Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Longevity in Abkhasia

The following are excerpts from the book, "Healthy At 100", by John Robbins, 2006. I was struck by how long people from Abkhasia live, and by how vigorous and healthy they remain throughout their lives. And, of course, I wondered what they ate.

"Certainly no area of the world," Leaf wrote, "has the reputation for long-lived people to match that of the Caucasus in southern Russia."
- Dr. Alexander Leaf, professor of clinical medicine at Harvard University, Chief of Medical Services at Massachusetts General Hospital. Writing for National Geographic in 1973.

"[Leaf] wrote of one elder, nearly 100, whose hearing was still good and whose vision was still superb.
"Have you ever been sick?" Leaf asked.
The elder thought for some time, then replied, "Yes, I recall once having a fever, a long time ago."
"Do you ever see a doctor?"
The old man was surprised by the question, and replied, "Why should I?"
Leaf examined him and found his blood pressure to be normal at 118/60 and his pulse to be regular at 70 beats per minute."

"The average cholesterol level among Abkhasian centenarians is 98."1
The biologist and historian Zhores Medvedev published a series of articles in The Gerontologist after Leaf's articles appeared in National Geographic. They questioned the validity of the ages claimed by some Abkhasians, however:
"[Medvedev] recognized that unusual longevity in the region was a genuine reality, and that the area was indeed home to an inordinate number of extremely healthy elders."

One Factor Stands Out

Dr. Sula Benet, anthropologist and author of "Abkhasians: The Long-Living People of the Caucasus", lists a number of reasons for Abkhasians' remarkable health and longevity. One she highlighted:
"In Abkhasia, a person's status increases with age, and he or she receives ever more privileges with the passing years. ... Elders who are poor and known only to their families have greater social standing in Abkhasian society than someone who may have become rich and famous but is not yet an elder.

"When one US researcher explained to a group of Abkhasians that in the wealthy United States, old people are sometimes left homeless and hungry, he was met with total disbelief. Nothing he said could overcome their inability to grasp such a reality."

"In Abkhasia, people are esteemed and seen as beautiful in their old age. Silver hair and wrinkles are viewed as signs of wisdom, maturity, and long years of service. ... It would be considered an insult to be told you are "looking young" or that the years have barely changed you. ... When older people lie about their age, they do not give a younger age, as is common in the West. Instead, they exaggerate how old they are, for this gives them greater standing in their culture."

What Do Abkhasians Eat?

The following are quotations from "Healthy At 100":
  • The traditional Abkhasian diet is essentially lacto-vegetarian, with a rare serving of meat.
  • Abkhasians usually begin breakfast with vegetables [watercress, green onions, radishes in spring; tomatoes, cucumbers in summer and fall; pickled cucumber, tomatoes, radishes, cabbage, onion in winter]. No dressings are used.
  • They drink one or two glasses a day of a fermented beverage called 'matzoni', made from the milk of goats, cows, or sheep.
  • At all three meals, the people eat their "beloved abista", a cornmeal porridge, always freshly cooked and served warm.
  • If they get hungry between meals, Abkhasians typically eat fruit in season from their own orchard or garden. ... Cherries and apricots in the spring. Throughout the summer there are pears, plums, peaches, figs, and many kinds of berries. In the fall there are grapes and persimmons, as well as apples and pears. Fruit that is not eaten fresh is stored or dried for winter use.
  • With rare exception, vegetables are eaten raw.
  • Freshness of food is considered paramount.
  • Nuts [almonds, pecans, beechnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts] play a major role in Abkhasian cuisine and are the primary source of fat in the Abkhasian diet. Virtually every meal contains nuts.
  • Abkhasians eat relatively little meat. ... Even then, the fat of the meat or poultry is never used. ... The Abkhasians do not care at all for fatty dishes.
  • Abkhasians also consume no sugar, little salt, and almost no butter.
  • Most Abkhasians consume less than 2000 calories a day. ... Overeating is considered both socially inappropriate and dangerous.
  • Abkhasians are universally very strong and slender people, with no excess fat on their bodies. They eat slowly and chew thoroughly.

I left out the part about their high level of physical activity, but according to Gary Taubes, increased activity does not help manage weight, it only results in increased intake. A controversial stand.

Is it a case of good genes alone? Is their longevity owing singularly to long-living genes? I don't think so. If that were true, what would justify emulating any person's or group's behaviors?

The photographs are from the University of California at Irvine, School of Social Sciences: Abkhasians. The site offers additional commentary on Abkhasian culture, geography, history, and other characteristics. A good read!

One bit of trivia ... in the 1970s, the Dannon yogurt company, in an attempt to "connect the phenomenal longevity of people in the region to their consumption of yogurt", had a successful marketing campaign "showing a 110-year-old mother pinching the cheek of her 89-year-old son and telling him to eat his yogurt." Yogurt sales took off, and is one reason why today supermarket shelves are laden with it (even though Abkhasians drink something more akin to buttermilk).
1 Cholesterol levels should be interpreted relative to age. A low cholesterol in an 85-year-old may not signal the same level of health as a low-cholesterol in a 55-year-old.


Anonymous said...

Thank you amazing blog, do you have twitter, facebook or something similar where i can follow your blog

Sandro Heckler

Bix said...

Hi Sandro.

I do have accounts there but I don't use them very much.

Thanks for pointing to this post. Interesting to reread about them.