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Centenarians in India: Secrets to Long Life

Imagine yourself sitting on a mat floor as a school-going child, conversing with a person more than one hundred years old. You are almost 13,000 miles from the United States where the three oceans meet and surrounded by spice mountains, plush forest, and you are within a maze of backwaters. You are in the southwestern part of India. Kerala, India, also known as “God’s own country.” I have visited this area every summer for the past 10 years, and I would like to share my observations of some of the centenarians in the area and their “secrets of long life.” As a social worker, I am keenly intrigued with the relationship between their longevity and their lifestyles.

Every summer, I offer a summer study abroad course called “India Experience” to social work students and professionals. We trek to Kerala, India ( This area is known as the “spice capital of the world,” “Venice of Asia,” and “God’s own country.” National Geographic named Kerala as one of the “fifty places to visit in a lifetime.” According to anthropologists, Kerala is one of the few places in the world where the matriarchal family system still exists. A recent United Nations study identified this as the only place in the world with an almost perfect literacy rate. The infant mortality rate is lower than in some of the cities in the United States, and there is a vibrant alternative health system. One thing that fascinates me about India is the aging population. Respect for the aged is deeply rooted in this culture. The use of honorific language and courteous manners is widely observed in these cultures when addressing elders.

Today, as I prepare for my next trip to Kerala, I want to tell you about these people—to honor their ways such that we may learn from them. Rather than telling you about a day in my life, I want to tell you about factors in their day-to-day lives that I believe have contributed to their longevity.

Some of the recent research on centenarians includes the Okinawa Centenarian Study, New England Centenarian Study, Georgia Centenarian Study, Swedish Centenarian Study, and Human Longevity and Aging Research of the National Institute on Aging. These studies seem to focus more on genes and the impact of modern medical innovations as the main factors in the longevity of centenarians. Over the years, I have been interacting with centenarians from different strata of the community, to obtain qualitative data on the secret of long life. My interest is more on the impact of lifestyles on longevity than on genetics. As I ventured out to interview this population group in India, I became more and more convinced that the breakthrough in modern medicine alone is not the primary factor to the secret of long life.

My case studies on centenarians focus mainly on variables such as the social, culture, familial, spiritual, dietary habits, socialization patterns, feelings of worthiness, physical, and mental exercises. Several of these factors are transferable to our society in the United States in working with senior elders.

Even the poorest interview subjects have valuable traits within their lifestyles, which allow them to live healthy lives. In eastern cultures such as India, respecting elders and their “practice wisdom” is very much a factor in the day-to-day activities of the people. These elders may or may not be related to a person. Societal respect to this population group is a way of life. In these types of traditional cultures, elders stay with their extended family members. Relatives and the neighbors make sure that these elders’ needs are taken care of in a proper way. Children look upon the elders to learn oral histories and practice wisdoms that are generally passed on from one generation to another.

The longest continuously living civilization in the world today exists in India. There are thousands of years of oral history communicated from one generation to another through the close interaction of young and old. Many lessons on ethics, morality, and clean living are transmitted in the form of poems. Animals, birds, trees, and nature are common elements of these ancient stories, which live on through the youth.

While I was interviewing these centenarians, I was careful not to be preoccupied with “time.” As in any culture, my subjects liked to tell incident after incident they have encountered in their lives. Some are positive and others are negative. As I listened to their stories, they reflected a similar growth or maturation process. There are several common factors I was able to identify, irrespective of these centenarians’ socioeconomic status, that are common factors of their long life. I did not see a pattern of siblings and parents living a long life among these centenarians. Let me share with you some of these factors.

Positive attitude:

Leading a stress-free lifestyle is very much a part of their day-to-day activities. Every single one of my subjects exhibited an aura of optimism in our conversation. This is very much visible in both their verbal and non-verbal communication with people around them. A smiling face is always visible, and it is more or less expected that others around them also project the same expression of outward happiness. They are happy with their lives and are hopeful about the future. Even if others observe negative events in the centenarian’s life, such as the death of a family member, illness, or financial difficulties, to a close person, the centenarians have a tendency to bounce back from those situations very quickly. Long-term mourning is not visible among these individuals. They tend to develop positive outlooks in negative situations. Moreover, they try to instill this quality among the people they associate with on a daily basis. If they come across people who are pessimistic in their outlook, first they try to steer them to a positive way of thinking; if they are not successful, they tend to avoid them in a nonspecific pattern of exclusion from their close categories of contacts. Staying young has a lot to do with lifestyle and independence. They do not want to be dependent on others. Every day, they wake up in the morning with a new set of goals to accomplish.

Physical and mental exercise:

Poor and rich alike, these centenarians, from the time they get up in the morning until they are ready to sleep, are constantly involved in some form of physical or mental activity. They keep themselves physically and mentally active at all times. There is nothing called “boring” in their daily routine. You never observe them sitting in one place for an extended period of time. Walking around is very much a part of their lifestyle. They project a lot of positive energy to others, as well. They are always doing something, such as cleaning the place around them, walking, gardening, cooking, or sight seeing. Sometimes to an outsider, their activities may not look productive. They are never lonely or stay alone for extended periods of time. However, they do seek their own space. They have a true sense of life. To stay alert mentally, they are involved in activities such as reading, writing, and memorization. For example, several of them are constantly learning new things—sometimes simple things such as memorizing telephone numbers, birthdates, special event dates, or Sanskrit poems. Two of the centenarians could recite multiplication tables from one to 59. One centenarian even recited to my American social work students the Gettysburg Address.

Eating habits:

Most of my subjects are vegetarians. They consume freshly picked vegetables and fruits. Sprouted items are common in their diet. They can easily identify vegetables and fruits with healing qualities. They seldom eat refrigerated items. Every day, they eat at the same times, regularly, and in little quantities (no one is able to tempt them with larger portions, even if it is their favorite). They do not involve themselves in lengthy conversation while eating. Eating slowly and concentrating is very much a part of their routine. For instance, they say “each time you put food in the mouth you need to chew it 32 times—one for each tooth.” They consume large quantities of water, surprisingly warm water, boiled with the herbal seed “cumin” (but not while they eat). Several types of spices and herbs are part of their diet. Even if they need to travel to other places, they insist on eating at their regular times. They make it a point not to sleep or lie down at least two hours after they eat.

Traditional healing practices:

These centenarians are very proud to identify their traditional healing practices as one of the main secrets of longevity. Naturopathy, yoga, herbs, and spices are identified as some of these healing practices. For example, most of these elders awake in the morning at least one hour before sunrise and do “sun gazing.” Early morning walking, meditation, yoga, including breathing exercise, and cold water bathing are part of their daily rituals.

Feeling of worthiness:

Doing good things for others is paramount to this group of people. Instead of expecting anything in return, they are always eager to assist others—relatives, friends, or even strangers. Giving advice and narrating their positive lifestyles to others are part of their daily routine. It is part of the traditions to respect the elders. Even if others are not seeking anything, young and old alike receive advice from these elders on all types of things, such as: interpersonal relationships, dietary habits, financial security, and spirituality. Neighbors invite the senior-most elders among their midst to birthdays, marriages, the birth of new babies, and other happy occasions. Receiving blessings from these elders is seen with great pride. People bow in front of these elders by keeping their hands together and touching the feet of the elders as a blessing. Their “practice wisdoms” are highly honored. Some of the other characteristic features include: they laugh at all times, they are very friendly, they behave like children, they develop good support networks, and extended family members and friends visit them often. There are many well wishers surrounding these centenarians. These elders have an answer for all your questions. They insist it comes with their “practice wisdom.”

Socialization pattern:

Feeling comfortable and friendly with others, including strangers, is a landmark of these centenarians. They feel comfortable socializing with people from different age groups. They try to keep up to date on what is happening locally, nationally, and internationally. They are always willing to learn new things. For example, on her 106th birthday, a centenarian registered to learn computers at a local school. Interacting with children and teenagers, by telling them oral histories and participating in outdoor activities, is an integral part of their lifestyles. They never feel shy and are always seen as extroverted in their interaction with others. They are willing to express their feelings very freely to others. Physical or mental limitations of these elders do not make them “slow down.”


“Believe in something beyond what you know” is very common among this group. Every day when they wake up, before their meal, before involvement in any auspicious occasions, and before going to sleep, they take a few minutes of their time to pray. They believe in some form of “divinity” that is not known to human beings. Equating their secrets of long life to someone “divine” is commonly expressed. They are willing to share the concept of spirituality with others.

Implications for Social Workers Interested in Working With the Aging Population

Recent U.S. Census data (2002) indicates that there are now more than 58,000 centenarians living in the United States, with a projected increase to 1,095,000 by the year 2050. Social workers may encounter the aging population during their careers. Learning from them will be a challenge. Factors for long life expectancy include features beyond genetic disposition and advancement in medicine. Social workers can play a major role in the field of gerontology by concentrating on the lifestyle patterns of seniors and learning from traditions. Cultural understanding of elders is an important factor for social workers in working with the aging population.

As I look back at all we have learned from these centenarians, I look forward to taking a new group of social work students to Kerala this summer.

Think About It

1. Think about the oldest people you know. How do their lifestyles compare with those described in this chapter?

2. How can learning about the lifestyles of centenarians help you as a social worker working with the aging population in the future?

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