Health

They're still in the game

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2011, 12:00am

Siu Man-cheuk, a national table tennis champion for more than five decades, drives a firm forearm shot across the table. Smack, pop, ping! Within seconds, Charles Yuen tosses another ball gingerly towards the seasoned player and he smacks it again.

'Take a rest, old friend,' says Yuen, who has coached Siu for the past 45 years. Siu says little as he sets his paddle down and shuffles to his seat for a break, but action speaks louder than words when you are a century old.

Table tennis is a game that demands excellent eye-hand co-ordination and exact timing, so it is hard to believe coach Yuen is 84 years old and even more surprising to learn that Siu was born in 1911, with an identity card to prove he celebrated his 100th birthday in March. They meet at the Hong Kong Table Tennis Association in Wan Chai on Monday and Friday afternoons and the only concession made for Siu's age is the drink break every 10 minutes. 'Doctor's orders,' Siu says, as he sips iced tea in the practice hall and glances at the clock.

He may not be in his heyday - he swept the national championships from 1929 to 1940, and the senior title from 1970 to 1997 - but Siu, Hong Kong's first diamond importer, attributes his longevity largely to the sport. 'It's important to have a passion for an activity - mine was always table tennis.'

More Hongkongers realise this, and experts say it could be one of the reasons why life expectancy here has risen substantially in the past 30 years. In 2009, life expectancy was 79.7 years for men and 85.9 for women, according to the latest data from the Census and Statistics Department. Both are up 7.4 years from 1981, and have equalled other long-livers such as the Japanese (79.6 years for men, 86.4 for women) and Swedes (79.4 years for men, 83.4 for women).

The number of centenarians in the city has also quintupled, from 289 in 1981 to 1,510 in 2006, says Dr Karen Cheung, from the department of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong.

Dr Raymond Lo, president of the Federation of Medical Societies of Hong Kong and a specialist in geriatric and palliative medicine, believes three factors contribute to this. Firstly, people are better educated about how to look after themselves and many make healthy choices. 'Temptations to smoke, overeat and drink are around, but Hong Kong's health services make an impact with targeted public campaigns,' he says.

Secondly, care for the elderly has improved. 'The key is healthy independence,' Lo says. 'The elderly are learning how to self-manage chronic conditions on their own.'

Take, for example, Chan Tse Wa-ying, 90, and Sham Luk-yin, 88, who work out twice a week at the University of Hong Kong's Stanley Ho Sports Centre in Sandy Bay. The two participate in the Golden Years Fitness initiative by the university's Institute of Human Performance, spearheaded by trainer Kenneth Liang. Golden Years Fitness is designed for senior citizens at risk from, or diagnosed with, chronic conditions. Its aim is to enhance their ability to live independently through a programme of cardiovascular exercise, strength training and flexibility work. Chan Tse, a lung cancer survivor who lives alone, says exercise is better than medication and the social aspect of the class keeps her happy.

Finally, Hong Kong's growing affluence has helped boost longevity. Lo says: 'Our high living standard has decreased our overall vulnerability. While wealth does not equal health, there is no doubt that as Hong Kong's standard of living has increased, so has longevity.'

Siu, who lives with his 87-year-old wife, sleeps eight to 10 hours a night and wakes at 8.30am. He eats a hearty breakfast of bird's nest, oatmeal and eggs. For lunch and dinner, he prefers vegetables over meat. During the day, he might walk for an hour and ride an indoor bicycle for 15 minutes.

His lifestyle corresponds with what author Dan Buettner has found over 20 years of research into health and longevity best practice. Working with academics and doctors, the National Geographic explorer focused on regions in the world where people live remarkably long, full lives and, in 2008, published his findings in The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest.

Buettner and his team created a cross-cultural blueprint for longevity, based on nine shared common denominators among long-livers. These are called the 'Power 9 Principles' and include moving actively every day, eating a variation of the Mediterranean diet (which Buettner says adds six years to a life), feeling an overall sense of satisfaction and serenity with life aided by regular naps, and having a strong sense of belonging in a community and with family.

Another key characteristic is ikigai, the Japanese equivalent of the French raison d'?tre, or, in English, loosely translated as finding one's meaning or purpose in life. It results in psychological well-being and a broad sense of serenity, something Siu knows well. 'I'm not ambitious for money any more,' he says. 'I'm happy. Money means nothing to me.' Siu has three sons and a daughter, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. 'My family is my ikigai.'

However, Buettner says that making smart lifestyle choices before disease surfaces, and not after, is what counts. 'Healthy habits throughout a lifetime not only increase lifespan but decrease chronic conditions such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia,' he says. 'I expect we will see a drop in life expectancy in many countries if the obesity epidemic continues at its current rate.'

Of course, genetics affects longevity - but it is not nearly as big a factor as lifestyle. In 1996, a study of 2,872 Danish twins born between 1870 and 1900 found that genetics plays only a 26 per cent role in living longer for males and a 23 per cent role in females.

More recently, in a groundbreaking 20-year study published in March by the University of California, Riverside, researchers found that personality characteristics and social relations from childhood can predict one's risk of dying decades later. Called The Longevity Project, researchers tracked 1,500 people - first studied at the age of about 10 years old in 1921 by the late Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman - through their lives, collecting information such as family histories and relationships, teacher and parent ratings of personality, hobbies, pet ownership, job success, education levels, military service and other details.

Many of their findings went against conventional wisdom. For example, participants who were the most cheerful and had the best sense of humour as children lived shorter lives on average, because they tended to take more risks with their health compared to more prudent and persistent individuals. Continually productive people lived much longer than their more laid-back counterparts. And starting formal schooling too early - being in first grade before age six - is a risk factor for earlier mortality.

It's never too late to choose a healthier path, the researchers say. The first step: do away with lists, and stop worrying about worrying. 'Thinking of making changes as 'taking steps' is a great strategy,' advises Leslie Martin, a psychology professor. 'You can't change major things about yourself overnight. But making small changes, and repeating those steps, can eventually create that path to longer life.' Picking up that ping pong paddle could be the change you need.