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The Path to Longer Life

By: Mona Sabalones GonzalezThe Path to Longer Life

Conchita Heuschkel, 94, meets friends daily at a favorite restaurant. These friends include retirees and other senior citizens who fondly call her “Tita Babes”. At 94, she walks like a healthy 20-year-old, without a cane or walker. She doesn’t even use a wheelchair. Her mind is as sharp and keen, and her conversation remains compelling. Tita Babes has a natural gift for conversation and this earned her a job, during her younger days, as a manager in an elite club whose members included politicians, successful businessmen, and the society’s crème de la crème. It was where she met her husband, Dexter, who was 33 years old then. He took one look at her and immediately asked her to marry him.

Truly, opposites attract. Dexter is a quiet intellectual who loves books and enjoys gardening. Tita Babes loves the company of others.  When she told Dexter that she doesn’t cook or clean, he replied, “I want a wife, not a maid.” He has kept her happy to this day.   

When asked about her longevity, Babes said, “I try to be, as much as possible, kind and charitable. Having been with all kinds of people in my life, I know the ugly, the beautiful, and the bad. But I always look at the positive things in life. I also enjoy nature, God’s creation.”

This may not make sense to many, but recent findings in biology and positive psychology indicate that happiness and all traits associated with it such as kindness, charity, positivity, empathy, compassion, and sociability among others, contribute to a healthy, long life.

This was also biologically proven by psychologist Aoife O'Donovan of University of California (UC) San Francisco. Donovan studied the telomere, a part of DNA at the end of a chromosome. It protects the genetic material in the chromosome during cell replication. When cells replicate, the chromosomes become shorter until, by old age, so much of them are lost that even the telomeres are affected. Without telomeres, our bodies will not run smoothly and our immune system is compromised.

Donovan’s study noted that among women aged 50 to 86, pessimists had a poorer immune system and shorter telomeres. Optimists, on the other hand, had longer telomeres and a stronger immune system.

On the psychological side, a 2008 study at the Erasmus University Rotterdam which was published in Science Daily summarized, “Happiness does not heal, but happiness protects against falling ill. As a result, happy people live longer. This is concluded from an analysis of 30 follow-up studies published in the latest issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies.”

Places with longest-living citizens

In Sardinia, 91 of some 18,000 people born in the late 1800’s lived to their 100th birthday - double the average for all of Italy. Men live longer than women in Sardinia due to lifestyle. For example, Tonino Tola, 75, a shepherd from Sardinia, will have done the following before 11:00 a.m.:

  • Milked four cows
  • Slaughtered a calf
  • Split a cord of wood (measuring 4 feet tall, 8 feet wide, and 4 feet deep) in half
  • Walked four miles to pasture his sheep

Sardinia’s long history of longevity is believed to be due to genetics. Their ancestry of hunter-gatherers came east of Siberia 11,000 years ago, then moved up to the mountains. Today, some 80 percent of Sardinians are directly related to these first Sardinians. Paolo Francalacci of the University of Sassari told National Geographic that “somewhere in this genetic mix may lie a combination that favors longevity.”

Likewise, the Okinawans in Japan are known for living long, healthy lives, with a far fewer incidence of heart disease, breast/prostate cancer, and dementia. The Okinawans attribute this to Ikigai which, according to them, enables men on average to live up to 78 years, and women up to 86. Here are some of their secret recipes to living longer: 

  • Ikigai. This means “a strong sense of purpose.” Howard S. Friedman, a psychologist at UC Riverside, said people who have meaningful careers and work the hardest, even up to old age, live the longest.
  • Moai.  This means “meeting for a common purpose.” Moai is a support network where people provide financial, emotional, and social help throughout their lives. Friedman’s studies revealed that reliable, long-lasting, and meaningful connections with others result in longer, healthier lives.
  • Diet and Hara Hachi Bu. Okinawans’ diet of tofu, vegetables, miso soup, and a little fish or meat, totals fewer calories than a hamburger but has much healthier nutrients. They adhere to the Confucian-inspired adage to never overindulge and only eat until your stomach is 80 percent full. This leads to healthy food choices and prevents obesity.
  • They grow their own food. Greg Plotnikoff, a traditional-medicine researcher at the University of Minnesota, called these food gardens “cabinets of preventive medicine.” Herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables, (e.g. garlic, Chinese radishes, cabbage, scallions, tomatoes and turmeric, and tomatoes) are all said to contain compounds that prevent cancer.

Can longevity be deliberately enhanced in a community? The answer is yes. Nagano prefecture in the Japanese Alps experiences harsh winters, lack of arable land and has poor access to fresh seafood.  As a result, women make preserved tsukemono (Japanese pickles) such as pickled vegetables, which is eaten all winter. This food contains three times the daily maximum requirement for salt. In 1981, Nagano ranked No. 1 for strokes. To resolve this, the government did the following:

  • Introduced a healthy diet
  • Encouraged regular physical activity. This was done by developing a network of some 100 walking routes. Groups were organized in the neighborhoods and community to take communal walks.  This resulted in a cost-effect method to control medical costs and promote health
  • Gave seniors extended work years upon retirement, either through farming fruits and vegetables, or other careers. Today, one in four people over age 65 are still working.  Hiroko Akiyama, a professor at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Gerontology said, "We believe working does affect health."

Takuji Shirasawa, M.D., Department of Aging Control Medicine at Juntendo University in Tokyo, said the objective was not just for the people to live longer, but to also stay healthy longer. He adds, "Nagano is unique in many ways, but these are lessons you can apply anywhere.” 

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