Survive To A Hundred And Five

Get ready for the latest longevity fad, but be warned. It’s not an easy fix like cutting back on carbs or drinking red wine. It requires throwing modernity overboard. It’s not exactly the paleo diet, but it is the village-o lifestyle.

According to research reported in The Wall Street Journal (For Long Life, It Takes A Village, May 23-24), scientists looked into a number of place where an unusually high percentage of people reached 100-years-of-age, five times the average in everyday America.

They were small, relatively isolated, relatively backward villages in Sardinia, Okinawa, Greece, Costa Rica and a pocket of American Seventh Day Adventists. The first thought was that a genetic predisposition to long life was at work, but testing revealed little difference in the prevalence of markers associated with cancer and cardiovascular disease for these villages compared with anywhere else.

Attention turned to diet and lifestyle. Here it appeared the reason people in more advanced, affluent circumstances died like flies was modernity itself. Our cars, our cities and suburbs, our jobs, lifestyles, diet and our tweeting, texting 24/7 pace are killing us.

The villagers have diets that are 65% complex carbohydrates. A lot of fruits and vegetables, sweet potatoes, squash and corn. They eat meat only about five times a month, not five times a day. And the researchers found “the cornerstone of every long life diet in the world was the humble bean.” They provide more protein, more economically than beef and lots of added fiber.

The long-lived villagers also had few laborsaving devices. To make bread, the Sardinians kneaded dough for 45 minutes, a real workout. To eat a salad, they had to grow the ingredients which entailed a lot of hoeing. Instead of driving a machine to the grocery or the farmer’s market, to work or to the multiplex, they walked to visit friends, to go to dinner, to seek out entertainment. Every 20 minutes, just by virtue of the way they lived, they got some exercise.

The researchers also found that family was at the center of village life. Most had no Social Security or Medicare, but felt secure in the knowledge that children, cousins, brothers and sisters would look out for them. They either lived with their relations or saw each other every day for communal activities, for meals and recreation. The Sardinian women cooked together. The men made wine and played dominos.

My grandmother, who lived to 96, lived in a similar fashion. She washed the clothes using an old-fashioned wringer washer and then hung them on the line out back, folded them or ironed them. She cooked every meal we ate and rolled her handmade dough for pie crust. She was often down on her knees or up a ladder cleaning.

When I looked into our family genealogy, I was struck to discover that ancestors way back in the early 19th century were regularly reaching their Biblical three-score-and-ten and beyond. They were farmers, blacksmiths, tanners, animal breeders. By and large they did manual labors outdoors. Forty of fifty years later, our people were living in urban places, working inside steel mills, axe factories and textile mills. A higher percentage of them were also dying in their forties and fifties. They still did hard manual labor, but lived in a more uncertain, stressful, dangerous environment. Some of their mortality was surely due to pollution, some to diseases of urban crowding like tuberculosis.

Today, few of us work around blast furnaces or live in crowded tenements, but it looks like the disconnected lives of the daily commute, the hastily consumed Big Mac and the sedentary days in front of computer and TV screen may be even more deadly than the satanic mills.

When the robots take over all labor, we’d be well-advised to retire to tiny villages where we all know each of our neighbors, eat copious amounts of beans we grow ourselves, walk everywhere to play Bocce, weed the communal garden and gossip. It turns out the Whole Earth Catalog, back-to-the-land hippies of the 1960s were right. So was Genesis, of course. It really is good for you to earn your bread by the sweat of your brow.

And yet, the skeptic in me thinks of other villages like those described. Lots of manual labor, no polluting industry, few modern conveniences dense family connections, plenty of Cannellini or red beans, yet they were Michael Corleone’s home village in Sicily and that of the Hatfields and McCoys along the West Virginia-Kentucky border. Longevity was not the long suit of either. Though you think you’ve discovered the secret of existence, life just keeps pitching curves.

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