Thursday 23 May 2019

Unravelling the mystery of ageing: Why is it that some people are hale and hearty into their eighties and beyond?

Why is it that some people are hale and hearty into their eighties and beyond? In the first part of a series on positive ageing, John Meagher explores how its mysteries are being unravelled

Esther O’Driscoll, who turns 92 in April, is part of a local exercise group
Photo: Bryan Meade
Esther O’Driscoll, who turns 92 in April, is part of a local exercise group Photo: Bryan Meade
John Meagher

John Meagher

Roseto is a small town in Pennsylvania and in the middle years of the 20th century, it was seen as an outlier in the United States. People lived much longer lives there, cardiovascular disease was rare, degenerative illnesses that were common elsewhere were virtually non-existent in Roseto. So what was its secret?

The physician, Dr Stewart Wolf, spent years trying to find out and after he stripped away the layers that made it look like every other minor town in the country, he found one essential difference: the incredible sense of community and camaraderie in the town made it different to anywhere else.

Professor Rose Anne Kenny of Trinity College Dublin’s Medical Gerontology Department, the country’s leading authority on ageing and long life, has been intrigued by Roseto’s story for years. “The Secret of Roseto, as Dr Wolf wrote, is Roseto itself,” she says, “and it’s a reminder of the incredible power of companionship and community and being busy and active. There were a huge amount of social clubs and activities there. There was always something to do and people to meet.”

Prof Kenny, the founder of the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), says people who shun isolation and loneliness and seek out the company of others stand a stronger chance of living a long, happy life.

“Social engagement is as important for brain health and dementia,” she says. Prof Kenny is struck by the large proportion of superagers she meets who embrace life and its possibilities, and cherish the company of others. It’s a sentiment echoed by Alex Fegan, a documentary filmmaker whose acclaimed 2015 film, Older Than Ireland, offered the stories of scores of people all aged 100 or more.

“They were all their own individual people,” he says. “They weren’t all optimistic, or all fit and healthy. They came from different backgrounds. Some were overweight, but the one thread that was there was their willingness to engage with the outside world. We got very few nos when we went looking to speak to them — they wanted to tell their stories.

“There was one man in particular and there was an air of melancholy to him, some hard things had happened in his life, but I was struck by how much he engaged with those around him. He liked playing bridge, he liked meeting people for lunch.”

The biggest fear, Fegan notes, was loneliness. “They were instinctively aware that loneliness is a bad thing and they wanted to avoid it at all costs.”

Ninety-one-year-old Esther O’Driscoll barely knows what loneliness is. She is part of the THE HomeShare — a much lauded scheme  in which a young home-seeker lives with an older person. Mrs O’Driscoll shares her south Dublin home with a young Italian professional, AnnaLisa, and she says there’s never a dull moment, quipping that the younger woman sometimes talks to much. “But I’m never lonely,” she says. “It’s lovely to know that there’s somebody in the house with me at night.”

She turns 92 in April and says she is in fine health. “I lived a good, physical life,” she says. “I had eight children. I was active all the time and I remember there was so much cooking to do. I’d go to bed for a lie-down after lunch, but that did me good.”

It wasn’t all plain-sailing, though. She suffered tuberculosis in her teen years and she had to cope with the premature death of her husband John when she was 56. Her youngest daughter was still at school at the time.

“I smoked like billy-o when I was younger,” she says, “but when John died, I gave them up. Everybody smoked then — you were odd if you didn’t smoke. I’d drink very seldom now, maybe for a special occasion, but I really enjoy a glass of wine.”

She says she always tried to eat food that was as healthy as possible and made fruit and vegetables key planks of her diet. She is also part of a local exercise group for senior citizens. “I feel renewed when I go there,” she says, “although I don’t get on the floor [for stretching exercises] any more.”

Prof Kenny says genes play a part in achieving a long life but “environmental conditions and behaviour are much more important [than genes]”.

She points out that while statistics show that one in every two children born today will likely live to 100 or older, those that suffer from childhood obesity have a far slimmer chance of making it to that milestone age. “The more educated you are, the more likely you are to live a longer, healthy life and to have less disability at the end of life, and you’re more likely to have that education if you come from a higher socio-economic background.”

Prof Kenny acknowledges there’s hugely conflicting advice when it comes to the best food to put into our bodies but believes the ‘Mediterranean diet’ offers an excellent rule of thumb. “No studies have shown that it doesn’t work,” she says. “Olive oil, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, nuts, lots of fish, low in red meat… there’s no question about that. The one that seems to vary is alcohol — we get polar opposite reports on alcohol. It’s a given that alcohol-excess is a no no. The message should be ‘in moderation’ and if you can do it ‘in moderation’ in company, then it’s really good for you.”

She believes there are steps all of us can take to give us a fighting chance to live a long, healthy life. “We have to actively stop being so sedentary and get moving around.”

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