Want to live a hundred years? Rrishi Raote tells you how
The angels don't know my address, is what Teja Singh used to say, when asked the secret of his longevity. The tall, thin, ramrod-straight former armyman died late last year at the age of 102. The memory of his unfailing good humour, warmth and curiosity burns strong in his family members — his 38-year-old granddaughter breaks into laughter again and again as she describes her grandfather.
Teja Singh was lucid and responsive until the last few days of his life. It might be said that he was exceptionally lucky in the lottery of life to have lived so long and so well — and indeed, science is showing that while a healthy and moderate lifestyle does go a long way, the determining factors in human longevity are mostly genetic. You either have the genes, or biology is against you. As Khushwant Singh wrote soon after his 90th birthday, “I have no right to boast as I owe my longevity more to my parents than to myself. My father lived to 90, my mother to 94.”
Notwithstanding this, people advocate various long-life formulas. “The secret is amla,” one will say, referring to the sour Indian gooseberry which does offer a range of health benefits. Eat less sugar and salt, another will say, or eat less altogether. Bathe in cold water whatever the season, says a third. Bathe in warm water, says a fourth. Have a teaspoonful of raw crushed garlic every morning, says a fifth. Be easygoing and don’t stress, say most, and keep your family and friends close about you.
None of this is bad advice (except, possibly, for cold water baths in winter). If you live reasonably well and stay healthy, living into your 80s is perfectly possible. Gerontologists, experts in old age health, point out that what keeps your heart healthy, in terms of diet and lifestyle, is also likely to help you age well. Breaking through into the mid-90s and beyond is, however, rare — according to the UN, there were just 135,000 centenarians in the world in 1998. In 2050, it projects that India alone will have 111,000. Average life expectancy in India in 2009 was 64 years, according to Unicef, up from just over 40 in 1960.
Teams of scientists around the world are researching human ageing. The process is still not well understood, and ways to slow it are, so far, within the realm of the speculative, while reversing it is as yet impossible. What recent research has discovered, however, is some of the genetic factors at play in what scientists now call “expert survivors.”
In 2008, a study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York indicated that short women are likelier to live longer. A gene found to be linked to living beyond 90 was also linked to stature in women. In 2009, researchers at the same college found that centenarians disproportionately inherit a hyperactive enzyme that repairs telomeres, which act as caps at the ends of human DNA chromosomes and prevent them from degrading. People who live long have longer telomeres. At Boston University in 2010, researchers found that in centenarians, the normal disabilities of age, such as dementia, occur later than in other people. The reason, they said, is that expert survivors usually have 19 particular clusters of genes, or “genetic signatures.” The researchers found that these signatures trumped even genes that predispose other people to various diseases.
Other lines of inquiry relate to environment — physical, social, intellectual. Happiness, according to a 2010 study at Iowa State University, is a predictor of long life. But happiness for these researches is not nebulous, it has to do with an old person's satisfaction with the life he has lived. “Life satisfaction” trumps even social support, financial security and perceived health. Continued intellectual activity is crucial. Teja Singh loved to read, and wrote short stories without spectacles (he washed his eyes daily with water in which triphala, a type of amla had been soaked).
Shinjini Chatterjee's grandfather also died last year at 102, and members of her family regularly live into their 90s. She has researched issues relating to the elderly in India, and points out that often, it is a hard life which produces the stubborn survivors. Her own family experienced Partition in Bengal. “The Partition refugees had to move again and again,” she says. “They battled a lot of things. They were married at 14-15, some had 14 babies, difficult lives. So they tend to take the challenges of old age in their stride.”
More women live past 100 than men - five or six times as many. Chatterjee offers a partial explanation. Her grandmother is 97. “Through the 20 years that I’ve seen them [both] growing quite old, I’ve seen that my grandmother has remained far more healthy, in touch with everybody.” Indian women, she postulates, are accustomed to a degree of powerlessness, and the stages of their lives are not so abruptly marked as those of men — especially with regard to the great break of retirement — so they adapt better.
Perhaps the most famous Indian centenarian — after writer Nirad C Chaudhuri, who died in 1999 aged 101, and perhaps Surdas, the medieval saint and poet — is Fauja Singh, who turns 100 on April 1. He is a record-holding marathoner who started running in his late 80s when he moved to London from rural Punjab. He has run over half a dozen marathons around the world. Lately he has downshifted to half-marathons only. Chandigarh-based author Khushwant Ahluwalia has written an authorised biography of Singh which will be released in London on May 1. “He has recognised what makes him tick,” Ahluwalia says. “He is very clear that his key to longevity is to ‘keep his lips sealed’ —he won’t eat much. He says more people die of overeating than of hunger. Then there is his spirit: all his money goes to charity [for premature babies, which made for a good tag line, ‘The oldest running for the youngest’]. He is a total illiterate, an illustration of the Punjabi attitude to life. He abuses left, right and centre in Punjabi. He’s a peasant, a farmer at heart. He's very close to his family, walks 10 km a day, and you interview him by walking alongside.”
Fauja Singh is the perfect centenarian.