It’s all in our heads

Have you heard about Madame Jeanne Calment?

Well, she is officially, until nowadays, the person with the longest confirmed human lifespan record. Lifespan is defined as the age of the oldest living individual of a species. For us, humans, thankfully to Mme Calment it counts to 122 years and 164 days and to verify her age a thorough scientific study has been made more than in any other case.

So, what was the mystery of her life? Hold on tight reading her confession: “I have an enormous will to live and a good appetite, especially for sweets.” And indeed, she was eating nearly 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of chocolate per week, smoking cigarettes from the age of 21, and never gave up her two glasses of port – one before lunch and one before dinner.

I bet you did not expect that following such a “healthy” lifestyle is the key to the advanced age! At least, it seems I am on the right path as far as it concerns the sweets, though still I am not sure if I would like to reach her remarkable age. But ask me again when I turn 100. You never know…

The surprise is not only her gastronomy habits but also the fact that she was no athletic type at all. Her only regular activity was riding a bicycle which she continued up until her 100th birthday. She explained that it was the best way of visiting her friends in the nearby villages.

And yet she lived until 122! How is it possible then? We have been constantly bombarded with recommendations how to prolong our lives and none of them corresponds to Mme Calment’s lifestyle.

She was born on the 21st of February, 1875, died on the 4th of August 1997, and lived her entire life in Arles, France. Since she turned 100 she got into the spotlight of many researches confirming that “she never did anything special to stay in good health”

At first it was supposed that her longevity might be coded in her family genes as Calment’s father lived to the age of 94 and her mother to the age of 86. Also, it probably didn’t hurt the circumstance that her parents and husband were rich people, thus enabled her a life of comfort. Though not wealthy rich she had enough money to feel no anxiety for the daily surviving.

However the observations show that there are a lot of rich people in the world and people who live to a ripe old age, but none up to 122! The secret ingredient should be something else.

 Madame Jeanne Calment

Ultimately it was concluded that it was her perception of the stress that set the frame of her life. She is quoted for saying, “If you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it.”

Though Calment never had to work and worry about financials, no one can say that she did not experience a stressful life. She lost one by one all her beloved at their youth. A dessert of spoiled preserved cherries killed her husband at the age of 46 and her only daughter died at the age of 36 of pneumonia. After her death, Calment raised her grandson, who became a doctor but also died at the age of 36 in a car accident. And do not forget that she was an eye-witness of two world wars and France was a battlefield in the both of them. I suppose you will agree that there were adequate painful moments in her life to turn it upside down.

However, she lived them through and remained the same charming person. Most of the evidences about her are dated in her late age but they sustained her own philosophy that she really had an enormous desire to enjoy life. For example, she took up fencing lessons at age 85! I suggest that she started it just for fun. There is also a story that on one of her birthdays which were a sort of family holiday in Arles, after one such party, somebody took leave by telling her, “Until next year, perhaps.” She retorted: “I don’t see why not! You don’t look so bad to me.”

She was in a very good shape until the latest years of her life. It was after she turned 120 when her physical condition got worse and did not allow her to continue living in her usual way. Although blind, almost deaf and confined to a wheelchair, Calment never showed any signs of senile dementia and remained spirited and mentally sharp until the end.

Telling you this story, I wanted to illustrate that obviously neither genetics, nor exercises or nutrition can guarantee a good health condition and a long life. It is the mind that determines them. I am not saying that we should have to quit to care about our physical shape, but if assume that it is the visible building material of our ‘house’ called life, our thoughts are the invisible glue that sticks together the different blocks. Our perception of the world that surrounds us and our reactions to the events in it defines the stability of that ‘house’.

Otherwise, why didn’t smoking, drinking or eating sweets lead Calment to an early grave? Because the thought is more powerful than the lifestyle. Because it’s all in our heads.