The world’s oldest person, Kane Tanaka, has recently died. She was 119 years old. Kane was born on January 2, 1903 and died on April 19, 2022. It is remarkable how much the world has changed in her lifetime.
When she was born, there was no need to worry about who owns Twitter. She survived cancer twice, two world wars and two global pandemics – the 1918 flu pandemic and the Covid-19 pandemic.
What was Kane’s secret? She enjoyed board games, did math puzzles, and did calligraphy. She also loved to eat chocolate and soft drinks. She most likely had the right genes, since we know that longevity in humans has a genetic component.
Studies of identical twins have shown that a person’s chance of surviving to age 85 is 20-30 percent written in their genes.
This means that environmental influences account for 70 percent of your chance of a long life. Diet, exercise, social activities, keeping your sanity, and sleep have all been shown to contribute to how long you can live. Math puzzles, soda, and chocolate may have been a big part of Kane’s secret.
It’s unlikely anyone will live in Ireland as long as Kane, but you never know. The oldest known Irish person is Kathleen Snavely, who died aged 113.
She was born on February 16, 1902 in Feakle, Co Clare and immigrated to the United States in 1921 at the age of 19. When asked what her great-aunt’s secret was, her great-niece said it was “her spirit, hard work, and two wonderful husbands, a wonderful family, and maybe Manhattan on occasion.”
One thing we do know is that Ireland tops the EU rankings in terms of average lifespan. The Irish now have the highest life expectancy in the EU, based on figures released by Eurostat last week.
You can be proud of that. Regardless of our healthcare system and bad habits, we live the longest compared to our EU neighbors.
Then there’s the constant concern of public health doctors, alcohol consumption. We rank eighth in the world for monthly binge drinking and seventh for beer drinking.
However, an interesting study has shown that moderate drinking increases your chance of living to age 90. This could be partly due to social benefits. Perhaps Kathleen Snavely’s great-niece was right when she mentioned the Manhattan. However, binge drinking was negative for longevity.
Figures show that people born in Ireland in 2020 now have an average life expectancy of 82.6 years. Boys born in Ireland in 2020 have the highest life expectancy for boys in the EU at 80.8 years – with girls life expectancy an impressive 84.4 years. These are based on projections. Every year we live longer.
In the last two decades, life expectancy for people born in Ireland has increased from 76.6 to 82.6, one of the largest increases in the EU. We’ve come a long way. Ireland ranked 16th in 2000. Overall, a healthier lifestyle—less smoking, more exercise—and better medical care may have contributed to this achievement.
The trends also allow us to estimate how long you could live if you are currently 65 years old. That’s an average of 85.7 years, a number that’s up 4.3 years since 2000.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin is proud of us and says it is “strong evidence of the great strides in improving public health over the last few decades”.
Meanwhile, poor Bulgaria has the lowest life expectancy in the EU at 74.9 years. The study also revealed the impact of Covid-19 on lifespan.
In 2020, more people died in the EU than any other year since 1962, largely due to the pandemic. That is passing now and the hope is that with vaccinations, medical treatments and natural immunity, Covid should stop having a major impact on life expectancy.
Scientists have been studying so-called “blue zones” for some time. These are areas of the world where people live well past average life expectancy. Five blue zones have been identified: Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Ikaria (Greece) and Loma Linda (USA).
The latest EU analysis shows that the French island of Corsica has the highest life expectancy in the EU at 84 years, followed by the Balearic Islands in Spain at 83.9 years. Island life must be good for you.
Comparing the lifestyles of people in the different blue zones has revealed similarities. They all eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and beans. The longest-living populations also have social support and involvement – they all love socializing – and daily exercise.
Ireland may do very well in terms of life expectancy, but another metric is just as important: health expectancy. This is the number of years you have been free from serious illnesses.
A recent study has shown that older people in Ireland have, on average, a good quality of life. From the age of 68, however, it begins to decrease. The factors that predominantly influence quality of life are social factors, including social networks and social activities, but health-related factors such as chronic diseases are also important.
Comparing Ireland to other countries shows that we don’t fare too badly in terms of health span. The metric used is called Healthy Life Years. A recent study has shown that Ireland ranks third in Europe for healthy life years for women and seventh for men in Europe.
It would be good if we were higher in that particular table, especially in the men. Lifestyle plays a particularly important role in health, but it is also likely to be genetic, as chronic diseases of aging such as Alzheimer’s disease have an important genetic component.
An interesting result from several combined studies has shown that life satisfaction peaks at two ages: 23 and 69. This is the famous U-shaped curve where you are happiest at 23 and then your happiness plummets at 50 yours Bottomed out and then picks up again, peaking again at 69.
This has nothing to do with whether you have children or are single or maybe even if you are a fan of the Irish football team. It seems built into us for reasons unknown.
A wise man once said, “By the time we’re 20, we start worrying about what other people think of us. At 40, we don’t care what they think of us. And at the age of 60, we realize that they didn’t think of us at all.”
Jonathan Swift, the Irish author of Gulliver’s Travels who died in 1745 at the age of 77 – a very old age at that time – was once asked what the secret of a long and healthy life was. He said three doctors were needed: Dr. diet, dr Sleep, but perhaps most importantly Dr. Mirth.
Perhaps it is our love of madness that gets us so high in the EU life expectancy and health span rankings and let’s hope this aspect of Irish life is long lasting.
Luke O’Neill is Professor of Biochemistry in the Department of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/whats-the-secret-to-living-a-long-life-41604324.html What is the secret of a long life?