The healthiest people I’ve ever met live in an isolated village in the Ecuadorian Andes called Vilcabamba. It blazed into world prominence in 1972 when a census showed that out of a population of 819, seven men and two women were more than 100 years old. That contrasts sharply with figures in the United States where we have fewer than 7,000 centenarians. Vilcabamba produces them at a rate 366 times greater than we do. To match the longevity, per capita, of this remote community, we would need more than 2,500.000 people older than 100 years. The census was implemented under the direction of Dr. Miguel Salvador, a cardiologist in Quito, Ecuador’s capital. I interviewed Dr. Salvador in Quito and he pointed out another significant fact: “One out of six residents in Vilcabamba is more than 65.” Dr. Salvador said. “This is twice the rate found in the United Slates and Canada and five times greater than the rate for the rest of Ecuador.”
I talked with Dr. Jorge Santiana, a Quito cancer specialist, who had visited Vilcabamba four times to study these remarkable people. “I found no trace of skin cancer among these people,” he said, “which is unusual both because of their ages and because of the latitude, which exposes them to direct sun rays the year round.”
On two trips to the village I interviewed a number of the elderly residents and found them alert, vigorous and very pleasant. Studies indicate the remarkable longevity is a product of a simple diet, hard physical work, extensive walking (there are no automobiles in Vilcabamba), no pollution, pure water and heredity.
While we probably won’t move to Vilcabamba to live longer, the village sparks the question: “What can I learn from them to prolong my own life?” The answer is that we can learn a great deal. While heredity unquestionably plays a crucial role in longevity, many studies show the life-extending qualities of sensible living patterns. A 1974 scientific study at UCLA included 7,000 people and found several habits to be connected with excellent health. Not surprisingly, they were nearly identical with the living habits of Vilcabamba.
SLEEP: Men sleeping between seven and eight hours a night had a lower mortality rate than men who slept more or less. The best amount of sleep for women was seven hours, or a bit less. (See also : natural cures for sleep disorders)
SMOKING: To no one’s surprise, non-smokers are healthier than smokers. The risk is highest for those who smoke two or more packs of cigarettes a day.
DRINKING: People who never drank alcohol had about the same mortality as those who drank moderately. Men and women who had five or more drinks a day had the highest risk.
EXERCISE: The study showed that regular exercise is a critically important factor in maintaining good health, reinforcing the current trend emphasizing fitness. Men and women who followed a regular exercise program had a mortality rate about half as high as those who never exercised.
EATING HABITS: Understandably, those who ate three regular meals a day were far healthier than those who ate erratically. Eating breakfast was found to be especially important.
WEIGHT: Twenty percent over-weight was the figure at which the death rate increased sharply.
These findings are so simple, you may be saying, “Why, I know all that.” Certainly. We all do. The problem is that too often we fail to observe these points.
Take walking, for example. Dr. George Mann of Vanderbilt University studied the Masai warriors in Africa. Ranging in age from 15 to 50, they regularly walk a minimum of 12 miles a day herding cattle. Dr. Mann divided the men into ten-year age groups and discovered that, as they grew older, their arteries increased in size. The constant walking kept their arteries enlarging rather than shrinking with old age (the norm in the United States).
Another advantage of walking is that you can do it just about anywhere. If you drive everywhere, you can start walking on short trips. If you travel in your work, it’s easy to step outside your hotel in the evening and log several miles of relaxed strolling along the streets. Incidentally, tests show that walking can be more effective than tranquilizers in unwinding tense nerves. Dr. Herbert deVries of the Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California designed a study with volunteers between the ages of 52 and 70 who suffered from nervous tension, anxiety and worry. DeVries gave one group 400 mg. of mepro-bamate, a tranquilizer, and another group walked 15 minutes a day. Exercise proved far more effective than tranquilizers in relieving tension, anxiety and worry.
DeVries designed another study using volunteers over 50 years old who complained of migraine headaches. Dr. deVries found that after several weeks of regular exercise none of them continued to suffer from migraines. Again, exercise was more effective than medication, supporting the axiom “Action absorbs anxiety.”
Most of us are not going to wear out- we’ll rust out from inactivity. Optimum nutrition, sufficient sleep, regular exercise, moderate drinking, no smoking, limited stress, correct weight-put them all together and they spell superior health.
Carefully followed, this kind of program can perhaps expand our lifespan toward the 100- to 120-year range some scientists consider possible. Suppose that happens. What could we look forward to? Titian, the Italian painter, did superb work until near his death at age 99. Pablo Picasso was turning out masterpieces well into his 90s. Roscoe Pound wrote a five-volume work on U.S. jurisprudence after his 95th birthday.
With a 120-year lifespan, we would be entering middle age at 65, not retiring. Our bodies would be energetic, joints flexible, minds sharp, skin smooth and unwrinkled, senses acute. A person who had spent years as an advertising executive might fulfill a life-long dream and become an engineer. A homemaker who had always wanted to be an anthropologist could return to college and pursue her ambition. An aviation mechanic whose desire to become a dentist had been sidetracked by an early marriage could start college and go on to dental school.
Rather than becoming a sentence to a retirement village or an old-age home, the 65th birthday Mould signal a new life and renewed opportunity, with 35 productive years ahead. The rueful observation of a former top athlete who noted that “Growing old is like maturing in your athletic career: by the time you learn what do do, you can’t do it anymore,” would no longer apply.
Today, old age is generally defined as beginning at 65. By then, arthritis, heart disease or atherosclerosis affect four persons out of five. Hair growth slows and hair becomes gray or white. Wrinkled skin and darker pigment spots appear. Alterations in skeleton and muscles lead to less erect posture, reduced height and slower movements. Eyesight and hearing usually deteriorate, and the senses of smell, taste, touch and pain diminish. All of these symptoms of aging are amenable to new treatments, according to some researchers. Dr. Benjamin S. Frank, a New York physician and biochemist, says, “Aging is now a treatable disease.” His optimism is a result of breakthroughs on ways to prevent cell damage by “free radicals,” thought by many to be a primary factor in the body’s deterioration as it gets older. Dr. Frank’s hopeful outlook is inspired by recent studies on the effect of an enzyme, superoxide dismutase (SOD). Researchers have found that SOD prevents cell damage by free radicals and may be a critical factor in adding to longevity.
With a 120-year lifespan, we would be entering middle age at 65, not retiring. Our bodies would be energetic & our minds sharp.
In his book Prolongevity, science writer Albert Rosenfeld described free radicals as “highly unstable atoms, broken-off pieces of molecules, or molecules with an electron stripped away. Because a free electron can hardly stand being unattached, free radicals tend to race frantically around the cell until they find other molecules they can latch on to.”
On a lighter note, Dr. Alex Comfort once observed, “A free radical has been likened to a convention delegate away from his wife; it’s a highly reactive chemical agent that will combine with anything that’s around.”
A free radical’s attack on other molecules can be so violent that it sets off a chain reaction of free radicals. Work by Denham Harmon in the 1950s led to the view that free radicals are created in a flash and might cause accelerated aging.
This approach inspired experiments showing that vitamias A, C and E can counteract free radicals and prevent cellular damage. Other studies show that the mineral selenium has the same protective effect. Eating foods rich in these substances as well as using supplements containing them can protect cells against free radicals and premature aging.
Superoxide dismutase is the latest substance reported to protect cells against the onslaughts of free radicals. Pollution, radiation, ultraviolet rays and food additives are some of the conditions that create free radicals in the body. Along with the problem of aging, some of the research on SOD is aimed at cancer, arthritis and muscular dystrophy.
An Atlanta physician, Dr. Milton Fried, is another vigorous booster of SOD. “The therapeutic possibilities of SOD are mind-boggling,” he said. “We may have in our grasp a system of enzymes which may allow us to slow down aging and to prevent and reverse a long list of degenerative diseases.” He feels SOD may contribute to a life expectancy of as much as two centuries.
An experiment with mice at the University of California at Irvine, using the anti-oxidants vitamins C and E, selenium and SOD to repair free radical damage, showed radical results. The mice, age 70 in human terms when treated, lived an average of 49 percent beyond their normal life-spans.
While superior nutrition is critical for extending the lifespan, too much food can shorten it. Studies with animals have shown that limiting them to 60 percent of their normal food intake can extend their life-spans 33 to 50 percent. That is essentially fasting them one day out of three. Another study showed that mice who are underfed, while receiving a nourishing diet, live a normal span but do not show the signs of deterioration that normally accompany aging. While care must be taken when applying the results of animal studies to humans, the results do indicate that too much food, no matter how good, is bad.
Allan Gott, M.D., a New York psychiatrist, has found that many of his older patients benefit from taking the amino acid L-glutamine and another substance, cho-line (found in lecithin). “My personal experience and studies have shown that these nutrients improve mental acuity, including memory.” says Dr. Gott. “Again and again I’ve seen them work with older patients.”
Another psychiatrist, J.L. Newbold, M.D., reports that chromium can be helpful in slowing aging. “Chromium is useful in preventing and lowering high blood pressure,” he says. “It also helps reduce cholesterol levels and hardening of the arteries. This means that chromium probably helps fight the mental changes that accompany senility.”
Lifetime good health is connected to many factors and certainly demands constant attention. In the best-seller Live Longer Now, Nathan Pritikin and his coauthors point to the specific life-extending benefits of a good diet and exercise program in increasing the lifespan along with improving general health. In their introduction they emphasize that eating correctly and exercising regularly have the effect of extending the middle years, not the old ones. “This means.” they say, “that you may live 20 years longer, but your age 65 would be more like age 45, and age 90 would be more like age 70. Extra middle years give you more years while your productivity is high, causing your net worth to society to go up.”
What is perhaps most intriguing about any study of aging is the obvious conclusion that we have a degree of control over the process. A thoughtful look at the diet followed by the oldsters of Vilcabamba reveals that they naturally eat the way all of us should. And, they don’t overeat.
”They eat slowly and in small amounts.” said Dr. Jorge Santiana, the Quito physician. “Their food is highly nutritious and much of it is eaten fresh.”
The Vilcabambans enjoy organically-grown fruits and vegetables along with whole grains for plenty of fiber. They eat meat only about once a month, and their diet is low in fat. Because of their isolation and natural surroundings, they have avoided many of civilization’s nutritional problems.
Wherever we live, we can try to emulate them. In addition, supplements to guarantee sufficient amounts of the anti-oxidant vitamins, C and E. are useful. The place of vitamin A in protecting against cancer is documented and gives it an important spot in any nutritional support program. Extra magnesium and calcium become necessary with aging to ward off osteoporosis, the condition that weakens bones and leads to broken hips. Selenium is another anti-oxidant critical for gentle aging. Lecithin and brewer’s yeast are valuable substances to improve nutritional intake.
There’s no question that “old age is preferable to the alternative.” But with an enlightened health program, we can all stay younger, longer. We don’t have to move to Ecuador. Simply follow the tips outlined here-and enjoy a life that is longer and better. Anyone can do it.
Taken from Vegetarian Times – Jun 1983 written by — Paul Martin