BEST OF HEALTH: Low stress key to long life
WITHIN RECENT YEARS we have heard the stories of several centenarians and what they have done to live to be such a ripe old age, many with very few health complaints and most still as witty as ever.
Research has shown that in Barbados and other parts of the world with a high number of centenarians there are several interwoven factors that contribute to longevity.
Professor Henry Fraser, former Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences, The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, who assisted research fellow Susan Archer with a study on centenarians in Barbados, conducted between 2003 and 2006, said that the study revealed that the factors that contributed to long life in Barbados were a healthy diet, including plenty fish and vegetables; a low-stress lifestyle; hard work and a late retirement; spirituality; and a strong family and community life.
When compared to a study of Japan’s Okinawa district, which for some time has had the most centenarians in the world and where two of the world’s oldest men, aged 113 and 111, reside, the factors noted by these centenarians as contributing to their longevity were similar if not identical to those listed by Barbadian centenarians.
Fraser differentiated between hard work and high-stress jobs, which do not contribute to a prolonged life. The Japanese study reported, in addition to hard work, a caring community, family, and social structure which served to reduce stress.
The area of spirituality was also shown to be a key factor in both studies, with the combination of truly believing and practising seems to be a tremendous positive force.
Other contributors to this longevity were discussed and they included the avoidance of chronic non-communicable diseases (CNCDs). Fraser explained that though the Japanese studies did not explore the issue of medical health history and CNCDs in the way the Barbadian study did, the Japanese centenarians did not report experience of the CNCDs that are an epidemic in Barbados.
According to the Barbados study, the most prevalent health complaints were impaired eyesight, hearing difficulties and arthritis from the wear and tear of the joints, but two out of 60 centenarians reported high blood pressure at some time in their lives.
Oral health was another, though minor, area contributing to ill health in people prone to vascular disease. “It seems that infection around the gums appears to be related to vascular disease and the formation of plaque, which may lead to heart attacks and strokes,” Fraser said, adding that much evidence now suggested that where the infection got into the blood stream via the teeth and gums it contributed to vascular disease – that is why it was shown that people who flossed their teeth regularly appeared to live longer, although this has not been studied in the centenarians.
A small drink
There is the argument that alcohol is not good for you, but Fraser said there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the mild use of alcohol is actually healthy and promotes cardiovascular health. James Sisnett, 111 years old, likes to have a drink once in a while and Janetha Bend, who reached 100 earlier this year, enjoys an ice cold banks beer.
Fraser said if alcohol is used it should be limited to one drink per day for females and two per day for males as men are bigger and seem to be able to deal with the alcohol better. He added that further evidence suggested that red wine was the most healthy form of alcohol as it contained several agents, including the antioxidant resveratrol, that protect the blood vessels.
Ultimately, Fraser said, the dietary habit most affecting health is the eating of modest amounts of a wide variety of foods – that way you get all the constituents of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, and modest amounts will keep you slim and avoid obesity and diabetes.
The way food is prepared has not been as well studied. While cooking does destroy some vitamins, most of the root crops the centenarians boast about have to be cooked but some fresh vegetables do not have to be cooked.
The important thing about our centenarians is that they worked hard and they kept slim.
“Look at the demographics. The people who are reaching centenarians today are those who lived active lives. That was the pattern of life for the first 50 years of the last century, so the centenarians now would have established those life habits of active lives and healthy eating from young. Today we live more sedentary lives.”
The professor predicted that Barbados would continue to have more centenarians for the next ten to 20 years, but the people born in the middle of the last century would be much less likely to live to 100 as 50 per cent of the adult population had CNCDs.