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Silver Threads: The fountain of youth

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

I read in the paper the other day that a $1 million prize has been offered for finding the fountain of youth. Right away, I envisioned men and women in jungle gear hacking their way through the Florida Everglades with machetes, just the way the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon and his explorers must have done.

My next thought was how on earth did I remember de Leon’s name, which probably was in my third-grade geography book, when I can’t even be sure what I walked into our kitchen to get? They say the mind is like a computer, and by the time you’re in your 70s, the last thing entered into your files is fighting for space and hard to find. But that’s another column.

The second thing I thought was that if I were fortunate enough to discover the fountain I’d bypass the measly million and set up shop for myself right beside it, doling out cups of its miracle-working water to all comers at $100 per glass. Shoot, I’d make more than a million in a few weeks, and a lot of other folks would do well, too. People would need to charter buses to get there, nearby motels would be jammed, and -- well, you get the picture.

Then, reading into the article, under the intriguing headline, revealed that the Washington Post staffer reporting this story just used the fountain of youth line as catchy color for his lead. It seems that Joon Yun, a radiologist who heads Palo Alto Investors, has created the Palo Alto Longevity Prize as a way to urge teams of researchers to “hack the aging code.”

But Methuselah, who died shortly before his grandson Noah sailed off in his ark to escape drowning in the Great Flood, appears to have already hacked it, if you take the Old Testament literally. He lived to be 969, according to those who do.

Today, life expectancy in the United States is 78.7 years, and I’m assuming that’s from birth, since modern babies and children are no longer threatened by once prevalent diseases and incurable disorders.

But “… the inclusion of infant mortality rates in calculating life expectancy creates the mistaken impression that earlier generations died at a young age; Americans were not dying en masse at the age of 46 in 1907,” reports one internet source.

“The fact is that the maximum human lifespan -- a concept often confused with ‘life expectancy' -- has remained more or less the same for thousands of years. The idea that our ancestors routinely died young (say, at age 40) has no basis in scientific fact.” Many could expect to survive to age 71 as early as in the 16th century.

USA Today reported only two weeks ago that there “are still six people alive -- all of them women -- who saw the dawn of the 20th century. And four of them are Americans. [Several others also claim to hail from the 19th century — one Mexican woman even says she is 127 -- but lack the records to back it up.]”

The oldest is Misao Okawa of Japan, who celebrated her 116th birthday in March. She was born when Queen Victoria was still on the throne and the Spanish-American War was raging. Her secrets to longevity? “Good genes, regular sleep, exercise -- she was doing leg squats at 102 -- and some sushi,” reported the British Daily Telegraph. "Eat and sleep and you will live a long time."

The eating and sleeping I can do, but she lost me on the leg squats. I had a feeling that bailing out of the exercise class at the “Y” was a big mistake. Maybe my only hope to reach Ms. Okawa’s years is that the fountain of youth turns out to be real.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]