Health and Old Age Places with High Longevity: Vilcabamba, Ecuador Part 2

About the area of Vilcabamba in Ecuador which has a high level of longevity, about the history, diet, and daily life of the people.


Sometime in the 17th century--history is dim in this part of the world--Augustine missionaries settled Vilcabamba, and the valley's only village probably looks today much as it did then. The center is the plaza with its Catholic church, garden, and fountain, around which cluster a scattering of wood and adobe huts. A few of the houses and the government office building are 2 stories in height. However, most Vilcabambans avoid the village, preferring their isolated life on the farm. Thus they escape any degree of "urban tension."

Life is meager here. Vilcabambans have a calorie intake of only 1,200 calories per day, half the number normally consumed in, say, the U.S. They eat about one oz. of meat a week. Their meals consist mainly of grain, soup, corn, yucca root, beans, potatoes, together with fruits such as oranges and bananas. The specialty of the region is repe, a soup of bananas and beans "laced" with white cheese, salt, and lard. The small quantity of sugar used is unrefined. The longevos attribute their long life to the herb teas they drink, but modern researchers discount this. Most baffling to outsiders investigating Vilcabamba is the prevalence of tobacco and alcohol. Vilcabambans, even the most aged in their hundreds, drink every day 2 to 4 cups of local rum made from unrefined sugarcane. They also smoke from 40 to 60 cigarettes daily. The tobacco is homegrown and wrapped either in maize leaves or toilet paper imported from Loja. One 104-year-old woman told Dr. Leaf that while she did not drink rum or smoke, still "I have to have my 5 cups of coffee each day." In contrast, Miguel Carpio, aged 123, said to a reporter, "I used to drink a lot, but now I take only 2 or 3 glasses a day. Every few months, though, I get the feeling to have a good drunk. So I buy a bottle with a friend and we empty it."

It is perhaps romantic to say that Vilcabambans are "contentedly involved in the business of living." Dr. Leaf more realistically describes their life as "a tedious circle of drudgery broken by religious ceremonies and an occasional fiesta." One man has been a farmer for 100 years because, as he says, "It's all I know how to do." Another man, the village carpenter, labored with the same handmade tools from 1900 until his death in the early 1970s. (He died of pneumonia contracted during a trip to the "outside world.") Each of the aged Vilcabambans has his lifelong chores--weeding fields, feeding poultry, chafing grain, grinding corn, making tiles, herding flocks, and the like. Now, while steady work habits are considered by gerontologists to be an important factor in longevity, the Vilcabambans, unlike the long-lived people of Hunza or Transcaucasia, are not cheerful about it. "Who wants to live so long?" asked 120-year-old Gabriel Sanchez of an American radio station reporter. Miguel Carpio jokingly wished he could take 15 years from his age, which would make him 107. And Hermelinda Leon, a 95-year-old woman still working in the bakery, bluntly summed up to Dr. Leaf: "Life has been hard. I would not want to live it again."

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