Is There A Silver Bullet For Healthy Longevity?
Diet. Good genes. Staying active. Researchers are hard at work trying to pinpoint what really contributes to healthy longevity. But is there really one silver bullet?
I assume it is a matter of good genes.
When Hazel McCallion, the legendary 95-year-old former mayor of Mississauga, Ont., came by to talk about ageism, I asked her the obligatory question: “What is your secret?”
The answer, as it often does, sounded almost banal. It came down to a healthy lifestyle—eating right, staying active and engaged, having a purpose and a good attitude. To my mind, all those things are a given for anyone to reach a great age without any physical impairment. But they don’t explain why so many people who live equally well don’t attain that—which is why I am of the opinion that you need nature on top of nurture.
But Hazel is doubtful that genes have anything to do with her unflagging vitality. “My mother lived to 79, but my dad died at 55,” she told me. The first factor she credited when we talked was independence—that and hard work. “Being a Depression kid, I had to leave home early to go to school, then I had to go to work.”
Next on her list, though, was food. She grew up on a farm on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. “I think organic food…we had all the best vegetables and things to eat. I drank unpasteurized milk, ate a lot of fish, and we had our own chickens and cows,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what a hamburger looked like until I hit Montreal.”
There is vast amount of research on the role of food in keeping us healthy or making us sick. Dr. Michael Greger maintains an exhaustive website (www.nutritionfacts.org) which distills all the latest science on the subject. He is a physician, best-selling author and prolific speaker who has made the rounds of the biggest American talk shows and conferences, popularizing the notion of food as medicine.
The Wellderly Study in the United States has followed 1,400 people aged 80 to 105 who have never developed any chronic medical conditions or diseases, including cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and heart attack. After eight years, researchers at the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, Calif., found some rare genes that protect against mental decline and a lower risk for coronary artery disease.
However, they did not detect any difference from the rest of the population in the risk for cancer, stroke or Type 2 diabetes. “We didn’t find a silver bullet for healthy longevity,” said study co-author Ali Torkamani. A similar Canadian project, the Super-Seniors Study, was launched last year, and perhaps it will unlock more of the mystery.
In the meantime, Hazel McCallion is extremely active with a portfolio of part-time jobs and community work. She drives, lives on her own and does all of the housework and gardening herself. She isn’t even on any prescription medication at her age. “I’ve been fortunate, I’ve had good health all my life,” she told me. “Thank God for that.”