The chairman of an international committee has a message for the inhabitants of Chengmai county in South China's Hainan province: growing old is nothing to be afraid of if you live in the right place.
The county has been recognized as a "world longevity area".
The message comes from Professor Joseph Troisi, chairman of the International Expert Committee on Population Ageing and Longevity.
"Growing old in Chengmai is something to look forward to," Troisi said in a press release in Beijing on Nov 2. The committee granted the "world longevity area" certificate to Chengmai county.
Chengmai lies on the northwestern side of Hainan island, overlooking the Qiongzhou Strait, and near to Hainan's capital city, Haikou. The county is rich in selenium — a trace mineral essential for good health but required only in small amounts. Large areas of the county are covered by forest.
Average life expectancy there is 77.79 years, according to Zheng Fangping, the county's deputy head.
The county has 215 centenarians. Both the number of centenarians, and their proportion in the overall population, rank highest among all Chinese cities and counties.
With a history dating back 2,122 years, Chengmai is one of the three oldest counties in Hainan. It has a population of 565,000, of which 18,500 are over the age of 80. Moreover, of these elderly people, 896 are couples.
The committee is a non-governmental organization set up this year by the Northeast Asia Economic Forum. The Forum and the Hainan provincial government organized the 2nd International Conference on Ageing Population and Longevity from Sep 5-7 this year in Chengmai.
More than 60 experts, scholars and government officials from countries including Japan, the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and the European Union attended, as well as representatives from China's best-recognized longevity areas.
A working group under the committe released a report on the recognition of Chengmai as a "world longevity area", analyzing the factors of long life. This included an investigation of the social and environmental conditions of the area, as well as a self-evaluation of the health of the centenarians.
The working group found the quality of drinking water in Chengmai to be high and rich in minerals.
The soil is clean, meeting all national standards for soil quality. Rice, vegetables and fruit are rich in calcium, magnesium and selenium, and the county is well known for its high-quality coffee and oranges.
Zheng says the county is known in Hainan for its clean air, pure water and selenium-rich agricultural products. The region has a maritime climate, with abundant sunshine, high temperatures and much rain. The county faces the sea to the north, has abundant plains in the center, and mountain ranges to the south.
Most elderly people in Chengmai are farmers who grew up working in the fields. The centenarians are warm-hearted, hospitable and like outdoor activities. The county also has a long tradition of respecting the elderly, giving a 600 yuan ($96) subsidy to each centenarian every month.
In 2005, Chengmai was recognized by the Gerontological Society of China as China's 10th longevity area.
The committee's working group analyzed Chengmai centenarians' hair, and found it contained more iron, zinc, selenium and the alkaline earth metal strontium compared to centenarians in other parts of China, and less harmful elements such as cadmium and lead.
In a self-evaluation, most of the centenarians consider themselves to be in good or normal health. Less than 20 percent feel their health is poor, 77 percent can care for themselves, while less than 8 percent depend on others. Some 69 percent of the centenarians are happy with the quality of their sleep, and up to 80 percent of them are satisfied with quality of life.
Hainan is one of China's provinces where ageing develops the fastest, and elderly people comprise the highest proportion of the population. By 2008, its population of old people had reached 1.04 million, some 12.12 percent of its total population.
Health and longevity has become an issue of global concern, and the committee suggests that China's tradition of maintaining health and longevity is meaningful to the entire world.
Troisi, who is also director of the International Institute of Ageing, United Nations-Malta, compares Chengmai's designation of "world longevity area" to the gold medals China has won at the Olympic Games.
"Chengmai is the first and only longevity area recognized by the United Nations," he said.
On the other hand, he suggests that China, with the world's highest number of centenarians, should look to do more to improve the quality of life for old people.