Ask those who have achieved a ripe old age how they account for their longevity and you get amusing if not instructive answers. Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper of the Netherlands, the world's oldest human when she died at age 115 in 2004, attributed her long life to eating herring every day. Legend says that 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck traced his old age -- a respectable 84 -- to his daily regimen of smoking five black Havana cigars and drinking a quart of Jamaican rum. He reportedly smoked more than 100,000 cigars and throughout his life was known to be "a heavy smoker, drinker, and all-around glutton." Nancy Lamperti, a 101-year-old, would raise her glass to Bismarck. Originally from Italy, the Staten Island, N.Y. centenarian said she drank wine, beer, and Southern Comfort liquor every day.
What about high-cholesterol foods? I once observed the eating habits of an elderly couple, hoping for dietary hints. I was surprised to find that they ate eggs three times a day. I also learned that my friend's father Jacob Gewirtzman, who lived independently at age 101, even prepared his own meals, which were heavy on eggs, cheese, sour cream, and meat. He never ate vegetables, which he said were for rabbits, and he wasn't crazy about fruit. Just recently, 105-year-old Texan Pearl Cantrell shared her secret for a long life: bacon. She eats it every day. To confound us further, I once read that people living in caves in Turkey live significantly longer than the rest of the population.
So, should we pile on the bacon, feast on salty herring, dig our teeth into red meat, binge on eggs and other high-cholesterol foods, wallow in cigar smoke, and slosh down a quart of rum each day -- or maintain an open bar ? I think not. Most of us mortals shouldn't count on extraordinary genes and should follow conventional wisdom: Exercise regularly, eat in moderation, keep the cholesterol intake down, consume whole grains and vegetables and some fruit, and avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. Consult your physician or nutritionist for the diet best for you. As for caves, that's your call.
But where can you find a cave in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or even the suburbs? I asked a young woman on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who said she's dated many cave men, so there must be some caves out there.
On a more serious note, the 2010 documentary film To Age or Not to Age by Robert Kane Pappas cites the many laboratories around the globe studying life extension, with Dr. Leonard Guarente's research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showing some promising results. Cambridge University geneticist Aubrey de Grey is more optimistic. He claims that science is on the verge of attaining near immortality for humans. But for the moment, there is one proven principle for achieving the greatest longevity that trumps all other advice: Pick your parents very carefully!
Bernard Starr, Ph.D. is founder, and for 25 years was managing editor, of the Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics and editor of the Springer Publishing Co. series, Lifestyles and Issues in Aging.