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Field studies on centenarian experiences in South Asia

Traditions are important in Kerala (southwestern India) and Sri Lanka. These areas are one of the few places in the world where matriarchal family systems still exist. These areas have an almost perfect literacy rate, and the infant mortality rate is lower than some of the cities in the United States, and there is a vibrant alternative health system.

I first visited Sri Lanka as a Fulbright Scholar, and have since conducted 3 field studies. In this article, observations about some of the centenarians in the area and their secrets of long life are noted, as is the relationship between longevity and lifestyle.1 Breakthroughs in modern medicine are not the primary factor in the secret of long life.

In eastern cultures, elders and their practice wisdom are respected. Relatives and neighbours take care of these elders’ needs. Children look to the elders to pass oral histories from one generation to another. My case studies of centenarians focus on variables such as the social, culture, familial, spiritual, dietary habits, socialisation patterns, feeling of worthiness, and physical and mental exercise. Common factors that may enhance their longevity are identified below:

Regarding positive attitude, the centenarians exhibited an aura of optimism in their conversation. This is visible in both their verbal and non-verbal communication. Even if others observe negative events in the centenarians’ life, such as the death of a family member, the centenarians tend to recover rapidly. Moreover, they try to instil this quality into people they associate with. Staying young has a lot to do with lifestyle and independence. These centenarians do not want to be dependent on others. Every day they wake up in the morning with a new set of goals to accomplish.

Regarding physical and mental exercise, the centenarians are constantly involved in physical or mental activity. They are always doing things such as cleaning, walking, gardening, or cooking. They never stay alone for extended periods of time. To stay alert mentally, they read, write, and memorise (e.g. telephone numbers, birthdates, or Sanskrit poems).

Regarding eating habits, most of the centenarians are vegetarians. They consume fresh vegetables and fruits and can easily identify food with healing qualities. They eat regularly and in small quantities. Eating slowly and concentrating is part of their routine. 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, and several types of spices and herbs are part of their diet. They do not sleep or lie down for at least 2 hours after they eat.

Regarding traditional healing practices (naturopathy, yoga, herbs, and spices), most of the centenarians awake in the morning at least 1 hour before sunrise and do ‘sun gazing’. Early morning walking, meditation, yoga, and cold water bathing are part of their daily rituals.

Regarding feelings of worthiness, doing good things for others is paramount. Giving advice and narrating their positive lifestyles is part of their daily routine. These elders give advice on interpersonal relationships, dietary habits, financial security, spirituality, etc. These practice wisdoms are highly honoured. Neighbours invite the elders to birthdays, marriages, and other happy occasions. Blessings from these elders are received with great pride. Regarding socialisation, these centenarians feel comfortable and friendly with others and always want to learn new things (e.g. learning how to use computers at a local school). They never feel shy and are always seen as extroverted. They are willing to express their feelings freely to others.

Regarding spirituality, these centenarians believe in ‘something beyond what you know’. They pray daily at regular times and believe in divinity that is not known to humanity. They commonly equate their longevity with something divine and are willing to share this concept with others.

One of the limitations encountered was the lack of proper documentation to validate the age of the centenarians. The age of the oldest child was thus used to estimate the age of the centenarians


1. Nair M. Interacting with centenarians, a chapter in days in the lives of gerontological social workers. Grobman L, editor. Harrisburgh, PA: White Hat Communications; 2007.

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