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Lifestyle secrets of some of the world’s oldest people

Sunday February 9 2020

lifestyle

The key to long life could be the right genes, a proper diet, exercise, good medication or a combination of all those. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

ELVIS ONDIEKI
By ELVIS ONDIEKI
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The fact: Kenya's second president, Daniel arap Moi, died on Tuesday at a ripe age.

It was 95 on paper, but his son Raymond and Press Secretary Lee Njiru have argued that Moi’s actual age was more than 100 years.

The circumstances: that Moi was a man who observed a healthy and traditional diet is a well-known fact.

It is also known that his elder brother, Paulo, lived to 104 and his sister, Rebecca, died at 100.

And so a debate ensues: what guarantees longevity? It could be the right genes, a proper diet, exercise, good medication or a combination of all those.

But there is no single clear-cutting factor from the stories of the people who have lived for a century and beyond. We gathered different world-views on the matter.

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NUTRITIONIST: Diet is the key to longevity

According to Gladys Mugambi, a nutritionist working with the Ministry of Health, a proper diet is a major determinant of how long a person lives.

“I cannot attribute it to vegetarian or meat consumption but to eating variety of foods in the right amounts accompanied by appropriate physical activity,” she told Lifestyle.

Moi’s famous breakfast of tea or porridge with boiled green maize will definitely offer points to ponder for the lot that cherishes wheat products and fried goodies at their breakfast table.

“Abraham Kiptanui (then-State House comptroller) would make sure there was tea and green maize,” Moi’s one-time Cabinet Minister Kalonzo Musyoka told Nation in 2014.

Regardless, Moi was not entirely vegetarian. Njiru told documentarist Salim Amin two years ago that the former president ate meat “like a lion”.

“I have heard people say that Moi does not eat meat, but the centrality of Moi’s food is meat,” said Njiru.

“Other things like vegetables and ugali are additions. He slaughters an animal every day, mostly merino sheep. His (longevity) is not a matter of food but genetics.”

Alcohol abuse

Mugambi advocates for eating from the major food groups, with starchy foods at the centre of the diet.

Asked how smoking and taking alcohol affects a person’s lifespan, the nutritionist said the two substances are more harmful “to individuals who do not eat well and who are living a stressful life”.

One of Kenya’s famous centenarians, former Attorney-General Charles Njonjo, said in 2015 that he doesn’t entirely keep off alcohol.

“I don’t drink much,” he told Business Daily. “If I’m to drink, it will be just a bottle of beer and maybe a cider, that’s it.”

Then there is the case of Nepalese woman Batuli Lamichhane, who may have shown the world that smoking is not a life limiter after all.

She was 112 years old in 2016 when she revealed that she smoked about 30 cigarettes every day.

East light

She told reporters that she smoked leaf rolls made of tobacco. She, however, noted that she was a very active woman, who walked up and down a steep terrain in Nuwakot, Nepal.

“We could study these individuals to establish what has kept them surviving with the unhealthy habits of alcohol and smoking. The amount of alcohol taken, the frequency and the speed could be keeping Njonjo going; I do not know,” reasoned Mugambi.

“Genetics could also contribute. There are people who take a lot of alcohol and they do not get the negative effect, but why should one take a chance with his or her life in trying such bad and addictive habits?” She posed.

The principle of eating right was employed by the person captured by Guinness World Records (GWR) as the man who lived longest.

Jiroemon Kimura, a Japanese, died aged 116 years and 54 days in December 2012. Since birth recording began, no man has lived longer than that.

“His personal motto was ‘eat light to live long’, and he believed the key to his longevity is to be a healthy, small eater,” reads his entry on GWR.

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EX-CATHOLIC PRIEST: Observing a routine is a good path to longevity

One of the longest-living Catholic priests in history is Fr Jacques Clemens, a Dutch clergyman who died in March 2018 aged 108.

Reuters reported in 2016 that Fr Clemens’ secret for clocking 100-plus years was the routine he observed.

“Every day he rises at 5.30am, and every night he goes to bed by 9.00pm. Fr Clemens manages to stick by his strict regimen regardless of the demands on his schedule,” the news agency said.

Writer Peter Economy opined on Inc.com that observing routine is helpful in many ways.

“When we have a set time for resting our bodies every day, we are much more likely to have good, consistent control of our bodies’ homeostasis. Maintaining stability, as we well know, is the way to long-term success in anything. Our health is no exception to this rule,” reasoned the writer.

Moi was also known for his strict routine. Njiru told Lifestyle in 2016 that during his 24 years as president, and even after, Moi was an early riser, who did not start his day’s activities later than 6.30am.

Even after retirement, Njiru noted, Moi would still wake up early, mostly to handle the schools and farms he was running. “Under normal circumstances, he does not wake up later than 6am.”

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PSYCHOLOGIST: Childhood influences determine the length of one’s life

Drawing from the story of Moi, developmental psychologist John Oteyo says what happens early in life has an impact on a person’s sunset years.

Because Moi was orphaned at an early age and was raised by his elder brother, Oteyo reasoned, a lot of useful values were inculcated in him.

“Becoming vice-president, president and handing over power peacefully added to his earlier fulfilment and contentment that he enjoyed in retirement,” Oteyo told Lifestyle.

“This psychological tranquillity gained from earlier life and with his strict dietary, lifestyle behaviours, good medical care and religious orientation could have contributed to his joyous and long life,” added Oteyo, a lecturer at the Psychology Department at Kenyatta University.

“The person as an adult depends on experiences he had in early childhood,” he noted, citing a poem by William Wordsworth that has a line that says 'the child is father of the man'.

He was, however, quick to note that a lot more factors come into play.

“Predictors for longevity include correct dietary behaviour, avoiding sedentary behaviour, which means engaging in physical activity, psychological well-being (emotional; cognitive and mental wellness), spiritual wellness, good medications, genetic predisposition and resilience,” said Oteyo.

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WORLD’S OLDEST PERSON: The secret is religion, routine, and all that jazz

The person recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest human alive is Kane Tanaka, a Japanese woman who was 117 years and 35 days old when this article was written on Thursday.

“Kane was born prematurely on January 2, 1903, the same year the Wright brothers became the first to achieve powered flight!” says her entry on GWR.

It adds: “She normally wakes up at 6am, and in the afternoon often studies subjects such as maths. One of Kane’s favourite pastimes is a game of Othello, and she’s become an expert at the classic board game, often beating rest-home staff.”

When officials from Guinness World Records visited her to present her the certificate of the oldest person alive in January 2019, she was given a box of chocolates, “which she immediately opened and started eating”.

Gerontology Wiki, a blog about the world’s documented supercentenarians, says Tanaka’s favourite foods include chocolate and pop beverages.

“She loves to write poetry and she can still remember her trips to the United States. She attributes her longevity to her faith in God,” the blog notes.

Guinness World Records says Tanaka has had several operations, including one for cataracts and another for colorectal cancer, but she is still going strong.

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AMERICAN CENTENARIAN: You’ll live long if you don’t marry

Having a spouse is considered a ticket to bliss and an assurance of a shoulder to lean on, but Louise Signore thinks it shortens your life.

As the American woman celebrated her 107th birthday in July 2019, she told CBS New York that she could not have lived that long had she been married.

“I never got married. I think that’s the secret. My sister says, ‘I wish I never got married,’” she told the publication.

She noted that she exercised and danced like married people, and so she believed she never missed out on anything couples did. “After my lunch, I would play bingo. So I had a full day,” she said.

But there appeared to be a matter of genetics at play because Signore’s younger sister, who had married earlier, was 102 years old then.

Moi never remarried after parting ways with his wife, and Njonjo did not marry until he was 52.

Their stories often feature in discussions about the place of marriage in a man's life.

A number of studies have been done on marriage versus a person's lifespan, with varying results.

According to one study done on 100,000 persons across Europe that was released in 2006, “marriage helps husbands to an extra 1.7 years, but it knocks 1.4 years off the average wife’s lifespan”.

One of the factors singled out in the research headed by a German professor was that marriage brought on women the stress of balancing workplace responsibilities with their home-keeping requirements.

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THE PERSON WHO LIVED LONGEST: Being so wealthy as to not need a job could have been a factor

The person listed by Guinness World Records as having lived the longest and with verifiable birth records is Jeanne Louise Calment, a Frenchwoman who was 122 years and 164 days old when she died in 1997.

“She was born on February 21, 1875, around 14 years before the Eiffel Tower was constructed,” says a post on the GWR website.

One of the distinct features in her life story is that she was married to a wealthy distant cousin and as such, she did not have to work for a living.

“That may have played a part in her extraordinary longevity. She was free to swim, play tennis, cycle (she was still cycling until the age of 100) and roller-skate, all of which promoted excellent good health,” the post on GWR adds.

Diet was also a key point in Louise’s life. “Her diet was good, too, rich in olive oil (which she also rubbed into her skin), and she restricted herself to a modest glass of wine every now and then. But she also had a sweet tooth, with a particular fondness for chocolate. She ate almost 1kg of it each week,” says GWR.

“And she loved her cigarettes. Jeanne had smoked from the age of 21 and only quit when she was 117. She was able to walk on her own until she was one month before her 115th birthday, when she fell and fractured her femur. Thereafter, she needed a wheelchair to get around,” it adds.

Louise is also said to have had a tranquil state of mind and with a great sense of humour.

She is quoted to have said: “If you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it.”

With that attitude, Louise lived to exceed the scientifically set limit of human longevity and to set an age record that has not been broken for 23 years.

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