,000 centenarians. Bahia (3,525), São Paulo (3,146) and Minas Gerais (2,597) have the largest concentrations.
Good genes aren't everything
In the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), researchers are studying 245 people who are over 80 years old. They are given check-ups and medical treatment, as well as advice on sleep, memory, diet and physical activities.
"Many of our patients are about to become centenarians. We are evaluating how to make their lives free of physical, mental, emotional and social limitations," says Maysa Seabra Cendoroglo, professor of Geriatric and Gerontology at Unifesp, who took part in Brazil's recently concluded Congress of Geriatric and Gerontology, held in Rio.
Is it possible for a centenarian to stay independent up until the end? "There have been many studies on this question. For the answer to be yes, it is necessary to maintain a good diet, constant physical activities and cognitive stimulus', the doctor explains.
Is this possible even without proper genes? "Yes. You may not reach 100, but at least 80. You just have to do your best until the very end."
And in case you were wondering, it is also possible to be happy at 100, even when faced with disease or loss, says German psychologist Dagmara Wosniak, who studied 56 centenarians in Heidelberg. About half of them lived in care facilities, and 82% depended on nurses.
According to Wosniak, at that age, being outgoing, having a healthy social life (family and friends) and mental agility were most conducive to happiness. "Being optimistic increases the will to live longer."
Over 65 doesn't have to be old
The rise of longevity has changed the way we consider older people --- and age groups.
"A 65-year-old cannot be compared to someone who is 100. And yet they are considered to be in the same age group," says Alexandre Kalache, of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Okinawa, Japan - In these Japanese islands, there are 34 centenarians for 100,000 inhabitants (in developed nations, the standard is from 19 to 20 for 100,000). Okinawans have good genes, follow a low-calorie diet (rich in vegetables, fruits and fibers) and do not smoke.
Vilcabamba village, Ecuador - There are no studies to prove this, but in the book "Eterna Juventud - Vivir 120 Años' (Eternal Youth - Living 120 Years), Argentinean doctor Ricardo Coler writes that the centenarians in this village smoke, drink alcohol, eat lots of salt and drink too much coffee. Sometimes they even use drugs. In spite of that, they live up to 110 or 120 years old.
Loma Linda, California - Seventh-Day Adventists living in this region are among North America's oldest people. They do not drink, smoke or eat pork. They discourage eating other kinds of meat, fatty food, caffeine, spices and seasoning.
Sardinian Region, Italy - In this region, there are 24 centenarians for 100,000 inhabitants (three times more than European standards). Besides the Mediterranean diet and wine consumption, longevity is associated to the lack of an enzyme (Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase) in their bodies.
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Photo - Jon Rawlinson