Living Long in the Land of Cha Cha Cha

Why Cubans Live So Long

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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.

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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. Seabaughhealthspan@mac.com is a licensed
clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa
Barbara. Comment at
and visit his
website at www.HealthspanWeb.com for more information on the
topics covered in this column.

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