Living long in the land of cha-cha-cha

Thursday, November 30, 2006

I recently reported on those yogurt-eating (actually matsoni- eating) Abkhazians and their "long-living" ways. A little song, some nuts and, most importantly, a respect for aging all have 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 -- 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, and some projections say that more than 800,000 Americans will claim this Grand Geezer status by 2050.

Common in all of these longevity studies -- according to one Harvard health publication -- 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 Cape Girardeau, 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, who is possibly the oldest person alive at 120 years of age. Cuba equals the United States 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, 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 parents treated themselves to what was most likely a 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 un-Missouri-like moves.

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.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a Cape Girardeau native who is a licensed clinical psychologist in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.

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