Is it the number of vitamins you pop, the hours you spend in the gym, the super genes that have been passed down to you or the medical treatment you can afford? Audrey Vijaindren finds out what it takes to live long
MORE than 10 years ago,
Malaysian women were not expected to make it to the age of 75 and men were unlikely to celebrate their 71st birthday.
However, the 2010 National Population and Housing Census revealed that the average life expectancy of Malaysians has increased to 75 years (77 years for women and 71.9 years for men), with 27,278 surviving beyond 99 years.
The census also reported that the number of women in this age group slightly outnumbered the men — 14,191 females compared with 13,807 males. Of these centenarians, 16,438 are Malays, 7,155 Chinese, 2,109 Indians and 1,576 others.
Although it’s been long suspected that genetics play a major role in longevity, all’s not lost for those whose family tree doesn’t include any members over the age of 70. Scientists theorise that less than 25 per cent of our survival is determined by our genes while 75 per cent depends on the daily lifestyle choices we make.
Malaysian Healthy Ageing Society president and organising chairman of the First World Congress on Healthy Ageing 2012 associate professor Nathan Vytialingam says although many people think they can live longer by eating certain foods, following fad diets and exercising, it’s actually about creating your own wholesome environment. “When we talk about living longer, there’s no one particular contributing factor. It’s about creating the best environment, including keeping the air fresh and water pure,” Vytialingam says.
“People may argue that advancement in medical technology, including better screening and affordable healthcare, is the main contributing factor to longer life expectancy.
“But when you study the lives of people in Okinawa, Japan, one of the world’s Blue Zones, it’s not about having regular medical check-ups. Their longevity is a result of eating lots of fish, drinking mugwort sake, remaining active and honouring the elderly.”
Blue Zones are places in the world where people live longer and healthier than anywhere else on earth. More than just living longer, people in these Blue Zones are living without medication or disability. National Geographic journalist Dan Buettner has identified five Blue Zones during more than five years of on-site investigation in Italy, Japan, the United States, Costa Rica and Greece.
Buettner discovers that sheepherders in Sardinia, Italy, spend much of their time walking and inhabitants often drink red wines rich in polyphenols, antioxidants that help slow the ageing process. Japan’s Okinawans drink mugwort sake, remain active and honour the elderly. Costa Ricans on the Nicoya Peninsula make a living as farmers and also drink lots of red wine. In Loma Linda, California, there’s a large population of Seventh-day Adventists who have developed a close community and keep strict diets.
There are many theories as to how one can live longer; the dynamics of good relationships with family and friends is one of them. Studies carried out among the elderly people in Hong Kong have shown that looking at old photographs and talking about the past are beneficial in increasing quality of life. “It has also been proven that when the older generation does not socialise, depression and loneliness set in, leading to poor quality of life and shorter life span,” says Vytialingam.
He believes the worst advice to give the elderly is to slow down. “People often say that you should slow down as you grow older. But if you don’t do anything, you start to deteriorate.”
He adds that having a cut-off age for retirement is dangerous because many people can’t distinguish between retiring from work and retiring from life. “And, why should we tell the elderly to slow down? After all, most world renowned leaders are above the age of 60. In the past, the routine of life was to go to school, attend university, get a job, settle down and have kids. But, today, that has completely changed. “There’s no such thing as compartmentalising one’s life. You don’t have to wait until you’re 55 to say, ‘what do I do next?’
“Similarly, you can’t afford to wait until you reach 50 to say ‘I’m going to start eating right’. You need to take small steps from now. Start with one aspect like exercising, and take it further by eating more vegetables. It’s a process, if you try four or five things at once, it won’t work.”
Being mentally stimulated, Vytialingam stresses, is important in increasing one’s life span. “Even simple things like playing card games and reading can help keep your mind sharp and alert. Some people assume watching television helps, but your mind can still wander, so the black box might not be the solution.
“It’s best to do what makes you happy. If you feel that you have the energy to help the younger generation, volunteerism may give you purpose in life. It has been shown to enrich people in their later stages of life.”
Finance also plays a role in longevity. “It’s vital to realise the importance of insurance when you are young. Being able to pay for your medical needs and have extra to travel and visit places because you’re financially free in your golden years will give you purpose in life and promote longevity,” says Vytialingam.
He concludes that Malaysia has the potential of becoming a Blue Zone if only the people change their mindset and take responsibility for their choices.