Born in 1885, Luo Meizhen can still move quickly and can see and hear well. Until this year, she had climbed a nearby mountain nearly every day to carry out farm work. The lady was recently named the oldest person in China.
The Gerontological Society of China (GSC), which compiled the list, said the 10 oldest seniors come from five ethnic groups in six provinces or autonomous regions with an average age of 119.9 years old. The youngest is 117.
The GSC said, as of August 1, 2010, the number of living seniors aged 100 or older on China's mainland had reached 43,708, a net increase of 3,316 over last year.
"With rapid economic and social development and increasing quality of people's lives, the life expectancy of Chinese has been prolonged and the number of people older than 100 in the country has risen year by year," said Li Bengong, President of the GSC.
Luo is not the oldest in the history of her hometown, Bama Yao Autonomous County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Local records tell of a 142-year-old person of the Yao ethnic group who lived there during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
GSC statistics say Bama has 81 centenarians at present, a rate of 31.7 per 100,000 local population. That far exceeds the United Nations' average for longevity, which is 7.5 centenarians per 100,000 people.
Researchers say the longevity of people in Bama is a result of their healthy lifestyle. For thousands of years, Bama people have worked from sunrise to sunset. They have adequate sleep at night and physical exercise during working hours. Every day, they go up and down the mountains doing farm work, and children tramp over mountains to school. Such high-intensity physical exercise helps build robust constitutions and strong hearts. Besides, many also have the habit of soaking their feet in hot water every night, which is thought by the Chinese to be a simple but effective way to maintain health.
The Bama diet is consistent with traditional Chinese theories on nutrition, health and longevity. People mainly eat vegetables that grow naturally with no fertilizer or pesticide, supplemented by a bit of meat. They have porridge throughout the year, and often boil it together with vegetables, fish and beans. They don't like fried food but prefer food steamed or stewed for a short time, which helps to retain nutritional value.
The Bama diet is consistent with traditional Chinese theories on nutrition, health and longevity.
Beans grow in Bama all year round and are the staple food of people there. For example, Luo likes eating soybeans and sowthistle, a kind of plant that tastes bitter and has also been used as a herbal medicine in China. Another kind of plant, fructus cannabis, is also popular in Bama. Researchers said fructus cannabis helps people absorb vitamins and contains several indispensable nutritional elements, such as fatty and amino acids, which provide the human body with necessary protein. For thousands of years, the plant has been used as a traditional medicine in Asia, Russia and Western Europe.
Scientists also found the Bama menu changes with the seasons. At the same time, all the food is low in fat, calories and salt while high in fiber, complex carbohydrates and vegetable protein.
The diet is not the only reason for the longevity of Bama's people, researchers said. Besides eating healthy, another common characteristic of long-lived people in Bama is tolerance toward others and being content with life, said Xing Yongchuan, an associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication of Guangxi University.
There is no rest home in Bama. It is common to see five generations of one family living together harmoniously. All people there live peaceful lives without any tension. The only "competition" is the traditional folk song contest. All people, regardless of age, participate in the contest. It is the best entertainment for local people and is considered a good way to keep young, physically and mentally.
Natural conditions in Bama also contribute to the longevity of local people. Scientists found the content of manganese and zinc is extremely high in the soil of the northern mountain area, while that of copper and cadmium is low. Researchers said soil with a high content of manganese and a low content of copper can reduce the rate of cardiovascular diseases, while zinc can improve immunity.
Fresh air is considered to be another helpful factor. Most long-lived people in Bama live in the valley or by the riverside, where there is no pollution at all. Researchers said the content of negative oxygen ions per cubic centimeter of air in Bama reaches 2,000 to 5,000, and the number is as high as 30,000 in some villages known for their long-lived inhabitants. In other areas, the content of negative oxygen ions is usually between 1,000 and 2,000. In addition, people in Bama are less exposed to solar radiation, which is good for health.
From the story of Bama, many people would think longevity only exists in remote mountain areas or less developed regions. But in Guangdong Province, one of the most affluent regions in China, the number of long-lived people has also been increasing.
In Sanshui, a township in Foshan city, 30 km from Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province, high energy consumption and high pollution industries have been relocated or closed since the 1990s. At the same time, the number of centenarians there has increased markedly.
"Sanshui has struck a balance between economic development and environmental protection," said Zhao Baohua, Vice President of GSC.
Apart from this, experts say the soil, water and food in the Sanshui area are rich in selenium, a microelement that can effectively prevent cardiovascular diseases, arteriosclerosis and other diseases. Selenium deficiency may result in reduced immunity.
Research has shown lifestyle accounts for 60 percent of factors contributing to one's health and longevity. A healthy lifestyle could prolong one's life by at least 10 years. It also reduces one's chance of high blood pressure by 55 percent, chance of stroke by 75 percent, chance of diabetes by 50 percent and chance of cancer by nearly one third.
The World Health Organization has issued guidelines for a healthy lifestyle: regular diet, appropriate exercise, no smoking and limited drinking, and a balanced mind. The guidelines are in line with the traditional Chinese medical theories on maintaining health, said Hu Xiaofei, a professor at the Beijing Sport University who has studied traditional Chinese methods of health preservation for more than 20 years.
In Hu's latest book, he introduces traditional health preservation theories and methods, based on the regimen of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty who died at 89 years old. Hu also created a set of exercise movements that can help to improve health and prolong one's life through three basic measures: mental activity, breathing and physical exercise.
Huang Jiaying, a 106-year-old grandma is very much respected in Suolue Village. She is always willing to offer her help to the fellow villagers who are living under the same harsh conditions. Meanwhile, she keeps working everyday. "It makes me very uncomfortable and a bit stuffy to quit working for even one day."
Leading a simple but regular life, people there share the same open and optimistic character. The tradition of respecting the old has also helped to form an easy and cozy atmosphere. In their spare time, there are no frequent dinner parties of excessive meat and wine in Bama as in the modern world, and the elderly prefer to relax by singing folk songs.
In recent years, the local government has begun to issue subsidies and conducted regular medical checkups for the centenarians.
According to the local custom, the children of a elderly local more than 60 years old should prepare a coffin. However, many old people in Bama are still fit and healthy even when the coffins prepared for them have long decayed away.
Huangmameijin, a 105-year-old centenarian of Zhuang ethnic minority from Pingan Village, now faces this problem. Her coffin, made in 1958, is falling to pieces upon her touch. "My body seems to be stronger than this trashy wood." She joked.
A waiting coffin is usually used for the storage of various grains like corn. The 116-old-year-old Pan Nieya from Ganshui Village witnessed the decay of four coffins built for her. When she finally left this world, she was lying in her fifth coffin.
Looking for the Secret of Longevity
The Bama people's living standards are not high, but they like to help others, and are satisfied with their current situation.
The main food of the Bama people is yellow corn, beans, potatoes, vegetables and the oil produced from tea-oil trees.
A life time of hard work has given the people strong muscles and bones, which is another reason for their long life span.
These centenarians all have good families, they get along well with their family members, and their children treat them well.
The longevity hometowns all over the world which have been acknowledged by experts are respectively located in Xinjiang, northwest China, Pakistan, Caucasia in Russia and Ecuador. Experts seem to have found a regular pattern that all of these sites are generally located along the ancient "Silk Road". But the discovery of Bama has broken the longevity chain along the "Silk Road".
More amazingly, experts have found that the decline of longevity widely seen in other longevity hometowns has not appeared here. One of the major reasons contributing to this phenomenon is that Bama has not been invaded by modern civilization and keeps its traditional diet.
A unique plan to build a tourist park inhabited by the elderly has been proposed in Bama. But it immediately sparked debate as some fear such "longevity tourism" might threaten the traditional long life of the citizens. "The introduction of modern culture may threaten the longevity chain here," said Keichi Morishita, president of the International Natural Medicine Society