By Cristina Roca
By now, the centenarians need only sit on their doorsteps and wait for the tourists, who line up to hand them little red envelopes of cash and take pictures. They are the main draw, after all, in what’s come to be known as “longevity village,” a community in southern China’s remote Bama region, where the number of residents aged 100-plus is about five times the national average.
In addition to visiting centenarians themselves (a sign at the entrance to the village maps out their houses), tourists can buy bottled “longevity water,” lie down in a nearby cave said to have healing powers or breathe the clean air at an “oxygen bar.” There’s a construction boom, too, catering to those making longer stays.
The appeal is obvious. China has one of the fastest growing populations of old people in the world, and thanks to the “one child” policy there are fewer children to care for them. Living healthy, longer, is critical.
There’s just one problem: a number of experts have found little to support Bama’s claims as a “longevity hub.” Demographers report questionable documentation of the area’s centenarians, and some say they suspect many of the elderly greeting visitors in “longevity village” simply moved to there in their old age.
“It’s a bit like a gerontological park,” says Michel Poulain.
Poulain is a Belgian demographer who co-authored the first study of what is called a “blue zone” – a geographic area whose population enjoys extraordinary longevity. In two villages in Sardinia, for example, there is one centenarian for every 1,000 people (versus claims of about 1 for every 3,000 in Bama).
Poulain has helped discover three other pockets of longevity: Okinawa in Japan, Nicoya in Costa Rica, and Ikaria in Greece. In 2010, after hearing of colleagues who had visited the centenarians of Bama, he also made a trip there. What he found, though, was that it was impossible to verify the ages of local centenarians.
For his research, Poulain has strict verification criteria, including checks from a number of official sources. In Bama, many locals were born before there were government birth certificates, or had only basic identification cards. “All we can do is check them based on the age of their children and the coherence of their claims,” he says.
Bama is also made up mostly of ethnic minorities (the Yao and Zhuang being predominant) who, according to Longevity: To the Limits and Beyond, do not keep track of their own birth dates even anecdotally. “(T)he reports of minority Chinese centenarians are mostly not true,” the book states, “because they seriously overstated their age.”
James Vaupel, one of the book’s authors, is the founding director of the Max Planck Institute of Demographic Research in Germany and a professor at Duke University in North Carolina. He also encountered verification problems visiting Bama back in the late 1990s. A woman claiming to be 107, for example, told him that her second child of six was 65 – which would mean she had four more children after the age of 42. Another “local” had, in fact, come to Bama from another town.
The biggest red flag for both demographers, however, is what they describe as the “abnormal” distribution of centenarians in Bama. Normally, there should be a majority of centenarians in their early 100s, then just a few who are older – 104 or 106. “Centenarians have a one in three chance of dying every year. So when you have the same number of 105-year-olds as 100-year-olds, you know something’s up,” says Vaupel.
Bama is just one of several areas in China that have proclaimed themselves longevity hubs. Jean-Marie Robine, the director of research for the French national health institute INSERM and one of the founders of the International Database on Longevity, has received invitations to visit a number of them. He’s also been to Bama, where he says he found “no evidence at all” for claims of unusually long life.
“They’re all getting the same ideas of what they can put in their flyers to explain their exceptional longevity (by) reading National Geographic,” he says.
These “explanations” often include clean air (a scarce resource in many polluted Chinese cities), “miraculous” local water and local habits like eating home-grown food and exercising regularly. But as Vaupel says, “There are lots of places with clean air, water, good food and exercise … and in many of those regions people live short lives.”
In fact, a 2012 study conducted by researchers affiliated with both Chinese and American universities suggests that the longevity of Bama’s residents may have nothing to do with location – unless you count natural selection. Locals who have thrived in this remote region seem to have passed on unique DNA that could contribute to longer life. (How long, of course, is uncertain.)
None of this seems to discourage visitors to Bama’s “longevity village,” or the businesses that cater to them. Almost four million people came to the region in 2015 alone, generating about $570 million U.S. in revenue.
“Buses of Chinese tourists (arrive) in droves,” says Stephen Cram, an Australian who owns an agritourism business in the region. “In the past year, a lot of upgrading has taken place, with high-speed internet available, new highways built and services improved.”
All that development may actually erode the few benefits – that clean air and water – that do exist for locals. Growing wealth and access to technology can also negatively impact residents’ diets (as they switch to richer, processed foods) and exercise (using a car instead of walking) Poulain has seen the same thing among locals is the four legit “blue zones” he identified as they’ve been modernized.
Still, as long as the promise, however shaky, of healthy old age remains, those tourists with their little red envelopes will keep coming and the “centenarians” will keep greeting them.