National Geographic : 1973 Jan
A SCIENTIST VISITS SOME OF THE WORLD'S OLDEST PEOPLE "EveryDayIs a Gift WhenYou Are Over 100" By ALEXANDER LEAF, M.D. Photographs by JOHN LAUNOIS BLACK STAR IN THE LITTLE VILLAGE of Kutol, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains of the southern U.S.S.R., lives a sprightly lady named Khfaf Lasuria. She is small not five feet tall-white-haired, and full of humor. I visited her one spring morning and found her in her garden, surrounded by chil dren, pigs, and chickens. I was greeted in warm Georgian fashion, and we toasted each other first with vodka and then with wine as we talked. She talked about her life, the present and the past, about things she remembered. She had a lot to tell because her memory was good - and she was more than 130 years old. She told me about her first marriage at age 16; her husband died during an epidemic some twenty years later, and she married again when she was about 50. A son lives in the stone house next to hers. He is 82 years old. She remembered as a recent event the big snowfall in 1910. "My son was already an adult then, and I was about 70. The snow was more than two meters deep, and I helped him shovel it from the roof." The present? She was just back from a visit to relatives in a distant village. She simply got on the bus alone and went visiting. She had worked on the local collective farm since it was formed some 40 years ago, retiring only in 1970; in the 1940's, when she was already more than 100 years old, she had held the record as the farm's fastest tea-leaf picker. As she sat talking, she smoked cigarettes, Serene at the summit of a long life, Khfaf Lasuria- inhaling each puff. She had started smoking in 1910, and has consumed about a pack a day for 62 years. As a physician and teacher in a large gen eral hospital, I see many of the medical mis fortunes that befall the elderly, and have grown interested in how a healthy, vigorous old age can be attained. Today more than twenty million Americans are age 65 and older-nearly 10 percent of our population. Yet our understanding of aging is minimal, especially in explaining the factors that pro duce a Khfaf Lasuria in one instance and wasting senility and sickness in another. Villages Where Time Moves Kindly There are places in the world where people are alleged to live much longer and remain more vigorous in old age than in most modern societies. During the past two years, taking advantage of a sabbatical and of support from the National Geographic Society, I have vis ited the best known of these regions, all rela tively remote and mountainous: the Andean village of Vilcabamba in Ecuador, the land of Hunza in the Karakoram Range in Pakistani controlled Kashmir, and Abkhazia in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in the southern Soviet Union (map, page 96) where I met Khfaf Lasuria, oldest of the many centenarians I interviewed. Other re search groups in the three areas generously gave me access to their information, some representing years of study. - more than 130 years old-watches the world from the porch of her home in the Soviet Union's Abkhazia, an autonomous republic in the Georgian S.S.R. She was nudged into retirement from her job as a tea picker two years earlier. Still active around the house, Mrs. Lasuria enjoys a little vodka before breakfast and a daily pack of cigarettes.