101-year-old Fauja Singh, who recently ran his eighth London Marathon, believes longevity is in the genes – but keeping fit helps
Longevity, says Fauja Singh, runs in his family. His grandfather and other relatives sailed past the 100- year mark and Singh himself is, by his own reckoning, 101 (birth certificates were in short supply in his part of the Punjab in 1911, he points out.)
But while genes may play a role, “positivity and staying active” has also helped, he says: the super fit great- Grandfather, who lives in Ilford, recently completed the London Marathon for the eighth time, finishing in seven hours and 49 minutes.
He began running after he moved to the UK at age 81 following the death of his wife. Depressed and at a loss for much to do he watched a lot of television and became fascinated by coverage of the London Marathon. Having done some running in his youth he was inspired to start again by what he saw.
Besides his tough training regime – he gets up at six every day for an eight-mile walk and run – he is teetotal.
“I have never smoked and follow a simple, vegetarian diet. I drink lots of water and take tea with ginger. I also try to avoid negativity and negative people,” he says.
His trainer, Harmander Singh, who also trains other runners in their 80s, says that what sets Fauja apart is his enthusiasm and desire to run. “If I suggested he run 10k he would say ‘why not 20?’” says Harmander.
Centenarians as fit as Fauja Singh are rare but it’s a fact that more people are living longer. Average life expectancy in the UK now tops 80 – eight years more than during the 1970s – though Monaco has the world’s highest life expectancy at 89.73 years, as measured by the CIA World Factbook.
Lifespan increase has been put down to factors such as improved drug treatments and lifestyle changes such as better diet and falling smoking rates.
Peter Mace, assistant medical director for Bupa Health and Wellbeing, says keeping your body moving as you get older is important – “I’d say it’s the best single thing you can do for yourself.” But he adds that longevity is thought to be about a third determined by genetic background. “Choose your parents with care,” he says, wryly.
Meanwhile, research at Glasgow University has shed more light on life expectancy and whether we might be able to predict how long we will live.
A team led by Professor Pat Monaghan examined the link between the length of telomeres – which lie at the end of chromosomes – and lifespan. Tests on zebra finches over nine years showed that the longest lived had longer telomeres and the best predictor of lifespan was the length of the telomeres early in life.
Monaghan says: “Difficulties arise in sampling people due to the length of time they live but human studies do suggest a relationship between telomere length and life expectancy.”
In Ilford, Fauja Singh has decided this year’s marathon was his last one: he plans to concentrate on what he refers to as shorter runs. Just the “5k and 10k from now on…”