|LE Magazine November 1999 |
Into the 21st Century at 99
Las Vegas is not everyone's idea of permanent residency, but the hot oasis suits Carolina Hirsch just fine. An artist who works in oils and wax, Carolina recently showed a collection of 10 new paintings entitled Outer Space. This is her second show in two years. At 99, however, Carolina has no plans of slowing down. Blank canvases for the next 10 outer space paintings stand against a wall. Carolina will get to them when she has time.
For now, she's focusing on her new "body bridge"-a device her doctor told her not to get. She's positively effusive about doing backbends over the bridge. And it wouldn't be the first time she didn't do what the doctor ordered. According to Carolina, coming to one's own conclusions after discussing health matters with a physician is one of the secrets of longevity. Still mad about her father dying two days after he saw a doctor for the first time, she tells me, "If I agree with what a doctor tells me to do, I do it. If I don't, I don't." Although she recently had a cataract operation she is pleased with, Carolina claims to have narrowly escaped several unnecessary operations that could have slowed her down. "Why would a doctor want to do a hysterectomy on me?" she asks. "There's no cancer in my family." Good question.
So, Carolina, how do you keep so youthful? And youthful she is. Passing her on the street, you would swear she's 30 years younger than she actually is. According to Carolina's calculations, it's a combination of genes and an active lifestyle. But then she backtracks a bit on the gene part with a confession that her mother died young-at 79 (her father lived to 97). Anyway, she says, if the mind goes, so goes the body. "Keeping the mind active," she says, "that's the key." Those sentiments echo the advice of 122- year-old Jeanne Calment. Carolina, like Jeanne, is remarkably active (Calment reportedly took up fencing at age 85). Every morning she performs an exercise routine she developed from information she gathered by reading or watching TV. First she does stomach exercises on her slant board. Then she does back bends on her new "body bridge". According to her, the bridge keeps her spine supple and makes blood go to her brain-very important, she says. After that, she takes to the hall of her building, and walks back-and-forth 500 steps. "I'm soon increasing it to 600," she confides. Asked if other tenants complain about this extra activity in the hallway, she demurs, "Oh no, some of them do it too." According to her, some Vegas doctors tell their patients to walk, but only inside-away from the heat and the bone-breaking concrete.
After doing her exercises she says her prayers, has breakfast, reads the paper, and then turns to her painting. Breakfast is cereal and mail-order fruit from Texas. Mail order is great, she says. "It saves wear and tear on me." Sometimes she has Morningstar tofu/soy products. A 20-year vegetarian, Carolina hasn't touched meat since the day she saw a cow being led to slaughter on television. "Her eyes were so sad," she says. "I realized I was doing this. I was responsible, and besides, who needs all those chemicals and antibiotics? Right then I decided I would never eat meat again." And she hasn't, preferring instead "that vegetable the President hated," noodles, tofu and salad. She chases her vegetables with about 10 vitamins, including antioxidant vitamins C and pycnogenol. Asked if she ever skips the vitamins, Carolina quickly answers, "No."
One might wonder where she gets the inspiration for such paintings such as Mars in the Millennium, which depicts the Vegas Stratosphere on Mars. Or Pegasus Landing on Mars. Or The Black Hole. "I would have loved to have been an astronaut," she says. Fascinated with space, Carolina has subscriptions to astronomy magazines, and frequently corresponds with NASA, which is happy to send information by mail. Reading these publications, and simply thinking, provided the inspiration for her outer space paintings.
Born in 1900, Carolina will join about 40,000 other American centenarians in the year 2000. When told about this, Carolina is surprised there are so many people as over-the-hill as she is, but quickly asserts that living a century is nothing, and plans to go until at least 110. Her only complaint is that, at 99, arthritis has begun nagging her hands. Apart from this insult to her well-being, Carolina has no complaints. With a cataract operation, an artificial hip and reading glasses her only concessions to age, she is headed past her tenth decade better equipped than some people half her age. When asked about her Teflon resistance, Carolina merely laughs, and says she drinks the same coffee as the king and queen of Sweden. But the reality is that Carolina is instinctively doing things proven to reverse aging and stave off degenerative disease.
Study after study show that exercise and eating vegetables enable you to live longer, healthier. And we're talking about substantial increases in longevity, and significant decreases in disease. To give you an idea of how much difference adopting a vegetable diet can make, here are some facts from a German study published in 1994: after 11 years of follow-up, death from all causes was slashed in half; mortality from colon cancer was reduced 44% for men and 77% for women. The colon cancer connection is not surprising: dozens of studies document an association between meat-eating and colon cancer. Another study on 27,000 Seventh Day Adventists shows that eating meat, eggs and milk increases mortality overall, and increases mortality from colon and prostate cancer specifically, as well as heart disease.
Can people get enough nutrition through a vegetable diet? The answer is a resounding "Yes," backed up by stacks of studies. How about older people like Carolina? Dutch researchers have found that elderly vegetarians are more likely to meet nutritional guidelines than meat-eaters. However, elderly people of all dietary persuasions should be aware that deficiencies of vitamin B12, folic acid, zinc and iron are common. Antioxidants provide extra insurance for people like Carolina who may not eat a wide variety of vegetables.
As for exercise, let's go to Holland again and look at ice skaters. After 32 years of follow-up, Dutch scientists report that mortality was about 25% lower in male ice skaters than in the general population. For women, the Framingham Heart Study shows an amazing decrease in mortality for those over 75 who get up and move: a 75% reduction at 10 years of follow up. Don't rush, though. Both studies indicate that the benefits of exercise, which peak with moderation, start to erode with over-exertion.
Getting the "active mind" that Carolina and others recommend hinges on having a healthy body. A person can't have diverse and enjoyable interests if they have to focus all their energies on health problems. While genes may determine a person's maximal lifespan, lifestyle choices will determine whether they get there or not. By making simple lifestyle choices, Carolina has escaped cancer, heart disease and most of the degenerative diseases of age. As a result, she is free to follow where her mind takes her-whether it's Mars, The Stratosphere or beyond.
- Chang-Claude J, et al. 1992. Mortality pattern of German vegetarians after 11 years of follow-up [see comments]. Epidemiology 3:395-401.
- Frentzel-Beyme R, et al. 1994. Vegetarian diets and colon cancer: theGerman experience. Am J Clin Nutr 59 (5 suppl):1143S-52S.
- Sherman SE, et al. 1994. Does exercise reduce mortality rates in the elderly? Experience from the Framingham Heart Study. Am Heart J 128:965-72.
- Snowdon DA. 1988. Animal product consumption and mortality because of all causes combined, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer in Seventh Day Adventists. Am J Clin Nutr 48 (3 suppl):739-48.
- van Saase JL, et al. 1990. Longevity of men capable of prolonged vigorous physical exercise: a 32 year follow up of 2259 participants in the Dutch eleven cities ice skating tour. BMJ 301:1409-11.