Cracking the longevity code

Author: admin

Small yet impactful choices can be game-changers, writes Srirekha Pillai

At 102, there’s no stopping Chandigarh-based Man Kaur, the world’s fastest centenarian, who won gold in the 200 m at the World Masters Athletics Championship in Spain recently. Hitting the gym, going for a run, practising javelin and shotput throws are all part of her daily training. For some centenarians like her, age is just a number.

Many ancient Indian texts, including The Rigveda, are rife with references to the immortality granting soma plant and the chiranjeevi or immortals. Though the elixir of life that grants immortality is non-existent now, certain populations such as the inhabitants of the Okinawa island in Japan, the Vilcabambans of the Ecuadorian Andes and, closer home, the Hunzas of Pakistan seem to have cracked the longevity code.

Okinawa, for instance, is home to the world’s healthiest silver population with the longest recorded life expectancies. According to latest records, there are 400 centenarians in Okinawa, which has a population of 1.3 million. Scientific studies have shown that besides genetic factors, longevity is strongly linked to food and exercise habits. A low-calorie healthy diet and high physical activity in these extraordinarily healthy societies is the secret of their extended lifespan with virtually no reported incidence of diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other degenerative diseases such as rheumatism, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s.

Mortality plateau

Researchers have long debated whether humans have an upper age limit. To quote a recent study in Science, the risk of mortality, which seems to increase as people age, levels off after age 105, creating a ‘mortality plateau’. Researchers say that after the age pf 105, the odds of someone dying from one birthday to the next is roughly 50:50.

Research is still on to better understand the reason for the levelling off of mortality rates in later years. Geneticists at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, speculate that body cells eventually reach a point where repair mechanisms can offset further damage to keep mortality rates levelled.

Interestingly, the longest lifespan recorded scientifically is of French Jeanne Calment, who lived for 122 years and 164 days. She was born on 21 February 1875 and died on 4 August 1997, having lived through both World Wars, man’s conquest of the moon, the invention of the cell phone and the dawn of the Internet age.

Indian summer

The World Health Organisation (WHO) records the average lifespan of Indians as 68.8, placing us at a World Life Expectancy ranking of 125, with the average global lifespan being 71.4 years (‘Life long’ – see below). Indian women at 70.3 outlive their male counterparts at 67.4 years. Anjali Raje, deputy executive director, International Longevity Centre, attributes this to the genetic makeup of women.

According to a study published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), women have biological advantages that lets them live longer. For instance, oestrogen benefits women by lowering low-density lipoprotein cholesterol or LDL, while increasing high-density lipoprotein cholesterol or HDL, thus reducing cardiovascular risk. Men, on the other hand, are at a greater risk of hypertension, heart disease and stroke as testosterone increases blood levels of the bad cholesterol, while decreasing HDL.

From a life expectancy of 41 years in 1960 to 68.8 years in 2018, we have certainly added almost three decades to our life. Yet, there are vast inequalities between states, ranging from a lifespan of 66.8 years in Uttar Pradesh to 78.7 years in Kerala for women.

“Of late, there has been a 600 per cent increase in those living beyond 80 and 300 per cent increase in those above 60 years of age,” points out K R Gangadharan, global president of the International Federation on Ageing (IFA). He attributes this to improvement in medical facilities and better access to them. The increase in life expectancy in India can also be credited to clean drinking water, sanitation and better control of non-communicable diseases. However, we are facing new-age health challenges such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes and cancer, pegging India below developed countries and many developing nations when it comes to the longevity index.

However, in Raje’s view, “With the spectacular advancements in medical science and health awareness among people in their 40s and 50s, India is in for a longevity revolution.” With better medical facilities and access to healthcare, metros can safely be called the longevity pockets of India, she says.

Golden rules

Though there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to longevity, leading an active, happy, stress-free and healthy life goes a long way in contributing to your general wellbeing and keeping your body ticking longer.

Gangadharan, who also heads Hyderabad-based Heritage Foundation, a geriatric healthcare facility, has an interesting take on longevity. He quotes from a study published in Journal of the American Medical Association to say that there is a link between positions of power and longevity. “The majority of American presidents have far outlived men of their times. The fact that they have climbed the social ladder to hold such an influential position is also testimony to the fact that they are better equipped to cope with challenges,” he says. “Another group of people who live longer are those who rarely lose their peace of mind. Their state of happiness springs from the conviction of pursuing what is morally right.”

A 2018 study in journal Circulation suggests that adhering to the five cardinal principles of eating healthy, regular exercise, drinking in moderation, not smoking and maintaining a healthy body weight could extend a woman’s life expectancy at age 50 by 14 years, and a man’s by 12.

Geriatric practitioner V S Natarajan agrees, saying 50 is indeed the right age to make modifications to one’s lifestyle. “Most diseases affecting silvers such as hypertension, diabetes and osteoporosis are all silent diseases, with many of them setting in after 50. With preventive measures such as regular health check-ups, exercise, diet modifications, vaccinations and adequate exposure to sunlight, it is possible to prevent the onset of many diseases.”

Besides genetic makeup, factors that could play a pivotal role when it comes to longevity are the right food, exercise, staying active and positive, social inclusion and intimacy. Let’s take a close look at each of them.

Food for thought

It’s no secret that what we eat has the potential to help or harm us; leave us feeling energised or lethargic. It has long been known that one should ditch processed food in favour of natural foods such as berries, nuts, seeds, pulses, vegetables and fruits for a healthy and long life (‘Chew on this!’ – see below).

“Other than genes, it is hard to think of something that can be more powerful than food in determining whether someone is going to make it to 100 or die before turning 50,” says US-based biochemist Valter Longo. His fasting mimicking diet, which plays on the fact that fasting turns our body into repair mode, tricks the body into thinking it’s fasting, while still coming up with food on the table. “Eating the correct food, ideally through a diet rich in vegetables, legumes, fish, nuts and whole grains, is the least costly way to take care of a lot of problems and is the key to a longer and healthier life,” he tells us. (Read Valter Longo’s exclusive interview here)

A study of the dietary habits of Okinawans shows that they eat an average of seven servings of vegetables and fruits daily, along with seven servings of grains, two servings of soy products, omega-3 fatty acid-rich fish several times per week, very few dairy products and little meat.

Meanwhile, the New England Centenarian Study at the Boston University School of Medicine is the largest and most comprehensive study of centenarians so far. The study showed that almost all people who reached the age of 100 were lean, particularly men, emphasising that being lean was the key to a prolonged life.

At the same time, it’s important not to be obsessive about weight and size, especially if you are at a reasonably healthy weight. A 2016 study found that women over age 50 who were categorised as normal weight, but were fluctuating on the weighing scale, were three times more likely to experience sudden cardiac death than those whose weight stayed the same.

Get moving

Adding even a small amount of movement to daily life has been repeatedly shown to be beneficial. Exercise works in various ways—not only does increased physical activity improve endurance, it also benefits muscle strength and balance, while reducing chances of fall injuries. Additionally, exercise stimulates the release of serotonin and dopamine, the feel-good hormones that protect against mental health disorders and improve long-term memory.  

So, exactly how much exercise is good enough? “Regular brisk walking for 3-5 km or 40 minutes to one hour can prevent diabetes, cholesterol, obesity and hypertension, besides increasing bone density,” says Natarajan. “Further, it also prevents constipation and helps induce sound sleep.” 

A 2016 study found that silvers who exercised for just 15 minutes a day, at an intensity level of a brisk walk, had a 22 per cent lower risk of premature death compared to those who did not exercise. Researchers from McMaster University in Canada found that even breaking a sweat for just 60 seconds may be enough to improve health and fitness, as long as it’s a tough workout.

Staying passionate, positive and principled

Passion fuels life more than apathy; engagement, more than indifference. So cultivate a new hobby, sign up to learn something new or simply dust and pick up old hobbies. And for some, like centenarian Balwant Ghatpande, work itself could be a motivation. A practising doctor in Pune, he is a workaholic, whose only motto and driving force in life is healing patients, for which he charges a meagre Rs 30! Swanand, his son, tells us that Ghatpande, who will turn 104 on 15 March, still sees an average of 20 patients a day. “He doesn’t take a break, even on Sundays.” From administering injections to checking blood pressure, writing prescriptions and handing out medicines, Ghatpande prefers to do it all himself, despite having an assistant.

Similarly, 105 year-old Bengaluru-based lexicographer G Venkatasubbiah, who was recently awarded the Kendra Sahitya Akademi’s Bhasha Samman, keeps abreast of developments in the field of literature by reading the latest literary works and newspapers. He also enjoys interacting with writers who call on him. Besides the world of words that keep him going, Prof GV, as he is fondly called, also finds joy in presiding over the affairs of a hostel for poor but meritorious students.

Social support

An analysis by global journalism network Orb Media found that countries with high levels of respect for silvers recorded better health among older populations. E Haribabu, retired professor of sociology, University of Hyderabad, who is also associated with the Centre for Research and Education in Ageing (CREA), can’t agree more. Emphasising the importance of mental health in silvers, he says, “There is a close link between mental and physical health. It’s important to create an environment where silvers feel loved, respected and valued. That would automatically translate into better health and longevity.” He also bats for a family ambience where silvers are an integral part of the structure and a society that utilises their expertise and experience.

Interestingly, a study by Becca Levy, professor of public health and psychology at Yale School of Public Health, reported that the negative attitudes towards ageing are a result of “the growing anti-ageing industry that promotes and actually profits from a fear of ageing”. Her team found that those with a positive attitude towards ageing lived an average 7.5 years longer than those who viewed it as something bad.

Meanwhile, a 2017 study in journal Personal Relationships found that it could be friends, not family, who matter most as we age. The study looked at 270,000 people in nearly 100 countries and found that while both family and friends are associated with happiness and better health, as people aged, the health link remained only for people with strong friendships.

“Your social circle should enrich your brain, not add to the stress,” says Gangadharan, who distinguishes between grumblers’ clubs and activity clubs. “So, while a Tai Chi, yoga or bhajan club is a good way to relax with friends, joining a social organisation where politics is at play may not necessarily be good for mental health.”

Let’s talk sex

It’s no secret that action between the sheets has been linked to life satisfaction and, in some cases, longer life. According to a study, published in British Medical Journal in 1997, which followed 918 men in a Welsh town for 10 years, those with a higher frequency of orgasm had a 50 per cent reduced risk of mortality. For silver women, too, sex seems to protect against cardiovascular issues.

Two other studies on silvers also point to a greater link between intimacy and longevity. A Swedish study of those above the age of 70 showed a significant association between cessation of sexual activity and mortality. Yet another study comparing the sex lives of 100 silver women who had heart attacks and those who had not, found that those prone to heart disease were the ones less satisfied with their sex lives.

At the same time, overstressing over orgasms may not be a good thing. The focus, instead, should be on pleasure and intimacy.

In conclusion

Ageing can cause decline in both body and mind, with our cognitive health, which empowers us to think clearly, learn and remember, also at considerable risk.

“Generally, when people retire in India, they tend to lead a sedentary lifestyle, as opposed to an active life pursued by other societies,” observes Natarajan. “When we talk of ageing, it’s very important to talk about ageing in a healthy manner.”

A holistic approach that pays attention to diet and nutrition, physical activity, social inclusion, access to quality healthcare, and guarantees mental and spiritual wellness will undoubtedly add years to life. Though the length of our life is not entirely in our hands, its quality is something we may have the power to shape.


Life long

Countries with the longest life expectancy are

·      Monaco: 89.73 years
·      Macau: 84.41 years
·      San Marino: 83.01 years
·      Andorra: 82.43 years
·      Japan: 82.25 years


Chew on this!

·      Eat less, but eat well.
·      Periodic fasting and avoiding sugar are powerful longevity boosters.
·      Consume good carbohydrates, good fat, high-quality proteins and fibre.
·      Include plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables in your dietary plan.
·      Eat protein-rich foods such as fish, soy, legumes, seeds, nuts, fermented milk
        products, buttermilk and fermented foods.


Photo: iStock
February 2019