Thursday, 15 October 2015

Long Lives in the Welsh Valleys & the Sardinian Hills.

Michaela Chiappa is a young mum with two children. Her new daughter has got her to thinking... How do you try to ensure a long, happy and healthy life? Her home in Wales may be a very good place to start seeking answers. In 2015 there are 600 people aged one hundred or over. Perhaps they can reveal some of the secrets for their longevity.

Merthyr in the South Wales valleys, the place where Michaela was born and raised. From Italian  Heritage, her family moved to Wales and fifty years ago opened The Station Cafe. Italians like the Welsh, hold Food, Family and Community dear. 

Life expectancy in Italy has now increased by fifteen years, and this rise is also true in affluent areas of Wales like Cardiff, unfortunately in the towns and valleys of South Wales, Life Expectancy is among the lowest in Western Europe. The people of Merthyr are likely to live an average of ten years fewer than people living in  Cardiff. Wales has the highest rates of Obesity, diabetes, cancers and heart disease in Western Europe.

Michaela meets Lee and Leanne, in their thirties with a young baby and older son. Both worry about their health and although they try to eat healthily and can cook, find their health deteriorating. They met at Slimming World where they had both had good results, becoming a couple made them get comfortable and less careful with their diets.  Lee get breathless showing the film crew the contents of the freezer. His mother has had two heart attacks and there is  diabetes in Leanne's family history.

Michaela is not convinced that an austere diet is the true path to a long life, she and her family are not adverse to a few sweet treats, cakes, pies , cream, wine and cheese all appear on their table , a little but often seems to be their idea of living The Dolce Vita.

It is one of her beloved Nonna's crostata recipes she takes as a hostess gift to the party of our first Welsh Centenarian, Doris.

Doris was born in 1910 in the town of Neath where she still lives. She is engaged in her surroundings,lively and Spritely and has a wealth of wisdom behind those twinkly eyes.

The Only survivor of five siblings, all lost to infant death or miscarriage, she left school at 14 to enter Domestic Service and worked as a cleaner,Receptionist and even in the  kitchen at her old school. Working for a total of Fifty One years, she was married at age Twenty One and had the first of her four children four years later. Outside of family, her life revolved around the chapel where she sang in the choir and became a Sunday school teacher. Beloved husband,Ivor died 39 years ago in 1976 and she lived in their marital home until just last year. 

She attributes her longevity to nothing magical or special, she lives "cheaply and Freely". She eats well three times a day, rarely snacking between meals. She enjoys a piece of toast for her breakfast and occasionally treats herself to an egg or some cheese to top it. Keep it simple and don't over indulge seems to be her maxim.

She thinks a strong family is very important, that with them behind you, you have some backbone and strength to meet life's challenges, although she does not hold to the idea that life has to be hard, it is what you make of it that she thinks that is important, that it is only yourself who can make your life happy or otherwise. 

Next we meet Eric, soul occupant of Merthyr who has reached One Hundred, outliving the average local life expectancy by thirty years! 

Eric is bright and bubbly, he says there is no secret, he feels great and that is because he has done what he wants to do exactly when he felt like doing it! He enjoys the odd tipple he says with a little giggle,, but it is obvious he deserves the odd indulgence once in a while.

He has always worked, starting at age fourteen. Like generations of Valley Boys before him,  in 1924 he finished school on the Friday and was working down the Coal Pit the following Monday. He escaped the cramped dark mine about five years later when he joined the Welsh Guard. After the war he joined the police, retiring in 1966 and going on to work as a Hospital Porter and a factory worker until in 1982 he retired after working fifty four years.  

Losing his wife just shy of their golden wedding anniversary in 1990, he now lives with his son Hywell. He and Michaela share some reminisces about The Railway Cafe, Eric knew Tony and Louisa 
( Michaela's Grandmother ) and spent many hours whiling his time away in its cosy surroundings. He says whenever it went quiet at night in town, you were always sure to find everyone in Viazani's, it was a real community hub.

Eric says hobbies have played a big part in his happiness, playing and following Rugby has given him great joy and trying to enjoy life and looking after family have been the mainstays of life and how he has lived it.

The big difference between how Doris and Eric lived and Seventy Percent of the populace now is that we work in offices at jobs with desks not picks or mops and this sedentary lifestyle is impacting our general health.

Ronald Prince the last of the centenarians Michaela visits in Wales, keeps himself active at the gym, his workouts are gentle but entered into with enthusiasm. He attributes a part of his longevity to Genes and so urges us to choose our parents carefully! His own parents outlived the average age in the 1960s which was Sixty Seven for men and Seventy for women, Ron's parents reached eighty two and eighty five. 

Leaving School at Sixteen to become an Apprentice Radio Engineer, he moved to work the land in Pembrokeshire during the war and it was whilst he was a caretaker at the Hostel where Land Gilrs were billeted that he met his wife Grace, who was a nurse at a Children's TB hospitalHe rounded out his career at Chalinor Brothers, an electronics shop and retired from there in his Seventies when the shop closed.

He is not idle though he grows and nurtures a sizeable vegetable crop.He believes that  this work keeps him vital and that the goodness in home grown vegetables helps too. So activity, purpose and food all have a bearing

Michaela wonders whether positive mental attitude has any real influence so goes to see a Doctor to see if some people are born happy. Studies by Swansea University produced A Meta study of mortality and it  shows that the top thing for elongating life is Social Support. Over a seven year period, strong support from friends and family has been proven to increase life expectancy. This has a bigger effect than stopping smoking and reducing the risk of Obesity by diet and those illness related directly to mortality.

Family and it's place in giving people a role and a place in society, a feeling of usefulness and of course combatting loneliness which has a proven affect on the brain that can shorten life in some cases. Family is very important to Michaela and it looks promising, it is thought that babies born after 2014 have a one in three chance of living to One Hundred.

Nutrition is important so Michaela uses some of the broad beans she had harvested from Ronald's Garden to make a pesto for pasta and invites her parents over for supper. They talk of the importance of family in happiness and the need to stay active for as long as physically possible, which is easier the more active you are when you are young. The message of her Italian Heritage prompts Michaela to take her questions back to the Homeland. Part two of Michaela's investigation will take us to Ogliastra on the island of Sardinia, one of the three places on Earth that has the most people aged eighty, ninety and hundred.

This is a region where the rates of diabetes and cancer are a fraction of those in the UK. One in three people living there are in their nineties. The region is the same size as  borough of Merthyr and there are 33 Centenarian in the small town of Villegrande alone. Unlike poor Eric whose sole status as centenarian is a lonely one.

Michaela meets Eugenio and at one hundred years and thirty nine days is the youngster in town.

He says the best way to live to One hundred is Not to Die before. He does not eat evening meals any longer, but he likes a good plate of pasta. He finished one year of school and went into the family work of Olive farming, wheat and wine growing. 

Dr Pez , a local longevity expert has been studying the so called World Blue zones which delineates areas where there is a higher levels of older inhabitants. He started his thinking that it was genetics , but over the last fifteen years, he has come to believe that eighty percent of longevity is environmental , so nutrition, socialisation, purpose and Physical exercise are key. All things we are hearing often during this quest.

Food provision in The town seem to bear this out, there are no supermarkets, no takeaways, all the food is fresh and locally produced. They spend all day cooking or preparing for meals. 

Socialisation is not a problem either, the Young  and old and all mix freely

The people of the town all have Purpose, they never retire, just slow  downs little bit  just doing  what needs to be done and here in Sardinia the  men are equally represented unlike the other blue zones where women generally live longer.

She goes to see Eighty one year old  farmer Francesco who rears Goats, sheep, cows and pigs on twenty six acres of scrubland in the hills above Villagrande. Seven  days a week,all year around, he is here working and living from the land. Sometimes he  even sleeps out in the open. All the stock are Milked by hand, his fifty years old nephew helps milk . The milk from the two hundred  ewes will be used to make cheese . The milking takes about an hour. He loves his life and has no plans to stop. The only concession he makes to his age is not to sleep in the old hut that housed generations before him.

The hard work so synonymous with Welsh mining and farming might be a fading memory as the constant migration to the cities continues and as this hard graft in the outdoors seems to be important in prolonging life, what can we do as modern workers to find a compromise.  Michaela visits a modern family who seem to have found a satisfactory balance combining all of the components discovered thus far and still being part of a modern Sardinia.

With both sets of elderly parents living and two young adults still at home, the family is obviously vitally important to Marco and Mariangela. Every member is actively involved in home life. Skills and traditions are passed down the generations. They milk the goats and set about making cheese. They tend their vegetable plot and cook meals from scratch  and all the while moved around their day jobs .Mariangela runs a B&B  and Marco works for the local forestry commission.

Their way of life is completely alien to our modern ideas and behaviours, food must be fast, we must be seen to be doing, consuming and working fast. Work is a vital part of the equation on Sardinia, but the difference is the focus is on what is labour intensive and wholesome, so hard work in the outdoors for the benefit of themselves and family life. Likewise Food is not a chore to be dealt with as quickly as possible, but a delight that you spend time and attention on , bringing everyone into the process.

The distillation of this quest  appears to be simple, it is simplicity itself. Eat what you want, but make sure is is wholesome and as naturally sourced as possible. Get regular exercise in the fresh air, ideally making that exertion part of a daily routine. Keep family close,support one another and involve everyone in every part of your life and whatever your life has in store, enjoy it, make it something special so whether you reach that magic century or not, you can say you have truly lived!



1 comment:

  1. Learned a lot reading this review. Enjoyed all of their stories on how they got older. Very informative!!