It IS possible to grow very old - and to enjoy yourself too!

What's the secret to living to a ripe old age? So asks Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
It IS possible to grow very old - and to enjoy yourself too!

Sr André, a French nun who lived to 118, credited a glass of red wine and chocolate for her longevity.

DO you ever find yourself clutching at straws when it comes to other people’s healthy (or unhealthy) habits, experiencing relief and joy when you hear that your great-aunt downed a bottle or two of gin every week and lived to a ripe old age?

You may want to be that trouper, having your cake and eating it – with no apparent ill effects.

We are all reassured when ‘bold’ people, cavalier about their dietary intake and indulgent when it comes to booze, get away with it. We too feel invincible, and if drink is your favourite poison, then pour yourself another one.

Not that I’m recommending it. Too much drink can lead to awful medical conditions including cirrhosis of the liver – and can result in premature death. But you don’t want to hear that, preferring instead to talk about those rare people that live beyond 100 years.

How did they do it? Did they drink/smoke/eat saturated fats?

Take Sr André, a French nun who was the world’s oldest person. She died at 118 in January this year.

Apparently, she claimed her aim was to outlive fellow Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment. To this end, she enjoyed a daily diet that included wine and chocolate. (And there you are, eating gruel – sorry, porridge - every morning, trying to be good. It just isn’t fair.)

Sr André told Forbes magazine that her daily indulgence of her two favourite things was her “guilty secret.” But no doubt she savoured the wine and chocolate.

Savouring food can boost mood and relieve stress, which results in happiness. A study shows that people with better moods were 35% less likely to die over the course of five years.

Sr André wasn’t the first oldest person in the world to credit chocolate and alcohol for her longevity. The woman she was in competition with, Jeanne Calment, also believed chocolate and port were essential to her long life. She died at 122.

However, this shouldn’t be taken as carte blanche to tank up on drink every day. Moderation is key. Sr André just had the one glass of wine every day.

The jury is still out on the effect of alcohol on longevity, but some research suggests that moderate drinking can extend life.

A Dutch study of more than 5,000 people found that moderate wine intake is positively associated with longevity – especially in women. Binge drinking, however, reduces one’s life span.

Chocolate and wine are full of antioxidants. Red wine in small quantities can support heart health by reducing the harmful LDL cholesterol and prevent blood clots. Chocolate – it needs to be the dark variety – contains antioxidants which, it is said, may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Because man cannot live on wine and chocolate alone, other foods which are nutrient dense and high in antioxidants include berries and citrus, leafy green vegetables and artichokes, and plant-based proteins like nuts and beans are also recommended.

Antioxidants can help reduce inflammation throughout the body, cutting down on the risk of age-related diseases.

Jeanne Calment discussed her incredible longevity with a demographer who studies the links between health and longevity.

Jean-Marie Robine said, however, that we have to keep in mind that a big part of the longevity of Jeanne is “due just to chance because it’s so exceptional.” However, he pointed out that there were some aspects to her life that may have contributed to her ability to live so long.

Jeanne Calment was wealthy and never had to work, which meant she didn’t live with stress, an important factor for a long life. She didn’t even have to cook for herself. With so much leisure time, she had a great social life, spending most of her time attending social events and meeting new people.

She tried smoking a cigarette, given to her by her husband, even though smoking was forbidden for females, particularly from bourgeois backgrounds, at the end of the 19th century. But Jeanne didn’t enjoy the experience.

Interestingly, she picked up a smoking habit at the age of 112 while in a nursing home. Was she trying to hasten her death, tired of the whole longevity thing? We’ll never know, but there is something rebellious about an ancient woman taking up a bad habit instead of just hunkering down in the bed defeated and weary.

I hope she enjoyed the fags. I miss them. I have my own fantasy of resuming the habit if I make it to my eighties. Mind you, cigarettes might be completely banned by then. Or they might cost an extortionate amount of money.

What is this hold they have over us? It’s that first drag and exhalation. Like the third drink, it’s all downhill after that. The two Frenchwomen showed that you can grow very old and enjoy yourself.

A French paradox, perhaps...

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