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Is long life related to where you live?

It is a myth that it is common to live to be 120 or more in some parts of the world. The facts do not support stories of communities of legendary centenarians.

The three principal candidates for such long-lived status are the Abkasians of Georgia, the Hunzas of Pakistan, and the Vilcambans of Ecuador. But other peoples from Tibet, India, China, and elsewhere are sometimes suggested as extremely long-lived.

Recipes for their longevity usually include being members of a small population from an isolated region, living an outdoor existence, following a simple subsistence diet (usually high in vegetables and fruit but low in meat), having a lean body mass, holding a cultural disapproval of excess body fat, being physically active (especially by walking), working in a job that is not too strenuous, following a stress-free life, not smoking tobacco (but alcohol consumption is OK), and having a strong cultural respect for old age.

Yet certain curious factors are evident in these reports of longevity. There is usually an absence in these groups of a proportionate number of elders between the ages of seventy and ninety, there are no birth records, the people are illiterate, age is often exaggerated in accounts of folk history, and there is a poor regard for the accuracy of time generally.

In the case of the Abkasians, years have likely been added to their ages in the past in order to avoid military service. No person with a verifiable record has ever exceeded 110 years by more than a few years, let alone most or even many of a whole community surpassing it by 10 to 40 years.

An Abkhasian story holds that one man who insisted he was "only 95" wanted to marry again. He became angry when it was pointed out to his bride-to-be that he must be older than 95 since he had a daughter who was 81. It was claimed by others that he was really 108.

Some cell biologists now believe that there is a definite biological limit to human cell reproduction making the maximum age possible for human life to be about 110 to 120 years. However, others maintain that humans could theoretically live to be 400 or 500 years old once genetically engineered drugs are developed to counteract the aging process itself on the cellular level.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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