Demystifying the Secrets of Supercentenarians

The oldest and well-documented, Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment

FEATURE STORY

Living beyond 100 years of age is an aspirational goal for everyone; but living one’s ultra golden years and still enjoying it, as very elderly people 20 to 30 years their junior, is a bigger challenge

By Ma. Socorro Endrina-Ignacio, RND, DRPH*


A supercentenarian is someone who has lived to or surpassed her/his 110th birthday. Anderson et al, concluded that super-centenarians live a life typically free of major age-related diseases (or healthy by World Health Organization definition) until shortly before maximum human lifespan is reached.

Another research by Perl et al showed that although old age is a risk factor for most chronic illnesses, once people live beyond 100, the risk is apparently less for age-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease, dementia and stroke. The author added that they are more likely to remain physically and mentally sharp for a greater period of their lives than people who are 10, 20 or 30 years their junior.

The Jeanne Calment magic

Upon scanning the web for the list of supercentenarians, I came upon the oldest and well-documented, Frenchwoman named Jeanne Calment. She died in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days. Her longevity attracted attention from people from all walks of life particularly those in the science field to look into her health and lifestyle practices. Media started to write about this so called, “Calment” magic.

Let me share some of them and as I do this, I will try to add some facts and evidences on the merits of the lifestyle and dietary habits and practices in the hope of rationalizing their impact on prolonging life.

Calment reportedly ascribed her longevity and youthful appearance for her age to a diet rich in olive oil. All her life she took care of her skin with olive oil and a puff of powder.

Calment reportedly ascribed her longevity and youthful
appearance for her age to a diet rich in olive oil

Olive oil-rich diet

Let us analyze what olive oil is and its nutritional and health benefits. Olive oil is the natural oil extracted from olives, the fruit of olive tree. About 14 percent of the oils are saturated fat, whereas 11 percent is polyunsaturated, such as omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. The predominant fatty acid in olive oil is monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, making up 73 percent of its total oil content. Studies have shown that oleic acid reduces inflammation and may even have beneficial effect on genes linked to cancer. Other studies have shown that olive oil is loaded with powerful antioxidants, Vitamin E and K. These nutrients have been found to reduce one’s risk to chronic diseases and heart disease because they protect the blood cholesterol from oxidation.

Calm temperament

Calment said that most of the time is calm and cool. In one interview she said, that her calmness was attributed to how people call her by her last name, Calment.

Calment recalled that even as a young child, she has never been ill, never ever. This means she really had an excellent immune system.

Calment married at the age of 21 and because of her husband’s wealth; she shared that she enjoyed a comfortable life. She never experienced working in order to earn. Generally, she led a stressfree life.

Stress, even short-lived and minor, can have an impact on one’s health. Chronic stress causes wear and tear in one’s body. Chronic stress may also cause disease, either because of changes in in the body, which may include: overeating, smoking and other bad habits that people use to cope with stress. Other forms of chronic stress, such as depression and low levels of social support, have also been implicated in increased cardiovascular risk. Multiple studies have shown that these sudden emotional stresses — especially anger — can trigger heart attacks, arrhythmias and even sudden death. On the other hand, a stress-free life has a lot of benefits and these include: lower blood pressure, better immune system (example less likely to catch cold), increases memory, less likely to have a stroke, less likely to suffer from depression, allows one to think clearly and allows one to have a healthy weight when not engaged in stress eating.

Calment is a very active person. As a matter of fact, she continued cycling until her hundredth birthday

Physical activity

Calment added that she is a very active person. As a matter of fact, she continued cycling until her hundredth birthday. Around this time, she met an accident and fractured her leg but recovered quickly and was able to walk again and completely unassisted.

In 1985, Calment (at age 109) was admitted in a nursing home. She narrated having been subjected to a highly ritualized daily routine and because of this she said she felt weaker. To address this feeling of having reduced activity and mobility, she requested to be awakened every morning at 6:45 am and started her day with a long prayer at her window thanking God for being alive and for the beautiful day.

While seating in her armchair she did gymnastics wearing her stereo headset. Her exercises included flexing and extending the hands then the legs. Stretching has a lot of benefits which include; increasing blood flow to the muscles, calms one’s mind, the best stress reliever, and increases flexibility and physical activity.

Regular meals

Her breakfast consisted of coffee with milk and rusks. Rusk is a hard, dry biscuit or twice-baked bread. Rusks were originally cooked in a twofold process: first baked, and then dried out in a slow oven. In the United Kingdom, the name also refers to a wheat-based product. Rusks are sources of fiber.

She enjoyed braised beef for her protein source but was not keen on boiled fish. Red meat contains all the amino acids necessary to build muscle and repair tissue. Muscle mass is essential because they provide an individual with the ability to be physically active and to produce enzymes and hormones that help prevent illness. In addition to protein, red meat also provides iron, an important mineral that regulates blood production. Iron is important in the production of hemoglobin that is responsible for transferring the blood from the lungs to the different tissues. Zinc is another important mineral supplied by red meat. Zinc is responsible for building body’s immune system. Red meat is also a good source of B-vitamins which are essential in metabolism particularly the conversion of certain nutrients into energy and for the proper functioning of the brain and nerve cells (Null, Gary. The Complete Guide to Health and Nutrition 1986).

She had dessert with every meal. Everyday her dessert is comprised of fresh fruit salad with bananas and oranges. Bananas are known to contain good sources of vitamin C, manganese and potassium while orange are good sources of vitamin C and other nutrients such as thiamin, folate and potassium as well which are proven to promote healthy immune system, prevent skin damage, keeps blood pressure under check, lowers cholesterol, controls blood sugar levels and lowers the risk of cancer and found to lower the ischemic stroke risks among women.

Chocolates, occasional cigar and power naps

She enjoyed chocolate, sometimes indulging in a kg or 2.2 lbs. per week. Chocolates are good sources of antioxidants. Studies have shown that chocolates improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, raise HDL and protect LDL from oxidation, may reduce heart disease and may protect skin from the harsh effect of the sun.

After meals, she smoked a cigar (she smoked a little until she was 115 years old) and drank a small amount of Port wine every day. Port wine (also known as vino do Porto), is a Portuguese fortified wine produced with distilled grape spirits exclusively in the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. It is typically a sweet, red wine, often served as a dessert wine, though it also comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties.

In the afternoon, she would take a nap for two hours in her armchair. Sleep experts have found that daytime naps can improve many things: increase alertness, boost creativity, reduce stress, improve perception, stamina, motor skills and accuracy, reduces risk of heart attack and brighten moods and boost memory

After taking a power nap, Calment visit her neighbors in the care home, telling them about the latest news she had heard over the radio. This is a good exercise for the brain. Studies have shown that this practice provide relief from boredom. Alleviates symptoms of depression and helps cope with aging, it also reassert the persons feeling of importance, increased self-worth and sense of belonging in the world.

Calment enjoyed chocolate. After meals, she smoked a cigar and drank a small amount of Port wine every day

Music and good night sleep

At nightfall, she would dine quickly, return to her room, listen to music (her poor eye sight prevents her from her crossroad pastime), smoke a last cigarette and go to bed at 10 pm. Calment observes 8 hours of sleep. We are all aware of the benefits of adequate time of sleep. Research shows that consistently getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night is beneficial for adults. Any more or less can increase your risk for serious conditions like diabetes mellitus, heart disease, and even death. Getting enough quality sleep is also key to a healthy lifestyle.

Religion

On Sundays she went to mass and on Fridays to vespers, also called Evening Prayer, takes place as dusk begins to fall. Evening prayer gives thanks for the day just past and makes an evening sacrifice of praise to God. She regularly conversed with priests and deacons and sought help from God but expressed skepticism about an afterlife. But nonetheless, she is a person who loves to pray.

In a study on upper limit of human longevity which is 115 years old, done by several researchers compared Calment with nearly 20 people worldwide who had been verified to have reached at least 115 years of age.

The common traits they recorded included the following: Most of them are women, only two were males.

1. Most smoked a little or not at all
2. They have never been obese
3. Exhibited strong characters, but not all have domineering personalities

Of course, one’s destiny to be a potential centenarian will also be determined by her/his DNA, upbringing and temperament, as well as how physically active and sociable one is. Place of residence, particularly the climate where one live can be a factor, as well as the quality and standard of healthcare available. In addition, factors such as how relaxed one is relative to timekeeping and being able to take power naps and involvement in religious activities is considered contributors to longevity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Ma. Socorro Endrina-Ignacio is an associate professor in the College of Public Health-UP Manila, Department of Nutrition. She is currently the 1st vice-president of the Philippine Association of Nutrition and overall convention chair of the 72nd Annual Convention with the theme, Nutrition and Physical Activity Towards Longevity. Contact: meignacio1@up.edu.ph

“Most smoked a little or not at all, have never been obese, and exhibited strong characters; but not all have domineering personalities”

References

https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=who+defintion+of+health. Accessed in May
2019.https://www.mheducation.co.uk/openup/chapters/033520872X.pdf. Accessed in May 2019.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3510428. Accessed in May 2019
https://www.healthline.com/health/benefits-of-stretching#benefits. Accessed in May 2019.
https://www.supercentenarian.com/oldest/jeanne-calment.html. Accessed in May 2019
https://www.waldenu.edu/online-bachelors-programs/bs-in-psychology/resource/five-mentalbenefits-of-exercise. Accessed in May 2019
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_wine. Accessed in May 2019.
Null, Gary. The Complete Guide to Health and Nutrition 1986

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