آبخازیا - مردمان قدیم قفقاز

کتاب: سلامتی در 100 سالگی / فصل 1

آبخازیا - مردمان قدیم قفقاز

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Introduction

Every young man,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, “believes he will live forever.” And the same could be said for every young woman. But whatever our beliefs and thoughts about life, there remains an undeniable and ever-present fact: We are, each and every one of us, growing older.

This is true in every country and among every people throughout the world, but the way different cultures have responded to this reality has varied widely.

For many of us in the industrialized world today, our aging is a source of grief and anxiety. We fear aging. The elderly people we see are for the most part increasingly senile, frail, and unhappy. As a result, rather than looking forward to growing old, we dread each passing birthday. Rather than seeing our later years as a time of harvesting, growth, and maturity, we fear that the deterioration of our health will so greatly impair our lives that to live a long life might be more of a curse than a blessing.

When we think of being old, our images are often ones of decrepitude and despair. It seems more realistic to imagine ourselves languishing in nursing homes than to picture ourselves swimming, gardening, laughing with loved ones, and delighting in children and nature.

In 2005, the famed American author Hunter S. Thompson took his life. He was only sixty-seven, and had no incurable disease. He was wealthy and famous, and his thirty-two-year-old wife loved him. But according to the literary executor of Thompson’s will, “he made a conscious decision that he…wasn’t going to suffer the indignities of old age.” It doesn’t help to live in a society where there is so little respect for the elderly. Television shows and movies frequently portray older people as feeble, unproductive, grumpy, and stubborn. Advertisements selling everything from alcohol to cars feature beautiful young people, giving the impression that older people are irrelevant. Colloquialisms such as “geezer,” “old fogey,” “old maid,” “dirty old man,” and “old goat” demean the elderly and perpetuate a stereotype of older people as unworthy of consideration or positive regard.

Greeting card companies routinely sell birthday cards that mock the mobility, intellect, and sex drive of the no longer young. Novelty companies sell “Over-the-Hill” products such as fiftieth-birthday coffin gift boxes containing prune juice and a “decision maker to assist in planning daily activities” (a large six-sided die, with sides labeled “nap,” “TV,” “shopping,” etc.). Gifts for a man’s sixtieth birthday include a “lifetime supply” of condoms (one), Over-the-Hill bubble bath (canned beans), and “Old Fart” party hats.

We may chuckle at such humor, but negative stereotypes about aging are insidious. They attach a social stigma to aging that can affect your will to live and even shorten your life. In a study published by the American Psychological Association, Yale School of Public Health professor Becca Levy, Ph.D., concluded that even if you are not aware of them, negative thoughts about aging that you pick up from society can undermine your health and have destructive consequences.

In the study, a large number of middle-aged people were interviewed six times over the course of twenty years and asked whether they agreed with such statements as “As you get older, you are less useful.” Remarkably, the perceptions held by people about aging proved to have more impact on how long they would live than did their blood pressure, their cholesterol level, whether they smoked, or whether they exercised. Those people who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative images of growing older. Negative images not only lead to compromised health and shortened lives—they also are distressing in the present. Dr. Levy’s study found that people with negative perceptions of aging were more likely to consider their lives worthless, empty, and hopeless, while those with more positive perceptions of aging were more likely to view their lives as fulfilling and hopeful.

When we are disrespectful to older people and make them invisible, we attempt to ignore the aging process we are experiencing. We hide its signs and look away from the longer-term consequences of our lifestyles. As a result, we make lifestyle choices that may make sense in the short term but take a heavy toll in the end.

I asked a friend recently how he thought he might age. “I’ll probably end up in a nursing home somewhere,” he replied with some bitterness, “with a feeding tube in my nose, staring at the acoustic squares in the ceiling, incontinent, impotent, and impoverished.” Sadly, such views are not unusual. I’ve seen bumper stickers that say “Avenge Yourself: Live Long Enough to Become a Burden to Your Children.” When you distrust the aging process, it’s hard to imagine yourself enjoying your older years, doing things like dancing, jogging, or hiking. It can be difficult even to consider the possibility that you might, during every phase of your lifetime, have the capacity for growth, change, and creativity.

In the last hundred years we’ve added nearly thirty years to the average life expectancy in the industrialized world, but for many older adults the later years are not a time of happiness and well-being. A century ago, the average adult in Western nations spent only 1 percent of his or her life in a morbid or ill state, but today’s average modern adult spends more than 10 percent of his or her life sick. People are living longer today, but all too often they are dying longer, too—of chronic diseases that cause debility and cognitive impairment.

By 2025, the annual cost of managing chronic conditions in the United States will exceed a trillion dollars. Already, half of those age sixty-five and over have two or more chronic diseases, and a quarter have problems so severe as to limit their ability to perform one or more activities of daily living. Meanwhile, the average age of the chronically ill is continually getting younger. Throughout the industrialized world, people are living longer, but they are getting sick sooner, so the number of years they spend chronically ill is actually increasing in both directions.

Sometimes I think we have not so much prolonged our lives as prolonged our dying. While we have extended the human life span, we have not extended the human health span.

THE AGE WAVE

As our older people are getting less and less well, their numbers are growing, and this process is about to shift into hyperdrive. As author Ken Dychtwald has described in his seminal book Age Power, there are at this very moment approximately eighty million baby boomers in the United States barreling toward old age. (The term “baby boomer” generally refers to people born between 1945 and 1960.) In 1900, there were only 3 million people in the United States who were sixty-five or older. By 2000, the number had leaped to 33 million.

A century ago in the United States, the odds of living to the age of 100 were less than one in five hundred. Now the Census Bureau expects that one in twenty-six baby boomers will reach that age. Today, the likelihood that a twenty-year-old American will have a living grandmother (91 percent) is higher than the likelihood that a twenty-year-old in 1900 had a living mother (83 percent). This advancing age wave is the most significant demographic event of our lifetime, and it is taking place in every industrialized nation in the world. About half of all people who have ever lived past the age of sixty-five are alive today.

In Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Venezuela, the percentage of elderly persons in the population is projected to double between 2000 and 2025. China is expected to be home to 332 million oldsters by midcentury. That’s more elderly people in a single country than inhabited the entire planet as recently as 1990.

According to the United Nation’s Population Division, roughly 10 percent of the world’s 6.4 billion people are today over sixty. By 2050, 20 percent of the planet’s 10 billion human beings will be over sixty. By then there will be nearly 2 billion people in the world sixty years of age and older. This is a number roughly equal to one-third of the entire current global human population.

This increased longevity would be a blessing if it were accompanied by increased health and wisdom, but sadly it often is not. Close to half of all Americans over the age of eighty-five have Alzheimer’s disease. The toll taken by Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases on the old is increasing so much today that the average twenty-first-century American will likely spend more years caring for parents than for children.

By 2040, it is estimated that 5.5 million Americans—more than the entire current population of Denmark—will live in nursing homes. Another 12 million—equal to the combined populations of Israel, Singapore, and New Zealand—will require ongoing homecare services. Many will spend their final decades struggling with loneliness and depression.

Although modern medicine is eminently equipped to prolong life, it seems to be far less able to promote healthy aging. What good will it do us, asked a comedian in 2004, if at some point in the future, the human life span is extended to two hundred years, but the last hundred and fifty years are spent in unremitting pain and sadness?

An ancient Greek fable tells of Aurora, the beautiful goddess of the dawn, falling deeply in love with a human being—the warrior Tithonus. Distraught over his mortality, Aurora requests a special favor from Zeus, the supreme ruler of Mount Olympus and of the pantheon of gods who reside there. She begs Zeus to grant her lover eternal life.

Zeus, foreseeing trouble, asks her if she is certain that this is what she wants. “Yes,” she responds.

At first, Aurora is delighted that Zeus has granted her request. But then she realizes that she neglected to ask that Tithonus also remain eternally young and healthy. With each passing year, she looks on with horror as her lover grows older and sicker. His skin withers, his organs rot, his brain grows feeble. As the decades pass, Tithonus’s aging body becomes increasingly decrepit, yet he cannot die. Ultimately the once proud warrior is reduced to a wretched collection of painful, foul, and broken bones—but he continues to live forever.

Like Tithonus, ever more of us are living longer, but our added years are too often years of suffering and disability.

MORE LIFE, MORE HEALTH

It has been said that we can destroy ourselves with negativity just as effectively as with bombs. If we see only the worst in ourselves, it erodes our capacity to act. If, on the other hand, we are drawn forward by a positive vision of how we might live, we can shrug off the cynicism that has become fashionable today and build truly healthy lives.

It is extraordinarily important for us today to replace the prevailing image and reality of aging with a new vision—one in which we grasp the possibility of living all our days with exuberance and passion. There are few things of greater consequence today than for us to bring our lives into alignment with our true potential for health and our dreams for a better tomorrow.

It is a sad loss that our medical model has been so focused on illness rather than wellness. Until recently, there has been so much preoccupation with disease that little attention has been paid to the characteristics that enable people to lead long and healthy lives and to be energetic and independent in their elder years. As a result, few of us in the modern world are aware that there have been, and still are, entire cultures in which the majority of people live passionately and vibrantly to the end. Few of us realize that there are in fact societies of people who look forward to growing old, knowing they will be healthy, vital, and respected.

There are many people today who want to live in harmony with their bodies and the natural forces of life. You may be one of them. If so, it’s helpful to understand that you are not alone, and that you have elders from whom you can learn how to accomplish your goals. There are cultures whose ways have stood the test of time that can stand as teachers on the path of wellness and joy. There are whole populations of highly spirited, vigorous people who are healthy in their seventies, eighties, nineties, even healthy at a hundred. What’s more, they have a great deal in common, and their secrets have been corroborated and to a large extent explained by many of the latest findings in medical science. New research is showing that we have all the tools to live longer lives and to remain active, productive, and resourceful until the very end.

This is good and hopeful news. It offers us a much-needed paradigm of aging as a period of wisdom and vitality. Through these healthy cultures, we can find a compelling vision of how to mature with pleasure, dignity, purpose, and love. We are being shown that something precious is possible—a far brighter future in which aging is enjoyable and desirable. And we are being shown the practical steps we can take to achieve it.

Aging, of course, is not something that begins on your sixty-fifth birthday. Who you will become in your later years is shaped by all the choices you make, all the ways you care for yourself, how you manage your life, even how you think, from your earliest years, about your future. I have written Healthy at 100 because I have seen too many people grow old in agony and bitterness while others grow old with vitality and beauty, and I know it is possible to age with far more vigor, happiness, and inner peace than is the norm in the Western world today.

No one familiar with my earlier work will be surprised that I am interested in how our diets and exercise can help us to live long and healthy lives. But they may be surprised by some of my findings, including the great emphasis I am now placing on strong social connections. I have learned that the quality of the relationships we have with other people makes a tremendous difference to our physical as well as emotional health. Loneliness, I discovered in my research, can kill you faster than cigarettes. And by the same token, intimate relationships that are authentic and life-affirming can have enormous and even miraculous healing powers. In this book you will find why this is so, and gain clarity about the various essential steps you can take to extend both your life span and your health span dramatically. Reading this book will not only help you add many years to your life, but also help make those added years—and indeed all your remaining years—ones in which you experience the blossoming of your finest and wisest self.

Even if you’ve eaten poorly and have not taken very good care of yourself, even if you’ve had more than your share of hardships and pain, this book will show you how the choices you make today and tomorrow can greatly improve your prospects for the future. It will give you a chance to right any wrongs you’ve committed against your body. You’ll see how to regain the strength and passion for life that you may have thought were gone forever.

Whether you are in your twenties or your eighties or somewhere in between, whether you consider yourself superbly fit or hopelessly out of shape, I believe you’ll find in these pages what you need in order to regenerate rather than degenerate as the years unfold. This book will show you how to regain, and to retain, more mental clarity, physical strength, stamina, and joy.

I have written Healthy at 100 to offer you ways to enhance and improve both the quality and quantity of your remaining years. In this book are steps you can take to shatter stereotypes and misconceptions about aging and to rejuvenate your mind and body. Here are practices you can start today in order to live with greater health and joy no matter what your age.

In our youth-oriented culture, aging is often a source of great suffering. Older people frequently start to see themselves as collections of symptoms rather than whole human beings. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is within your grasp to realize the opportunities for beauty, love, and fulfillment that occur at every stage of your life. It is possible to live your whole life with a commitment to your highest good. I have written Healthy at 100 so that you can learn how to make each and every one of the years of your life more full of vitality and joy, and more worth living, than you may ever have imagined.

Part 01 - World’s Healthiest and longest-lived peoples

1 - Abkhasia: Ancients of the Caucasus

People don’t grow old. When they stop growing, they become old.

—Anonymous

In the early 1970s, National Geographic magazine approached the world-renowned physician Alexander Leaf, asking him to visit, study, and write an article about the world’s healthiest and most long-living people. Dr. Leaf, a professor of clinical medicine at Harvard University and Chief of Medical Services at Massachusetts General Hospital, had long been a student of the subject and had already visited and studied some of the cultures known for the healthy lives of their elderly people. Now, National Geographic commissioned him to continue these travels and investigations and to share with the world his observations and comparisons of those areas of the planet which were famous for the longevity and health of their inhabitants. It was a time, unlike today, when these regions and their cultures were still somewhat pristine.

As a scientist, Dr. Leaf did not believe in a mythical fountain of youth in which anyone can bathe and be miraculously restored to eternal youth; nor did he believe in magic potions that can instantly heal all afflictions. But he did believe it was possible that there existed certain places on earth where people actually lived longer and healthier lives than is considered normal in the modern West. His goal was not to identify the oldest living individual, but rather to locate and study those societies—if they did in fact exist—where a large percentage of elder citizens retained their faculties, were vigorous, and enjoyed their lives. Rather than being interested in mythology or panaceas, his goal was to understand the key factors that influence human prospects for long and healthy life.

Dr. Leaf undertook a series of journeys that he subsequently described in an influential series of articles that appeared in National Geographic magazine beginning in 1973.1 His writings were among the first authoritative efforts to bring practical medical knowledge and research to our desire to know what we can do to impact the future of our lives.

When Dr. Leaf began his study and his travels, three regions of the world were famous for the longevity of their inhabitants: the valley of Vilcabamba in Ecuador, the Hunza region of Pakistan, and certain portions of the Caucasus mountains in what was then the Soviet Union. These three locales had long been the subject of claims that they were home to the longest living and healthiest people on earth. According to the stories swirling around these high mountainous regions, people in these communities often lived spectacularly long lives in vibrant health.

Dr. Leaf and prizewinning National Geographic photographer John Launois traveled to these remote areas to meet, photograph, examine, and appraise for themselves the longevity and health of those who were reputed to be the world’s oldest and healthiest people. Dr. Leaf listened to their hearts, took their blood pressure, and studied their diets and lifestyles. He watched them dance and saw them bathe in ice-cold mountain streams. He spoke with them about their daily lives, their hopes, their fears, their life histories. His goal was to separate fact from fallacy and determine the truth about longevity.

LONGEVITY IN ABKHASIA

“Certainly no area in the world,” Leaf wrote, “has the reputation for long-lived people to match that of the Caucasus in southern Russia.”2 And in all the Caucasus, the area most renowned for its extraordinary number of healthy centenarians (people above the age of 100) was Abkhasia (pronounced “ab-KAY-zha”). A 1970 census had established Abkhasia, then an autonomous region within Soviet Georgia, as the longevity capital of the world. “We were eager to see the centenarians,” Leaf said, “and Abkhasia seemed to be the place to do so.”3 Abkhasia covers three thousand square miles between the eastern shores of the Black Sea and the crestline of the main Caucasus range. It is bordered on the north by Russia, and on the south by Georgia.

Prior to Dr. Leaf’s visit, claims had been widely circulated for life spans reaching 150 years among the Abkhasians. Just a few years earlier, Life magazine had run an article with photos of Shirali Muslimov, said to be 161 years old.4 In one of the photos, Muslimov was shown with his third wife. He told the reporter that he had married her when he was 110, that his parents had both lived to be over 100, and that his brother had died at the age of 134.

Muslimov had passed away by the time of Leaf’s studies. But a woman named Khfaf Lasuria had also been featured in the Life article. Leaf wanted to meet her, and he found her in the Abkhasian village of Kutol, where she sang in a choir made up entirely, he was told, of Abkhasian centenarians.

I had a long talk with this diminutive—she stands not five feet tall—sprightly woman who claimed to be 141 years old.…Although she carried a handsomely carved wooden walking stick, her nimbleness belied need of it. Her memory seemed excellent.…She spoke lucidly and easily about events recent and past. At the age of 75 to 80 as a midwife she assisted more than 100 babies into the world.…She described the life of women: “Women had a very difficult time before the Revolution; we were practically slaves.” And she ended our talk with a toast, “I want to drink to women all over the world…for them not to work too hard and to be happy with their families.”5 Though he was greatly impressed by this elderly lady’s charm and spirit, Leaf did not simply take her word for her age. To the contrary, he went to significant efforts to assess it objectively. Such a task is harder than it might sound, for there are no signs in the human body, like the annual rings of a tree, that tell us a person’s age.

After laborious investigations, Leaf concluded that Mrs. Lasuria was close to 130 years old. He wasn’t certain about that, saying only that he had arrived at a degree of confidence and this was his best estimate. But he was sure of one thing. She was one of the oldest persons he had ever met.6

Everywhere he went in Abkhasia, Leaf met elders in remarkable health. The area seemed to warrant its reputation as the mecca of superlongevity. Like others who have studied the elders of Abkhasia, Leaf had colorful stories to tell. He 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.

“What was the happiest period of your life?” Leaf asked.

“I feel joy all my life. But I was happiest when my daughter was born. And saddest when my son died at the age of one year from dysentery.”7

Among the others Leaf met were a delightful trio of gentlemen who, like many elderly Abkhasians, were still working despite their advanced age. They were Markhti Tarkhil, whom Leaf believed to be 104; Temur Tarba, who was apparently 100; and Tikhed Gunba, a mere youngster at 98. All were born locally. Temur said his father died at 110, his mother at 104, and an older brother just that year at 109. After a short exam, Leaf said that Temur’s blood pressure was a youthful 120/84, and his pulse was regular at a rate of 69. The old fellows clowned around constantly, joking and teasing each other and Leaf. While he was checking pulses and blood pressures the other two would shake their heads in mock sadness at the one being examined, saying “Bad, very bad!” They never seemed to tire of friendly joking, always finding new ways to have fun. Leaf was impressed by their sharp minds, high spirits, and relentless sense of humor.

Like many of the elders in Abkhasia, regardless of the weather, these men swam daily in cold mountain streams. One day, Leaf accompanied Markhti Tarkhil on his morning plunge and was astonished by the vitality and physical agility of the 104-year-old. It was a steep and rugged half-mile climb down from the road to the river, but Markhti moved with confident speed and agility. Seeing Markhti take off down the slope, Leaf, a physician coming from a society where elders have thin and fragile bones, was concerned that the older man might fall, and thought he should accompany Markhti down the hill and see to it that he didn’t slip. But he was unable to do so, because he couldn’t keep up with the pace of the far older man, who as it turned out never lost his footing. Later, Leaf learned from the regional doctor that there is no osteoporosis among the active elders, and that fractures are rare.

When Markhti arrived at the riverbank, he stripped and waded out into the stream, immersing his entire body in the cold water. A young guide Leaf had brought with him from Moscow also stripped and began wading into the water, but immediately jumped out, exclaiming that the water was far too cold.

After bathing in the cold water for some time, Markhti got out, dried himself off, put on his clothes, and proceeded to climb swiftly back up the rugged slope, with Leaf, who was a half-century younger and who considered himself physically fit, once again struggling to keep up.

ARE THEY REALLY THAT OLD?

After Leaf’s articles in National Geographic appeared, however, a heated controversy developed over the validity of the ages claimed by some Abkhasians. When people say they are 140 or 150 years old, this naturally raises eyebrows. When the Soviet press announced that Shirali Muslimov was 168 years old, and the government commemorated the assertion by putting his face on a postage stamp, knowledgeable scientists around the world were skeptical. There is a reason that, until recently, The Guinness Book of World Records introduced its section on longevity with the warning: “No single subject is more obscured by vanity, deceit, falsehood and deliberate fraud than the extremes of human longevity.” Currently, the longest fully documented and irrefutably authenticated age ever reached by a human being is 122, by a Frenchwoman named Jeanne Louise Calment.

How old, in fact, are the oldest Abkhasians? No one knows with absolute certainty. In the days when these elders were born, probably less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s population was keeping written birth records. When birth records are lacking or questionable, as they are in almost all cases of people born prior to 1920 in regions like the Caucasus, contemporary researchers have had to be creative in developing methods to appraise the ages of elders. Many volumes have been written about the enterprising techniques that have been employed in the effort, and probably an equal number of scholarly volumes have been written critiquing these techniques. It has been a difficult task.

Probably the foremost skeptic about the extremely old ages sometimes claimed for elders in the Caucasus was a geneticist from Soviet Georgia named Zhores A. Medvedev, an expert in the methodologies used in the effort to arrive at accurate age verifications in Abkhasia and elsewhere in the Caucasus. Medvedev’s articles expressing his doubts received a great deal of attention when they were published in the scientific journal The Gerontologist shortly after Leaf’s articles appeared in National Geographic. (Gerontology is the study of the changes and associated problems in the mind and body that accompany aging.) In these articles, Medvedev presented convincing evidence that the claims that people were regularly living past the age of 120 were not to be trusted.10 At the same time, though, he 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.

As the controversy was unfolding, the legend of extraordinarily healthy and long-lived people in the Caucasus was being heavily promoted by U.S. corporations that manufactured and sold yogurt, attempting to connect the phenomenal longevity of people in the region to their consumption of yogurt. The Dannon yogurt company marketed a widely seen commercial showing a 110-year-old mother pinching the cheek of her 89-year-old son and telling him to eat his yogurt. This clever ad and others featuring Soviet centenarians were fabulously successful in the American market. They produced a generation of Americans who associated yogurt with extreme longevity, and who naïvely believed that people regularly lived to 140 and beyond in the Caucasus.

Unfortunately, it was the inflated claims for supercentenarians living to extreme ages that got most of the attention in the 1970s and 1980s. What made Abkhasians so interesting to the Western world at the time was not their lifestyle and the wondrously healthy way they aged, but the exotic phenomenon of people supposedly living to unbelievable ages. When these extreme claims for superlongevity were found to be false, there was a regrettable tendency to dismiss everything about Abkhasian longevity as a hoax.

My interest in longevity in Abkhasia, however, doesn’t depend on whether any specific individuals have reached ages beyond 120. Perhaps none have, but I don’t find the question to be particularly important. What makes these people fascinating to me is the fact that an extraordinary percentage of Abkhasians have lived to ripe old ages while retaining their full health and vigor. What I find remarkable is the high degree of physical and mental fitness commonly found among the elders in Abkhasia, and their obvious joy in life.

WHAT IS THEIR SECRET?

What I want to know is how they’ve done it. How have they managed to maintain their vitality and strength to the very ends of their long lives? What can we learn from how they’ve lived that will make our lives longer in health and greater in joy? What are the key factors that have produced such exceptionally healthy aging? What can we learn from their lifestyles, and from the ways of life in other areas of the world that have also produced extraordinary numbers of extremely healthy old people?

It’s not that I think the elders of Abkhasia are perfect, or that we should in all ways model our lives after theirs. Nothing is served by unduly romanticizing these people. They are human, and they have their idiosyncrasies and flaws. But the fact remains that they can provide a positive and valuable counterbalance to the images most of us have of aging today.

Very few people in modern Western society look forward to growing old. We lack models that speak to us of the possibilities and opportunities of our elder years. The Abkhasians and the other peoples of the world who have consistently enjoyed vibrant and lengthy lives have something important to show us.

Shoto Gogoghian, M.D., is one of the world’s leading authorities on Abkhasian longevity. He was director of public health in Abkhasia for twenty-three years, and subsequently became director of the Institute of Gerontology, a part of the prestigious Soviet Academy of Medical Science. Like almost all gerontologists today, he recognizes that most (if not all) of the extreme claims for hyperlongevity have been inflated. But after personally visiting, interviewing, and appraising the ages of almost all the most elderly people in Abkhasia, Dr. Gogoghian wrote that the people of Abkhasia most certainly do have unusual rates of longevity and remarkable health in old age. About 80 percent of all Abkhasians over the age of ninety, he said, are mentally healthy and outgoing. Only 10 percent have poor hearing, and fewer than 4 percent have poor eyesight. These are staggering statistics when compared to the health of elders in the United States and other fully industrialized nations.

One part of the Abkhasian formula for exceptionally healthy aging is the great amount of regular exercise built into the routines of their daily lives. One gerontologist who had studied longevity in the Caucasus for many years speculated in the 1970s that the constant physical activity required of the Abkhasians develops the function of their hearts and lungs to such a degree that an enhanced amount of oxygen is supplied to their hearts. Such suppositions were confirmed in 2005, when the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health published a new study that found mountain dwellers live longer than their lowland counterparts. The reason? Their hearts get a better workout on a daily basis. The researchers pointed to the increased physical activity from walking on rugged terrain with less oxygen in the surrounding air to explain the extended life spans and lower rate of heart disease among those living in the mountains.

For the Abkhasians, a high level of physical fitness is both required and produced by the steep terrain on which they live and work. Simply going through their normal day requires a great deal of physical exertion. No one sits at a desk or rides to and from work. Even the elders think nothing of hiking several miles up and down steep hillsides to get from one dwelling to the next, or from a village to the surrounding fields and back.

Retirement is an unknown concept in Abkhasian thinking. The Abkhasians never, at any stage of life, become sedentary. Most of the elderly still work regularly, many in the orchards and gardens, pruning the fruit and nut trees, removing dead wood, and planting young trees. Some still chop wood and haul water.

They work hard, but they are fortunate in that their work does not entail the emotional stress we often associate with work. Their work tempos are natural expressions of biological rhythms, and they have no sense of the drivenness and hurry that predominate in most industrialized nations. In fact, Abkhasians distinctly dislike being rushed and have no concept of a deadline. The only time they feel a sense of urgency is during rare actual emergencies, such as when a house is on fire. Other than that, they are remarkably relaxed, and often joke and sing while working. How many of us in the modern world can say the same thing about our work environment? Some of us fear that unless we are driven by a sense of urgency and competition we will become lazy. But the Abkhasians are anything but lazy. In fact, they are astoundingly fit. When Dr. Alexander Leaf learned of an old man, Kosta Kashig, said to be 106 years old, who spent the summers with his goats in the high alpine pastures, he wanted to meet the elder in that setting to learn firsthand the level of physical exertion involved in his daily activities. Leaf set out early one morning with two companions and a young local guide to climb to where the elder could be found. The trail, however, proved so steep and muddy that his two companions gave up about one-third of the way up and headed back downhill. Only Leaf and the young guide continued on.

After six hours of arduous climbing, they came out of the woods and onto a grassy slope where Kosta Kashig was spending the summer tending his goats. Leaf proceeded to have a lengthy discussion with the old man, after which he concluded Kashig was not 106, but probably “only” 90. Whichever age was correct, Leaf wrote that for Kashig “to be able to spend four months of the year bounding over the hillside from dawn until dusk in pursuit of his agile goats was re-markable.” Eventually, Leaf made the long and difficult climb down from the high pastureland. When he arrived back in town, he was exhausted, but also elated to have accomplished the trek and proud of how fast he had been able to make it down. Then he learned to his amazement that Kosta Kashig, be he 106 or only 90, regularly made the same trek in just half the time it had taken Leaf. Such is the level of physical fitness commonplace among the elderly in Abkhasia.

A TOAST TO SWEET OLD AGE

Our capacity to understand the lifestyles of the Abkhasians owes much to the work of Dr. Sula Benet. A professor of anthropology at Hunter College, City University of New York, she was fluent in Russian, which all Abkhasians understand, and she spent several years living in Abkhasia, doing fieldwork under the auspices of Columbia University, the Social Science Research Council, the Research Institute for the Study of Man, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Her book, Abkhasians: The Long-Living People of the Caucasus, is considered one of the finest case studies in cultural anthropology ever written. As to the controversy over the ages of the oldest of the old, Benet felt it didn’t matter that much. “If a person lives to 120 rather than 130 in health and vigor,” she said, “the fact of old age is barely di-minished.” Though not knowing the exact age of any particular elder, she pointed out the remarkable fact that people in Abkhasia have specific terms or expressions for great-grandparents going back six generations. These expressions are used to refer to the living, not to those who have died. Very few languages contain expressions for so many generations of living relatives.

Benet was also impressed by the physical condition of even the very elderly in Abkhasia. Only the oldest people have wrinkles, she noted. Only the very elderly have gray hair. Baldness is extremely rare. More than a third of those over ninety do not need glasses for any kind of work, including reading or threading a needle. Most have their own teeth. And Benet was particularly affected by the beautifully erect posture elderly Abkhasians maintain, even to very advanced ages. Most tellingly, she found that “sickness is not considered a normal or natural event even in very old age.”

To Benet, the reasons for the remarkable health and longevity in Abkhasia are many. One factor that she highlighted in particular was the tremendous respect for the aged that is a defining feature of Abkhasian culture. In Abkhasia, a person’s status increases with age, and he or she receives ever more privileges with the passing years. This deference does not depend on wealth or occupation. Elders are respected, even revered, simply by virtue of being old. 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. There is nothing elders have to do to earn this respect. They are never required to compete with younger people.

When one U.S. 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.

The Abkhasian respect for the aged is clear from their vocabulary. They do not even have a phrase meaning “old people.” Instead, those over 100 are called “long-living people.” And all Abkhasian villages celebrate a holiday in their honor called “the Day of the Long-Living People.” On this day each year, the elders dress in elaborate costumes and parade before the rest of the villagers, who gather to pay them homage.

IN CONTRAST

The more I have learned about Abkhasian culture, the more I’ve been struck by the contrast with the modern industrialized world, and the more I’ve become aware of how youth-obsessed we are. 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.

In the West, on the other hand, we tend to associate old age with ugliness and youth with beauty, so much so that an increasing number of people today are willing to spend a great deal of money and undergo a considerable degree of pain in order to have facelifts, that they might look younger.

Are these people putting themselves through the agony of a procedure that includes skull drains, titanium screws, bloody eyes with lashless lids, tightened skin, painfully slow recoveries, and eating tiny bites of baby food because they are vain and unable to accept nature and life’s realities? 26 Or is it because they are fighting to ward off the invisibility that all too often comes with aging in a culture where looking older is equated with a loss of beauty and value? Some say that only people who hate themselves would be willing to undergo such an ordeal, but I wonder. Living in a youth-obsessed culture, maybe they hate the way they are treated because of how they look.

Popular television programs like The Swan and Extreme Makeover have contributed greatly in recent years to the rise in cosmetic surgery. At the climax of one show, a participant (having received a million dollars’ worth of plastic surgery) was finally revealed. Her elated husband beamed at the camera. “I had a forty-year-old wife,” he said, “and now I have a twenty-five-year-old wife.” Deliriously happy with the change in his wife’s appearance, he described the improvement entirely as a matter of her looking younger. I’m sure he meant it as a compliment, but his comment reflected something about our culture that I find troubling. Is it really better to have a twenty-five-year-old wife than a forty-year-old wife? Is younger always better?

The Simpsons television show often satirically portrays cultural trends that are all too real. In one episode, a children’s hospital was torn down so the new Springfield Plastic Surgery Clinic could be built. Mayor Quimby gave a speech at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Thanks to this clinic,” he said, “we will no longer be terrorized by the spectacle of women aging naturally.” American Idol is another television program that reflects the perspectives of mainstream Western culture. The show has phenomenal ratings. In 2004, more than forty-nine million viewers tuned in to watch the finale. When the American Idol judges were asked whether they would consider getting plastic surgery, one of the judges, Simon Cowell, said he would make it mandatory for every woman over forty.

He probably thought he was being funny. I don’t think he had any idea what the impact of his remark was on every woman over forty, and indeed on younger women, too, each of whom will likely be over forty someday herself.

This kind of thing takes a terrible toll on women’s self-image, which is none too high in the modern world in the first place. A worldwide 2004 survey by Dove soap found that only 2 percent of women consider themselves “beautiful.” And it gets worse as women get older. Among women over sixty, almost none consider themselves even “average-looking.”27 In my eyes, this is cruel. But it’s the norm wherever women are beset by unobtainable media images of beauty and by a cosmetics industry that encourages women to be terrified of aging. One cosmetics ad shows a woman in her forties fiercely proclaiming, “I don’t intend to grow old gracefully. I’m going to fight it every step of the way.” I do take heart, though, from the fact that modern Western culture is not the only way people can live and its prevailing assumptions are not the only way people can think. Moreover, there are signs, even in the modern world, that things could be changing. A new ad campaign from Dove skin care products, for example, features Irene Sinclair, a ninety-six-year-old woman with a luminous smile who was discovered at a nursing home in London. The ad asks, “Will society ever accept that old can be beautiful?”

WHERE AGE IS BEAUTY

In Abkhasia, it would be considered an insult to be told that you are “looking young” or that the years have barely changed you. People there compliment others by saying “You’re looking old today,” meaning that the person is wise and beautiful in their maturity. In Abkhasia, 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.

Researcher Dan Georgakas sought to explain the exalted social status of the aged in Abkhasia:

Old age is the crown of a successful life.…The psychological climate for the old is so positive that rest homes available through government auspices are rarely utilized, as even in the smallest of families there are many relatives who covet the honor of housing an elder.28

Abkhasians expect a long and useful life, and they look forward to old age with good reason. In a culture which so highly values continuity in its traditions, the elders are indispensable. They are never thought of as—or experienced as—burdens. Quite the contrary, they are the society’s most treasured resources. An oft-repeated Abkhasian proverb is “Besides God, we also need the elders.”29 In the modern Western world, older men who show an interest in sex are sometimes disparaged as “dirty old men.” In Abkhasia, on the other hand, continuation of an active sex life into old age is considered to be as natural as maintaining a healthy appetite or sound sleep. Abkhasians do not think there is any reason why increased years should strip them of so human a function.

Almost everyone who visits Abkhasia ends up remarking on the importance of song, music, and dance in Abkhasian life. People of all ages in Abkhasia love to sing, and there are songs for every occasion. There are lullabies, there are work songs, and there are healing songs. There are special songs for weddings and other rituals. Each chore has a special song. While working in the fields, people often divide into groups for choral singing.

In Abkhasian culture, songs are used like medicine. There is a song called “the Song of the Wounded One” which is sung by friends and relatives to support the recovery of someone who has been hurt. Sometimes the injured one may also sing along.30 When someone falls ill, his or her friends and relatives, in addition to assuming the sick person’s responsibilities, surround the bedside. They tell jokes and stories, and they sing and dance. When someone is about to die, friends and relatives sing quietly at the bedside, and also at the memorial services.

Singing may not seem to have anything to do with health, but I think it might. When people celebrate and enjoy life, is it possible they are sending life-affirming messages to their cells? Could this help explain why long-living people everywhere tend to be those who live with gusto? They dance, they sing, and they celebrate life as it unfolds.

CHILDREN

I also think the way children are raised in Abkhasia has much to do with the kind of elders they eventually grow up to become. Having lived many years in the United States and several years in Abkhasia, Sula Benet was struck by the way Abkhasian children behave and the way they are treated:

I never heard a child cry in protest or a parent raise his voice or threaten spanking. A command is never repeated twice. As a teacher of fidgety American youth, I marveled at Abkhasian schoolchildren who…sit at attention for hours. Such miraculous results are not motivated by fear.”31

Abkhasian parents never scold or nag, and they never criticize or punish their children. How, you may wonder, do they get their children to behave properly? Benet explains:

Abkhasian parents express disapproval by withholding praise, which is otherwise very generously dispensed. The Abkhasian concept of discipline, considered necessary and good for children, is not intertwined with the concept of punishment. Abkhasians feel that physical punishment induces disrespect.…The Abkhasian method of discipline does not allow for the development and expression of even the mildest forms of sadistic impulse.…With no threat of punishment…the young never express resentment. It gradually became apparent to the author that they do not feel resentment.32 It’s different, unfortunately, in the United States today, a nation in which 565,000 children are killed or seriously injured by their parents or guardians each year.

How much better would life be in the modern world if all children were raised with the kind of respect they are offered in Abkhasia? In Abkhasian schools, children are never made to feel inferior. Ridicule is never used to “teach” children. Scorn and rejection are not part of the curriculum. And neither is any kind of physical coercion.33 Abkhasians are consistently respectful of their bodies and the bodies of others. They never physically punish children, adults, or animals.34 This may help explain why domestic violence is almost entirely unknown in Abkhasia, as is rape.

Friendships are extremely important to Abkhasians. When guests arrive at an Abkhasian home, they are embraced and kissed, and the host makes a circular motion above the guest’s head and says, “Let all the evil spirits who may be hovering around you come to me in-stead.”

THE FOOD THEY EAT

What, then, of the Abkhasian diet?

Thanks to the Dannon yogurt ads, people in the United States and elsewhere often believe that it is the consumption of yogurt which is responsible for the unusually long lives of the Abkhasians and others in the Caucasus. Actually, though, the Abkhasians do not eat yogurt. They drink one or two glasses a day of a fermented beverage called matzoni, made from the milk of goats, cows, or sheep. This variety of fermented milk has been used in the Caucasus for centuries, and most likely originated in this part of the world. The traditional Abkhasian diet is essentially lacto-vegetarian, with a rare serving of meat, and with the dairy component consisting primarily of the fermented matzoni.

According to Benet, the Abkhasians usually begin breakfast with a salad of green vegetables freshly picked from the garden. During the spring, it is made up of pungent vegetables such as watercress, green onions, and radishes. In summer and autumn, tomatoes and cucumbers are more popular, while the winter salad consists of pickled cucumber and tomatoes, radishes, cabbage, and onion. Dill and coriander may be added, but no dressings are used. Many plants that grow wild in Abkhasia also end up in their salads. Breakfasts also often include a glass of matzoni. 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. Thanks to the mild climate, fresh fruit is available seven or eight months of the year. During these months, the Abkhasians enjoy large quantities of fruit eaten fresh from the tree or vine. There are 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, both of which grow wild in great abundance. Wild pears are cooked into a thick syrup, with no added sweeteners—something like apple butter. The fruit that is not eaten fresh is stored or dried for winter use. Thus many fruits are used all year round.

With rare exceptions, vegetables are eaten raw, or cooked in only a very small amount of water. Abkhasians do not traditionally eat any fried food. And the freshness of food is considered paramount. Vegetables are picked just prior to serving or cooking, and leftovers are discarded, because food that is not totally fresh is considered harmful. While modern urbanites may scoff at such fastidiousness, there is a good reason for it. Such a heightened concern for freshness ensures that food is never eaten that has become spoiled and might be carrying pathogenic microorganisms. It also guarantees that foods are eaten at the height of their nutritional value, with a minimal loss of nutrients.

Nuts play a major role in Abkhasian cuisine and are the primary source of fat in the Abkhasian diet. Almonds, pecans, beechnuts, and hazelnuts are cultivated, and chestnut trees grow wild and profusely, as do many other wild nut trees. Virtually every meal contains nuts in one form or another.

Abkhasians eat relatively little meat, and when they do, the meat is always from animals who have been healthy and who have been freshly slaughtered. Even then, the fat from the meat or poultry is never used. When meat is served, even the smallest pieces of fat are removed. The Abkhasians do not care at all for fatty dishes. They also consume no sugar, little salt, and almost no butter.

This may help explain why the average cholesterol level among Abkhasian centenarians is 98.36 This compares extremely favorably to the cholesterol levels common in people in the United States, where nearly everyone’s is over 200, and where until recently levels as high as 250 were sometimes considered “normal.”

One of the most definitive features of the Abkhasian diet is that in comparison with Americans, Abkhasians eat very little. Most Abkhasians consume less than two thousand calories a day, while many people in the United States eat literally twice that much.37 And unlike most of the world, the Abkhasian diet does not change significantly with an increase in wealth. Regardless of how poor or how affluent Abkhasians are, they still consume protein in moderation, fat mainly from nuts, and carbohydrates primarily from vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain cereals such as their cornmeal abista.

In fact, people almost never overeat in Abkhasia, because overeating is considered both socially inappropriate and dangerous.38 This no doubt contributes to the fact that Abkhasians are universally very strong and slender people, with no excess fat on their bodies. They eat slowly and chew thoroughly, savoring each moment and deeply enjoying one another’s company.

When an Abkhasian host invites a guest for dinner, the wording of the invitation says a great deal about the priorities of these remarkable people. The invitation always says, “Come and be our guest.” It never says, “Come for dinner.”39 Of course dinner is served, and it is prepared and shared with joy. But the emphasis is never on the food, but rather on the pleasures of being together. These are a people who relish the joys of friendship above all others.

LEARNING FROM THEIR WISDOM

Of course, people in Abkhasia have always struggled with the trials and crises that exist in all human life. In addition, the modern world has been encroaching in recent years, and there have been particularly challenging events since the breakup of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. I will speak more about these later, but I want to focus now on what those of us in the more modern world can learn from these friendly, long-living, happy, and extraordinarily healthy people.

Not long ago, I unconsciously equated aging with the loss of mental agility, sensory acuity, physical limberness, sexual desire, and a host of other human abilities. I thought it almost certain that we will all become more frail and disease-prone as we get older. I thought that the best we could do was to be satisfied to accept these “inevitable” losses with dignity. But the more I have learned from the people of Abkhasia, the more hopeful I have become. They seem to suggest that there might be another possibility for us entirely. If we choose wisely, maybe we, too, can live long lives in good health and spirits. Maybe our wisdom years can, after all, be rich with vitality, joy, and fulfillment. Particularly when, as we shall now see, the Abkhasians are far from the only culture representing this fascinating possibility.

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