Living Long in the Land of Cha Cha Cha

Why Cubans Live So Long


I recently reported on those yogurt (actually matsoni) eating Abkhazians and their “long-living” ways. A little song, some nuts, and, most importantly, a respect for aging… all having powerful effects on living the long life back in old Southern Russia. But these plucky folks aren’t the only ones that are winning the long-life lottery. Most of us know about the Okinawans, who live longer because they eat fish and stay away from Western-style stress.

Even in the United States, which is presumably loaded with Western-style stress, the number of centenarians doubled in the 1980s and did so again in the 1990s. Some estimates claim we have more than 70,000 centenarians with projections coming in that by 2050, there will be more than 800,000 Americans who can claim this Grand Geezer status.

Common in all of these longevity studies, according to one Harvard health publication on the topic, is activity. Centenarians, no matter if they are Swedish or Okinawan, are active both physically and mentally. In Okinawa, they may do Tai Chi, and in Santa Barbara, they are probably walking or golfing, but moving the body is what it is all about.

All of this talk of longevity is fine, but who wants it if it is going to be like something out of a Chekhov play? This is where we need to bring the Cubans into the picture.

This tiny communist island claims Benito Martinez (pictured), who was possibly the oldest person alive when he died at age 120 on October 11, 2006. Cuba equals the U.S. in life expectancy (77 years) yet pays only $251 per head a year on health care, compared to the $5,711 we spend in this country.


Cubans live longer, it seems, because they drink lots of coffee, smoke a lot of cigars, and enjoy abundant sex. Maybe they are onto something. I always thought it wasn’t worth living a long life unless the enjoyment factor was firmly in place. Despite their austere communist deprivation, I have always imagined Cubans as a fun-loving, lusty people who can find enjoyment under a rock if necessary. If this is so (and not just my fantasy), then perhaps we should pay attention to what the Cuban centenarians have to say about the secrets to their longevity. Like many other long lived people, the majority of the Cuban centenarians had parents who were likewise blessed with longevity. They also eat a relatively healthy diet of white meat, vegetables, eggs, milk, and, like the Okinawans, lots of fish; all enhanced with natural seasonings but little salt. What distinguishes the Cubans from other long lived folk are those “healthy vices” they indulge in. Remember, these folks love their coffee, cigars, and sex. It should be pointed out that the one “vice” they didn’t partake of was imbibing alcohol.

I have never been to Cuba (they won’t let me go), but I have always had a warm spot in my heart for it. Back in the pre-Castro days of Cuba, my mother and father treated themselves to what was most likely a very festive weekend to Havana. They came back inspired to learn all kinds of Latin dances. Perez Prado was played brightly, if not nightly, on our living room Hi Fi system as my parents thrilled their wide-eyed children with their joyous and very un-Missouri like moves.

perez.jpg I really think I must have witnessed my lovely, long-legged mother and my dashing father cha cha cha-ing around our living room and believed at the time that it wasn’t so bad to get old. Next week, in the online edition of Healthspan, I will look at the “longevity factors” what it takes for us to live a long life, that is if the genes are willing and the creeks don’t rise.

Dr. Michael O.L. is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Comment at and visit his website at for more information on the topics covered in this column.

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