My journey up the precipitous slopes of the Hunza valley began in a London office, where I was researching a television series on the subject of anti-ageing. I had ploughed through twenty-six episodes’ worth of cutting edge anti-ageing science from cryonics to cloning. But what struck me was that in amongst this potentially lucrative, but ultimately disappointing, quest for the Holy Grail of medicine – an over-the-counter pill to prevent death – there seemed to be some populations of simply-living people around the world who stayed youthful into their nineties and even hundreds without getting ill. They already had the secrets to staving off ageing, disease, and death, and it was all down to their diet and lifestyle. This particularly interested me since I had recently revolutionised my own health by making some basic changes to my eating habits.
One of the populations was Hunza, in northeast Pakistan, of which reports of extreme longevity and amazing health were possibly mythical or exaggerated, but on the other hand possibly based on something real. In those days, around sixteen years ago, you couldn’t just read some of several million internet articles on your chosen subject and cherry-pick to prove your point. You had to catch a bus and go to the library to find one or two moth-eaten books, and phone-bash. In the case of Hunza, this wasn’t yielding much. I was going to have to actually go there. The reason for that was that I was so enamoured by this uber-healthy, long-lived phenomenon (NO cancer? NO heart disease? No…headaches?!) that I had written a proposal for a book about it and found an enthusiastic agent and publisher. I had pinned four other flags on my longevity map, at places where the record-breaking health and longevity figures were well-substantiated.
These ‘Longevity Hot Spots’, as I called them, were Okinawa in Japan, Symi in Greece, Campodimele in Italy, and Bama in China. By this time I had enrolled in nutrition college and would be able to study in detail the diet and lifestyle habits of these various people without leaving my desk for now, although I did eat my way around some of the places later. The most urgent trip, however, was to Hunza, since facts about it were elusive and written reports whimsical. Gripping the armrests of my seat on the Fokker as it spiralled down in what seemed like the nearest an aircraft which isn’t a helicopter can make to a vertical landing, I couldn’t quite believe that I was actually just a car journey away from the legendary Shangri-La itself. I had scarcely believed somewhere so exotic and idyllic could exist at all until I bumped into a friend back in London at a party who had recently been filming there for a travel series and then, later, another friend who had been through it on a hiking trip. Neither could enlighten me about the state of health of the inhabitants there, and mentions of Hunza to others would elicit the exclamation ‘apricot kernels!’ but not much more.
I spent two weeks in the Hunza spring, chilly and wrapped in a shawl, since another foreigner had taken my suitcase at Islamabad airport and I had nothing to wear but the clothes I had come in. I sampled the apricot kernels, drank glacier water, overdid it with the ‘Hunza water’, admired the blossom, bought some apricot spaghetti, had some goat stew in a real Hunzakut house, ate some apricots, ate some more apricots, and marvelled at the vertiginous view. I met the doctor in the empty health clinic and chatted to men running up the mountainside who claimed they were in their seventies. Back in Islamabad, I talked to the Mir of Hunza’s charming grandson Jalal, and met a lady whose age, measured against the 1922 visit of the Aga Khan’s brother, was estimated at between ninety-six and a hundred years old.
Jannat Gul, sharp as a knife, laughed and joked as she playfully punched her great-niece, high-fived everyone and told me that she had perfect vision and zero health problems – never so much as a headache. My visit to this extraordinary valley, my studies of the diet and lifestyle there, and research from Western doctors who had visited was enough to convince me that the Hunzakuts deserve to be classed as a longevity population. They might not be living to one hundred and forty or one hundred and fifty years old, as some sensationalist media reports have claimed, but they certainly fit the bill well enough to be included as an example and an inspiration. In my books, 50 Secrets of the World’s Longest-Living People and The Live-Longer Diet, I have described the diet and lifestyle habits of the people living in these five remarkable ‘Longevity Hot Spots’, all of which we can emulate at home so as to create our own little Longevity Hot Spots. My most recent book, The Stacking Plan, describes ten basic good-eating habits based on the same principles which we can add in to our existing regimes, so as to make sure our bodies get the nutrients we need for good health.
Sally Beare, dip BCNH, CNHC is a nutritional therapist, anti-ageing lecturer, and the author of 50 Secrets of the World’s Longest-Living People (Marlowe & Co, US, 2006); The Live-Longer Diet (Piatkus, UK, 2003) and The Stacking Plan (Peach Publishing, UK, 2015). She lives in Bristol, UK and visits Pakistan regularly.
For more information go to: www.sallybeare.com