In remote, mountainous, semi-tropical Bama County in China, it is customary for families to make a coffin for any relative who has reached the age of 60. Yet most coffins have rotted away long before they are needed and often end up being used to store corn instead of their designated elder. One 105-year-old who was visited by journalists in 2010 joked about the coffin made for her in 1958, which she can break into pieces with her hand. Another 116-year-old was reported to have seen four coffins decay before she was finally ready for the fifth.
For the truth is that the Bama people are some of the most vibrantly healthy, long-lived people in the world, with exceptionally high numbers of active, disease-free nonogenarians, centenarians and super-centenarians. A 2000 census recorded 74 centenarians amongst the population of 238,000, which is close to Okinawan levels. Studies show that only ten percent of nonogenarians in Bama have coronary heart disease and only four percent have excess blood lipids, whilst cancer incidence is a mere 4.4 people per 10,000.
The curative properties of Bama are legendary in China, with visitors coming from all over the country to soak them in. First, there is the vast, clear, Panyang river flowing through the valley with its mineral-rich water to bathe in and drink. Secondly, the Bama air, which is of just the right warmth and humidity year round, is known to be extremely high in negative ions and oxygen, thus creating a sense of exhilaration in those who breathe it. Bama also has high geomagnetism, said to benefit circulation, lower blood pressure and regulate the body’s ion balance. Throw in breathtaking scenery (so good for the spirits), an exemplary diet, and certain key lifestyle practices of the local people and you have a perfect storm of pro-health, pro-longevity conditions.
Bama people are themselves aware of the health-giving properties of their diet and lifestyle. The visitor is usually offered a bowl of ‘longevity soup’, made with hemp oil, an oil rich in both omega 3 and omega 6 essential fatty acids which are crucial for perfect health. Bama people also believe their Fragrant Pig, lean and organic, and Oil Fish from the Panyang River, to be ‘treasures of longevity’. Loving relationships, hard work and good deeds are all considered to be conducive to good health, and Bama also boasts a large golden board donated by a former emperor bearing the legend ‘Love Makes Longevity.’
Longevity Village in Bama, Guangxi, has undergone rapid development in the past few years as tourists come to discover the secrets of long life.
Thick stands of bamboo, graceful eucalyptus and glossy chestnut trees line the road into Bama. Its stunning karst landscape is pierced by caverns and rises into steep crags.
"Even in winter it's not cold at all. The mountains are beautiful and the river is the colour of jade," said Dai Guifang, 65, who runs a construction firm in north-eastern China. "The air is very good. I feel uncomfortable if I smoke even half a cigarette in Shenyang – but in Bama I'm fine if I smoke a pack a day." Her late husband spent his last few months here. She believes the stay prolonged his life and reduced the pain of his stomach cancer. "A lot of people were sick but got better after living there – it's the water. It has a lot of minerals," she said.
Most tourists drink the waters and the bolder ones bathe in it, with mixed results. Some have drowned, report residents. Further up the valley, scores of middle-aged and elderly people perch on rocks in the gloom of the giant Baimo cavern. A few stand with their faces turned to giant boulders, pressing their hands to the stone. This is geomagnetic therapy, they say, enthusing about its beneficial effect on the heart, the brain and even varicose veins.
Cui Xuedong, 58, pulled up his shirt to show the scar across his torso; he had just had a second round of surgery for liver cancer. He was sceptical when a neighbour urged him to try Bama but said the impact was unmistakable: "After 30-odd days my face was rosy again. When I arrived I felt exhausted every afternoon, whatever I did in the morning. Soon I could swim a kilometre and still kick a shuttlecock around."
He has now moved to Bama and runs an organisation bringing city dwellers to the area, while his wife exports hundreds of tonnes of its water.
Cui believes the area's geomagnetism and negatively charged oxygen ions are as important as its relaxed, modest lifestyle. Experts scorn that and see simpler explanations for the town's longevity: in large part, poverty and isolation.
Yang Ze, deputy director of the Institute of Geriatrics at Beijing hospital, began researching Bama's secret in the mid-90s. One key, he said, is natural selection. The area is remote and mountainous. In the old days, it took three days to leave the hills, so there was relatively little mixing with the outside world. In tough conditions, without medical treatment, the strong genes remained; the weak were eliminated.
In particular, he said, Bama residents have mostly inherited a gene from both parents that helps the body to produce a protein called apolipoprotein-E. That combines with fats to form a lipoprotein that reduces excess cholesterol.
Lifestyle played a part, too. People worked hard in the fields. Much of their food was steamed, not fried. When Yang first arrived, they ate "rice porridge with a bit of salt, and hemp oil", and seldom consumed meat. Old people were surrounded by relatives. "They were not lonely and were happy. They were calm, had fewer desires, did not compete, and were more optimistic," Yang said.
Now the area's new-found popularity is destroying its very attractions. "The new residents bring a Beijing lifestyle to Bama. They shout in the mountains; they turn up the music to do exercise in the morning," he added.
Hammers and drills disturb the once-tranquil scene thanks to the soaring demand for rented property. Cars clog the narrow streets, pumping out fumes. Residents complain the river is polluted because visitors dump rubbish and because the sewage systems cannot cope with so many people. These days, the young prosper by selling goods to tourists rather than by labouring. And the eldest can sit at home, on a couch, and wait for red envelopes.
As the area has grown wealthier and less isolated, it has also grown less healthy. Bama is a microcosm of China: its burst of development made its shift from diseases of poverty to those of affluence even more pronounced.
"The centenarians eat braised pork every day. Since they have got richer, their diet has been changing," Yang said. "Last time I was there, I told them problems such as high blood sugar and high blood pressure were appearing in this village, and that if they were not careful, it would lead to death. They did not listen to me and despised [my advice]. They said they had just started to get rich, and we were trying to stop them."
In 2005 there were 17 or 18 people aged over 100, but these days there are just two, he thinks – not seven, as the village claims. An Italian, aged 111, is officially the world's oldest man.
Yang believes Bama could soon lose all its centenarians. Not only are the next generation likely to have shorter lives, even those who are already elderly are unlikely to reach 100, he suggests. But having struggled for years to feed themselves, Bama's elderly see little to lament in this new world of plenty. "In my time there were a lot of wars. A lot of people starved to death. A lot of people were hungry," ruminated Huang Puxin.
"I have had a lot of happy times, but the best is now," observed Huang Makan, a few houses down, with a flash of her exquisite smile.
A tiny figure in a padded jacket, with a jade bracelet on each wrist, she says that she is 108, has never had a day's sickness, and enjoys the constant company. "Many people come to see me. I hope I live until 200," she confided.
How they did it?
Living a long life, Bama-style, according to those who have managed it:
Huang Puxin, 113: Be a good person. Have a good heart.
Huang Makan, 108: Eat green, organic, simple foods. I eat sweetcorn congee a lot. I don't have many demands.
Huang Meijian, 99: Work and walk around every day.
Dr Yang Ze's (strinkingly similar) advice
1. Treat yourself and others well, be more tolerant to yourself and others, be optimistic. Love life, love your family, have love to offer to people and be open-minded.
2. Have a healthy lifestyle. Neither eat too much nor stay hungry. Keep your diet bland. Eat more vegetables and fruits, and less protein and carbohydrates.
3. Do more exercise. All centenarians help themselves and do everything by themselves … They go farming in the mountains, they cook for themselves.
4. Bama women have children late: they give birth to their first baby at 27 and the last baby is usually around 42 or 43.
At 115, Boxin Huang is the oldest resident of China’s Bapan Village, also called Longevity Village. But he's not extraordinary there, where many live long past 100 years.
Cardiologist John Day, MD, of Intermountain Healthcare in Murray, Utah, visited Bapan and the Chinese centenarians and learned fascinating lessons about healthy living and healthy hearts, ones he shares with his own patients.
“Most people think it’s their genes, but the data don’t support it,” Dr. Day says about the Bapan centenarians. Research on about 3,000 pairs of twins who had identical DNA — the same genes — but as adults had different home environments and life choices, showed that only 25 percent of their longevity was due to genes. The other 75 percent was affected by lifestyle. Things within your control can make all the difference in lifespan.
I'll Have Vegetables With That
“In Longevity Village, the fascinating thing is that they eat vegetables as part of all three meals, even breakfast,” Day noticed. The food groups consistently associated with a healthy heart and long life are fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, and fish, Day says. He found that in Bapan, vegetables were always a main course. They ate a lot of fruits, nuts, and legumes as well.
“The diet we eat is absolutely critical,” says Day. He points to data from the California Seventh-Day Adventist study. Researchers tracked an extra seven years of life for men and four years for women, among more than 34,000 people who maintained a healthy diet, were active, and didn’t smoke.
Legumes — a food group that include beans, peas, and lentils — are a central part of the Bapan diet. “The longest-lived cultures use beans as a regular part of their diet,” Day observes. In Okinawa, Japan, for example — among the countries with the highest longevity rates — legumes are a regular part of the diet. Average life expectancy for people born today in Japan is the highest in the world, currently 84 years, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, it's 81 years for women and 76 for men, according to an October 2014 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Exercise? No. Movement? Yes!
The rural area of Bapan has no exercise culture, Day says. In fact, in Longevity Village, the elders laughed at him when he asked if they exercised, because “they were outside, moving their bodies all day.” On his visits to the area, most recently in 2013, he found people of all ages engaged in physical activities like farming. Everything was done by hand because this remote area had no access to mechanical equipment like power tools until very recently and, Day adds, no televisions or computers.
Research data also show that people who stay physically active get extra years of life. In a Taiwan study of more than 400,000 people, researchers found active people enjoyed an extra three years of life. They needed only a bare minimum of physical activity to prolong life — 15 minutes each day. The reason relates, in part, to heart health.
“It’s often said in the cardiology community that you are only as old as your arteries. If your arteries age, it wears out your brain, heart, and even kidneys,” Day explains. This is because by being physically active, you can slow the buildup of plaque in your arteries – and keep your heart and body healthy a lot longer.
Connect More, Stress Less, Live Longer
If you look at countries where people live longest, most are places where elders are revered. “In Longevity Village, 74 percent of the centenarians in the county lived in four- to five-generation homes, all under the same roof,” says Day. “They always ask the oldest person for advice; always serve them first at every meal.” Grandparents are very involved with the family and especially with child rearing. This social support has tremendous health benefits.
Only 25 percent of longevity is in the genes; the other 75 percent is lifestyle.
“Study after study shows the more social support, the longer people live. People have better survival when they are socially connected,” says Day. “Having a sense of purpose can significantly increase your longevity.” Research shows that men and women with stronger social relationships have a 50 percent higher likelihood of surviving longer, according to a review of studies including 308,000 participants.
In contrast to the U.S. experience, where youth is prized and prominent in advertising images, in Longevity Village, advertisements featured the oldest people. “They become a celebrity when they reach the 100-year mark,” says Day.
Stress is becoming increasingly challenging in our society, says Day. In his experience, “80 percent of emergency room visits are stress triggered.” Life is stressful, but it’s how you deal with it that matters. Too often we live isolated lives, and even our diet causes a buildup of stress we need to diffuse, he explains.
Connection matters. In Longevity Village he found a connection to nature, to the earth, to family and friends, community, and food. Day says, “Even their food was connected and in a natural state. The fish they caught in the stream they ate later that same day; the vegetables they harvested in their garden they ate that day.”
Simple Secrets to a Long Life
The people living in Longevity Village are a five-hour bus ride away from the rest of civilization, so air pollution is not a problem there, at least not yet. But even here, you can take steps to ensure your air is as clean as possible. If you smoke, stop. And invest in an air filter if you need to, says Day.
“I cannot overstate the importance of breathing clean air,” he adds. This is on the top of his list, along with five more directives:
~Be physically active
~Eat a healthy diet
~Get restorative sleep.
~Manage your stress.
~Be socially connected.
Day believes you can have the best of both worlds, by making conscious choices that are healthy for your heart and beneficial for a long life. He and his family have learned a lot from Longevity Village, says Day: “We’re definitely going back.”
Hundreds of years ago, the emperors of imperial China ordered the vast resources of their empire focused on the pursuit of xian xue, the "science of longevity." What they uncovered is a secret open to anyone interested in better health—that living longer and having more energy is as easy as moving, breathing, and eating.
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Chinese Secrets of Health and Longevity Bob Flaws
In China, the most successful doctors are those who treat the fewest patients. They "treat" people with natural, non invasive techniques before illness develops. On Chinese Secrets of Health and Longevity, Dr. Bob Flaws, one of the Western world’s leading authorities on Chinese healing, teaches a complete 12-session curriculum on these proven, life-changing health strategies. Topics include: Diets to build energy and immunity; meditations for relaxation and emotional balance; qigong exercises to unblock the body’s qi (life force); and much more.