Latin American Report
Living 100 Years, Free of Stress or Heart Attacks
By Kintto Lucas
QUITO, May 17 (IPS) - The residents of Vilcabamba, a small town in what has been dubbed ''the valley of longevity'' in southern Ecuador has found the formula for living more than 100 years.
The spot has long drawn scientists from around the globe, attempting to decipher the causes of the long, healthy lives enjoyed by local residents. Articles have appeared in a number of publications, with theories ranging from the minerals in the local water supply to the pure air.
Dr. Guillermo Vela Chiriboga, an Ecuadorean physician, has announced his own findings in his book ''The Secrets of Vilcabamba''.
Humankind has long dreamt of living hundreds of years without growing old. While scientists sought a pill that would turn the dream into reality, writers imagined places where people never aged, and adventurers pinned their hopes of amassing fortunes on the elusive ''fountain of youth.''
More than two decades ago, U.S. magnate John Smith told his doctor, Alexander Leaf, a reknowned faculty member at Harvard University, that he would finance the search for a place where people never grew old. Leaf did not hesitate in telling Smith that he did not believe in any mythical fountain of youth. But he added that he did believe there were certain places where special conditions favoured longevity.
One day he ran across an account written in the early 19th century by a U.S. traveller who had been surprised to reach ''a place called Vilcabamba, where people lived longer'' and fell ill less than in any other place on earth. After reading the chronicle, Leaf travelled to the small town tucked away in Ecuador's Andes mountains, and later organised two scientific expeditions to investigate the causes of the longevity of local residents. One of the expeditions was headed by Vela Chiriboga.
Many pinned their hopes on a magic potion capable of helping people live many years. Leaf ruled out that possibility, and although the research was still in progress, he anticipated his results in his book ''Youth and Old Age''. According to Leaf, the far better than normal health enjoyed by the elderly in Vilcabamba was due to their quality of life, because they integrated work and physical exercise with an adequate diet and ''inner peace.''
In his view, the residents of Vilcabamba lived a useful, happy old age, similar to the inhabitants of Akash, in the Caucasus mountains, and Juntza, Pakistan. Leaf said they could serve as an example for urban populations worldwide. Twenty years later, Vela Chiriboga returned to the research carried out under Leaf, and studied the incidence of cardiovascular ailments on longevity in Vilcabamba.
''Even if Gabriel Erazo, who claimed to be 130 years old, and others who claim to be over 100 are 20 or 30 years younger, that does not invalidate the reality: there is no intense arteriosclerosis among the elderly in the area, which allows them to lead normal lives,'' said the Ecuadorean physician.
Like others before him, Vela Chiriboga found that despite some hearing loss among a few, elderly people in Vilcabamba on the whole were agile and mentally lucid, with a sense of humour and admirable physical health. Local residents largely produce what they consume and do not trade their products with neighbouring villages, preferring a more self-contained lifestyle.
Although Vela Chiriboga did not believe in any legendary cause of longevity, he said that in the lifestyle of the residents of Vilcabamba he had found several teachings that could help improve the lives of people elsewhere. The doctor pointed out that technology had changed the structure of humanity, greatly reducing the mortality rates of a number of illnesses, while significantly increasing problems caused by stress and premature ageing.
Arteriosclerosis ''stalks humanity, with its sequel of heart attacks and strokes, not to mention disability and death. ''In Vilcabamba I found very elderly people with healthy bodies and souls. The studies carried out reveal that their arteriosclerosis is only incipient, and their hearts healthy.''
The research also found that the elderly residents did not suffer fractures or osseous-arthritic ailments, which could be expected to be common given the intense physical activity involved in their farming activity. In Vela Chiriboga's view, local inhabitants ''enjoy tranquillity without a competitive spirit; spurn the accumulation of wealth; and eat an exemplary diet based on corn, beans, 'quinua', peanuts, white cabbage and other vegetables that keep them free of digestive upsets and arteriosclerosis,'' he said.
An unpolluted environment, active lifestyles involving chores carried out from early in the morning and moderate tobacco and alcohol use are characteristics that keep inhabitants of Vilcabamba in good health, said the doctor. Neither paradise lost nor a legend, Vilcabamba is just a tiny corner of this small Andean nation where people live 100 years without stress or heart attacks. (END/IPS/tra-so/kl/ag/sw/99)