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Long life isn't such a big riddle

By Jules Quartly | China Daily | Updated: 2012-10-24 09:12

There's little mystery about living longer. It's 20-30 percent genes directing your fate, and a combination of making sure you do all the things you're supposed to do, like not get killed off, sleep and eat well, and exercise.

Related: Golden oldies of Hong Kong

That is the consensus of most articles on the subject and appears to be the main conclusion of a recent report by Japan's health ministry, which admitted that Hong Kong women live longest.

I never thought of Hong Kong as a particularly healthy place to live, since it is practically a giant mall and with very little sunlight in downtown areas.

But there it is, Japan's life expectancy has declined to 79.44 for men and 85.90 for women, mainly because of disease or natural causes of death - and not the nuclear and tsunami disasters - while Hong Kong's men are expected to reach 80.5 and women now live to an expected 86.7 years old.

The New York Times' take on this was the change for the better was likely due to medical services and greater health consciousness, but added this would have been despite the "smog and at times oily Cantonese cuisine".

Old ladies ascending Hong Kong's hilly streets and swimming in the morning, or doing tai chi were cited as reasons for the record-breaking longevity of Hong Kong's women, along with buying fresh produce at markets.

While I would add that Hong Kong's air quality and cuisine can't be too bad in terms of life expectancy, any way you cook it, Asians typically live longer than Westerners, Latin Americans, Africans and the rest.

There is a theory that by adopting a staple diet based on rice, Asians avoid so-called "Western diseases" such as cancer and coronary troubles. This school of thought was promoted in The China Study, a 2004 book by T. Colin Campbell at Cornell University, and his son. They advocated plant foods, less dairy and processed foods. Such a diet tends to keep you trimmer and less clogged up by cholesterol.

Yet, in the US, studies such as those by Dr Christopher Murray of the Harvard University School of Public Health show Asian-Americans do not lose their life expectancy advantage of 10 years over Euro-Americans, even if they are second generation and have adopted high calorie Western-style diets.

So, perhaps there is something else, and I suggest this could be preventive medicine. While I have the Western attitude of only seeing the doctor when I need to and getting a pill to treat the ill, my Chinese family and colleagues are drinking warm water and taking traditional Chinese medicines instead to ward off problems. Also, Chinese exercises, such as tai chi, seem to be more holistic and about benefiting the whole body.

It's an "alternative" attitude toward "life health" and seems to take the long view, especially when the cumulative effects of lifestyle pile up and are exacerbated by the powerful side effects of medicines.

It reminds me of the story of Qin Shihuang, the first emperor to unify China, in 221 BC. He may have ended up killing himself in his quest for the elixir of life, as the mercury pills that were prescribed to make him immortal possibly poisoned him.

This appears to me a morality tale that we could take to heart. Perhaps science doesn't always save us, perhaps it can cause as many problems as it promises to solve? For instance, the treatment of depression with anti-depressants causes untold problems, while others may believe they can eat, drink and be merry because science will save them.

My feeling is there is no holy grail for a long and healthy life, but we would be wise to follow the Asian idea of prevention is better than cure.

As for Hong Kong, I visited recently and discovered it has much more than just malls, but also picturesque open spaces, a rich culture and enviably healthy lifestyles based on hard work.

The longevity record is proof of what can be achieved health-wise in cities with little direct sunlight and less than perfect air. It offers hope for us all.

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