In today’s world, ageing is looked as an inevitable, frightening, useless and painful part of life, a big disease that we must avoid. We associate ageing with wrinkles, weakness, dementia, helplessness, nursing homes and death. We have Hollywood stars pay big bucks for anti-ageing cosmetics and surgery, while the rest of society mimic their actions by trying the latest anti-ageing techniques. Anti-ageing anything sells.
Thankfully, there really are a few sound secrets to staying young, healthy and useful even to a very ripe old age. Most people think that if someone has lived to a ripe age of a 100, it’s a rare event that’s just probably in their genes. What most people don’t know is that there are a number of large ageing communities of people who live practically disease free, are very active and useful even at the age of 120 years. Astounding, but true! It is by studying their way of life over years that science has come to some conclusions with regard to nutrition, lifestyle and exercise for ‘graceful’ aging to happen.
Extraordinary Centenarian Communities
The world’s longest and healthiest living peoples are found spread out all over the world. In the mountains of the Caucasus, in southern Russia, live the Abhkasians. The National Geographic team (and other scientific teams) found an extraordinary number of centenarians who had their full mental powers, a good memory, and a delightful sense of humor. The professors who examined them were amazed to find that all those over 100 were still actively contributing work wise and their fitness levels far surpassed a fit 30 year old man in the western world. In their mountainous terrain, almost everybody had to climb and walk through tough trails to get anywhere, which every aged person could do with ease, faster than the young men from the scientific teams! Upon thorough physical checkup, the doctors were further astonished to find that the elders had perfect eyesight, walked erect and had no osteoporosis or any degenerative diseases associated with old age.
They also had the most advanced and extraordinary irrigation system for their cultivated terraces along the mountains. This engineering feat is something our current engineers are still learning from.Their diets So had they all discovered Shangrila, or the fountain of youth? Or was it just pure genetics at play? What all these marvellous communities had in common were their remarkable health, elders over 125 years old, some claiming to be over 130 (but not verifiable) and an enormous capacity for physical activity. They lived very much with nature and breathed the pure mountain air, which contains higher amounts of negative ions (that are good for health). They were not exposed to chemicals and pollution due to their geographic locations.
Their traditional diets were all similar; they all ate aver 70% of their calories from carbohydrates. These carbohydrates were in the form of whole grains, from their fields, locally and organically grown; they had many fruit trees and plants from which they plucked fruits for eating as a snack or to add sweetness to a meal. Their total fat intake was very low, about 17% in total from their food alone – from nuts and seeds. No refined oils were used for cooking. Food was either lightly boiled in water or steamed. All communities paid special attention to freshness, which was of key importance. Fruits and vegetables were plucked just before cooking or eating and the remaining food was thrown away.
Each of these communities mainly had a plant based diet, with only 1% meat incorporated in their foods, which was only from their own animal stock, being organic and fresh. Salt consumption was low while refined sugar consumption was zero. No processed foods existed. The Vilcabambans and Hunzans had no form of dairy products either, while the Abkhasians had
a fermented (sheep, goat or cow) milk drink called matzoni. No one overate, as it was considered inappropriate and rude in their societies to do so. Needless to say, there were no cases of overweight or obese individuals. They all drank pure mountain spring water running from their land and their mountainous areas had a very equitable, invigorating climate, which got colder in the winter months. Their proteins were mainly from plant sources, and despite the harsh winters and hard physical work they carried out, even the males in their communities only ate about 1,900 calorie diet, considered fairly low by western standards.
Their lifestyles It would be easy to say that their food alone was responsible for their fantastic health, but there is never really one answer to good health. All these communities, from young to old, in their daily process of life, did a lot of physical work and walking or climbing. Everyone walked to visit each other or children to their schools, as there were no other modes of transport.
They also had a respect for all people, young or old and the elders were well looked after and revered. In fact, it was taken as a compliment in Abkhasia when someone remarked how old they looked! Elders were given respect purely because they were old. They believed that with age always came wisdom. Each of these communities was very close knit and shared their sorrows and joys. They gave gratitude and celebrated all happy occasions together with music, dancing and sheer joy. This not only created a sense of well being, but left no one out. All of them shared a sense of humor and there were no actions that were rushed or hurried. Attitude is sometimes everything, which the scientific teams discovered. Their spiritual and healing needs were all met as a community, where people bereaved were not left alone and if someone’s house was destroyed in a fire, the entire community came to help to rebuild it. This immense sense of sharing and caring kept the young and old feeling wanted and secure.
Do genes matter?
But did genetics also play a role along with lifestyle? This question was put to the test when some of the younger ones from the communities had contact with the outside world and stayed away from their home for some time. The National Geographic team discovered that these younger people exposed to the outside world started showing signs of disease and aging, just like the western world.
So what matters?
As a society that touts youth which is synonymous with beauty, we need to start breaking the stereotypes of aging and be more accepting of our own age. Growing older is inevitable, but ageing the way society sees it is not. We do not have to live in the mountains and be cut off from the world to enjoy good health. We can definitely learn from the centenarian societies and incorporate a great deal more of physical activity, switch to a more plant based balanced diet and choose to be more caring and sharing with our own family and friends. Studies found that loneliness kills faster than smoking. So loving and being loved in return have more health benefits than one can imagine. Love not only is the real fountain of youth, but is also a great healer. This may sound philosophical, but is more scientific as numerous studies have confirmed this statement.
While a good diet and lifestyle will help one to age gracefully, it does not mean that it will ensure we will not get cancer or any other disease. Life for the Hunzans, Abkhasians and Vilcabambans are not a paradise on earth. They have to deal with the hardships of poverty, high infant mortality, the harshness of winter in the mountains and many of their own problems. So what we need is the spirit that will carry us through our ageing process and the unpredictability of life.
If you want to read more on the above, please read John Robbins inspiring book, ‘Healthy at 100 How to extend your life and stay fit!’ I have not mentioned the most remarkable of all ageing communities, who are the Okinawans, in Okinawa, Japan. They are the longest living people whose age have been recorded and validated, and bear resemblance in physical fitness and health to the other centenarian communities. There is an entire book written on the 20 over years of study done on them, called the’ Okinawa Program’.
We have the facts in front of us, now it is only the choices we need to make that will shape our tomorrow and the years ahead.
• In fitness and in health, Sheeba Majmudar (The author is a nutritionist available for consultaion at (+65 9656 6714).