Saturday, February 20, 2010

On what the Abkhaz have to teach us about longevity

The Abkhaz, the titular nation of the quasi-state of Abkhazia in northwestern Georgia, contrary to popular mythology, don't actually live to amazingly long ages. First, here's some background about the Abkhaz, as provided in Georgi Derluguian's "Abkhazia: A Broken Paradise".

Linguistically and anthropologically, the native Abkhazes belong to the North Caucasian group of peoples that also comprises the Adyghs (Adygeis, Circassians, Kabardins) and, more distantly, the Vainakhs (Chechens and Ingushes) and most Daghestanis (Abdushelishvili, Arutyunov and Kaloyev, 1994). To a considerable pride of its native speakers, the Abkhaz language is featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's hardest-sounding tongue. Indeed, it boasts more than sixty consonants to (depending on the dialect) just four, or even one, vowels. The verdict of patriotic Georgian scholars renders Abkhaz merely patois, a backward dialect of the Georgian language. Today, however, comparative linguists consider it proven that the languages of the North Caucasian group are entirely unrelated to any other language family in this part of the world, be it Indo-European, Afrasian (Semitic), Turkic or Kartvelian (a small endemic family that consists of Georgian proper, and the Svan, Mingrelian, and Laz languages) (67).

Until the last quarter of the 19th century, the population of Abkhazia – approximately 100,000; the actual number is difficult to estimate due to the complete absence of any state authority and thus a lack of censuses prior to the 1890s – consisted solely of ethnic native Abkhazes and a few other closely related peoples (such as the Ubykhs) who no longer exist. In 1864, the sweeping push of Russian armies towards the Black Sea provoked among the highlanders a panic that led to mass exodus across the sea into the Ottoman lands: the territories of modern Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and even Kosovo (Ascherson, 1995; Lieven, 1998). This panic of apocalyptic proportions swept the entire expanse from Daghestan and Chechnya in the east Caucasus to the Circassian lands and Abkhazia in the western parts. Since Abkhazia was situated right on the Black Sea coast, the emigration was particularly massive there. At least half or perhaps as many as three quarters of Abkhazes abandoned their native land in successive waves following the series of crushed rebellions between 1864 and 1878.

As Zhenglian et al. noted in their paper "Age validation of Han Chinese centenarians", exaggerations of the numbers of extremely old age are common in any number of states and nations.

Many researchers have indicated that elderly people tend to exaggerate their age. Thoms (1873, 2nd ed. 1878) found that the ages of about 90% of the centenarians reported in the newspapers during the period 1868-72 could not be validated. In the literature, age exaggeration by those claiming to be centenarians was often reported (see, for example, Bowerman, 1939). Among the 1756 reported centenarians in a census taken in Bulgaria at the beginning of this century, only 51 could be verified (Vischer 1945). This problem of overstatement of age by the extremely old has been found in the United States (Myers, 1966; Rosenwaike, 1968), and in the former Soviet Union (Medvedev, 1973, Myers, 1965). A carefully-validated census taken in
Vilcabamba found that all the age claims made by those reporting their age to be over 100 years old, were either incorrect or unsubstantiated. Systematic age exaggeration was found from 70 years old onwards (Mazess & Forman, 1979). This is especially true of extremely old people who come from societies where illiteracy is high, accurate documentation showing date of birth does not exist, and even accurate oral information about birth dates is lacking (Mazess and Forman, 1979). A revaluation of actual ages among a sample of Abkhazians showed that the earlier reports of increased longevity in Abkhazia were erroneous. In fact, the study concluded that extreme old age was no more prevalent in Abkhazia than in the U.S.A. (Palmore, 1984). Age exaggeration was, in fact, very common around 1900 in most of Europe. It is still common today in most other countries of the world, especially in countries with a high proportion of illiteracy (Jeune, 1995, p. 17).

The methodology of the Soviet studies (Other cultures, elder years, Ellen Rhoads Holmes and Lowell Don Holmes) was flawed, with statistics fluctuating wildly from census to census and a near-complete lack of documentation to back up claims. In actual fact, they suggest, only 0.3% of Abkhazians in 1970 may have been older than 90 years, a proportion above the Soviet average and comparable to the American. The acceptance of the myth of Abkhaz longevity might not be surprising, since iIn the book Forever Young: A Cultural History of Longevity by Lucian Boia and Trista Selous, the point is made (155-160) that long lifespans were seen as legitmizing factors for the Soviet system.

Stalinism had set up a complete mythology that overlaid every aspect of real history and ordinary life. Although cracked and losing credibility, this fictiious discourse on the world, supported by the transformist project inherent in Stalinism, survived the Red dictator's death. It's ebb was slow and affected the core ideology only very partially.

Longevity followed. the same pattern. The Caucasians became thinner on the ground, but did not disappear altogether. The year 1974 saw celebrations for the 140th birthday of a lady in that region, who died the following year. [. . .] She was 85 when she joined a collective farm; at 104 she travelled to Moscow for the USSR's first agricultural exhibition; at 128 she was still working. Her speed and skill made her a model for the other workers.

Another source observes that Stalin, just like China's emperor Qin Shi Huangti, wanted to live for a long time and hoped that evidence from his native Caucasus could legitmize his hopes.

Anthropologist Sula Benet's classic 1974 ethnography The Abkhasians: The Long-Living People of the Caucasus is arguably one of the best sources on the Abkhaz. The 1954 census, she noted, claimed 2.58% of Abkhasia's population over 90, versus 0.1% in USSR, a figure verified according to the following method.

First, documentary evidence as sought to substantial their statements to demographers; second, a lengthy questionnaire was administered by local physicians. It included such questions as age when married, age when first child was born, age when the siege of Sevastopol occurred, and age when the Tuyrks invaded his village. 'If a respondent really knew his age, his answers would give a consistent pictures. If he did not know his true age, major discrepancies would apear. Unless the respondents (often an illiterate or semi-literate peasant) were extremely agile with numbers, any deliberate attempt to mislead the interviewer would also show up here.

This method, it should be noted, didn't allow (as noted above) for unintentional misunderstandings.

Still, as observed in the Globe and Mail some time ago, elderly Abkhaz do seem at least anecdotally to enjoy relatively happy lifespans.

Jinjolia's bent frame can be seen pacing the grounds of his sprawling three-hectare garden, occasionally leaning on his walking stick for support. His son and grandson are buried under a canopy farther up the mountain and Mr. Jinjolia still climbs the slope to sit at their graves.

His face is wizened now and his voice is a high-pitched whine, but Mr. Jinjolia's brown, darting eyes are clear. It's also clear that he rules the roost in the family home. At a late-afternoon lunch earlier, his family and neighbours stood in respect while he toasted guests.

They didn't touch their glasses until Mr. Jinjolia finished speaking from the head of the table.

Why has he lived so long? "I don't know," he shrugged. "All my life I've drunk and smoked and chased girls," he said, laughing.

But most of his life was just hard. He said he doesn't remember much about the Bolshevik Revolution, but he does remember the hard years that followed, when he was put to work at age 12 on a collective farm. "I was too young to go to work," he said.

When the Second World War erupted, Mr. Jinjolia was sent to the Russian front twice and was shot on both tours of duty. His two convalescences were the only periods in his life when he was hospitalized.

Once, in 1930, he says, he contracted malaria, but he drank some vodka and recovered. His first marriage ended in divorce, his second wife died and his third wife passed away 20 years ago.

He wanted to marry one more time, but was afraid he would outlive her too.

Ms. Ashuba's long life was also marked by the great social upheavals of the 20th century. She too picked tobacco for decades on a collective farm. After her husband was killed in the war, Ms. Ashuba raised six children on her own. Her salary from the collective farm was paid in food, not money.

"Each year, I prepared one tonne and 300 kilograms of tobacco and each month a I got a few pieces of soap, corn and sugar," she said.

Ms. Ashuba said her life improved after the Soviet Union's collapse even though the breakup brought more war and unrest to the Caucuses.

"Life here in Abkhazia is better," she said, during an interview beneath a cherry tree on her family's gated compound. "When I was young, I had to work all the time. I would work until I collapsed."

As she spoke, her 76-year-old son Ilia and 68-year-old daughter, Eteri, hovered nearby, periodically bringing coffee, cheese and vodka.

A neighbour, Natella Shlarba, said Abkhazians feel a moral duty to care for their elders. "We don't have [seniors' homes]. If you don't take care of your parents, no one will say hello to you on the street. All this love that is given to people makes them live longer."

Benet claimed that aging begins later among Abkhazians, with many working to an advanced age on light tasks, with a large minority having good vision and hearing, perhaps controversially claiming that Abkhaz had no phrase for "old people" (9-10). can this be justified?

Chapter 2 of her ethnography suggests it may be. Benet argues that Abkhaz are traditionally concerned with their weight as a health issue, with a traditional diet marked by moderate protein and little consumption of fat or carbohydrates, with wine, fruits and vegetables, honey, fermented milk, and fresh meat dominating. She further argues that age is the major determinant of social status instead of wealth or social tradition, with the elderly playing a central role in the preservation of Abkhaz culture and a strongly patriarchal and extended family structure encouraging close family ties and the elderly's continued participation in family life. The role played by age in social structure apparently didn't produce conflict between age groups since each age group inherited the privileges of the older ones in turn, all within a context of a culture with established mechanisms for resolving conflict (63). To the extent that genes play a role, Benet speculates that the relative isolation of the Abkhaz for millennia and established traditions of adoption, ritual and otherwise, may have helped consolidate a homogeneous gene pool. Benet's conclusion is unsurprising.

Abkhasians live as long as they do primarily because of the cultural, social and psychological factors that structure their existence. The most important are: the uniformity and predictability of both individual and group behaviour; the unbroken continuum of life's activities; and integration of the aged into the extended family and community life as fully functioning members in work, decision making, and recreation. No less important are thye culturally reinforced expectation of long life and good health; cultural mechanisms used in avoidance of stress and lack of intergenerational conflict. All these factors are most conducive to longevity (103).

Curiously, in a parallel she notes that longevity is paired with a relativly low birthrate, high rate of adoption, and flat age profile by the standards of surrounding population. For instance, a 19633 surbvey of Atara-Abkhaskaya revealed that some "60% of all peasant households had either one or two children, while 8.1% had no children at all. Two percent of the households had adopted one or two children, and only 12 percent had more than five children" (66).

Benet's analysis of the Abkhaz situation seems to hold up. Caloric restriction and diet do play a major role in sustaining health and extending lifespans; social structures which include the elderly at the same time they regulate derived social conflicts play important psychological roles; family structures which help create fairly broad and extended group solidarity help. The extent to which this has survived in an Abkhazia devastated by war and economic collapse is open to question, true, but I don't think it's too much to claim that despite the propaganda surrounding claims of special Abkhaz longevity there's still a fair bit that aging societies can learn about the ways in which the Abkhaz traditionally dealt with their health and with their elderly.

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Ludwik Kowalski said...
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