Seeking secret to long life

Longevity: On the verdant slopes of the Talish Mountains in Azerbaijan, an extraordinary number of people live for more than a century.

April 17, 2001|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PESHTATUK, Azerbaijan - Makhbuba Fatullayeva drops to the floor with all the flexibility of a 12-year-old, sits cross-legged on her mat and waits patiently for the inevitable question to emerge from the gaggle of relatives and strangers crowding around her with enormous bustle and confusion.

These people - women from America, scientists from Baku, a reporter from nearby Lenkoran - are demanding one thing, loudly and urgently: How did Fatullayeva, born 103 years ago, manage to live so long?

"I have prayed to God all my life," Fatullayeva says. "I'm a kind person, and I've never envied anyone. I have always been with nature. I knew the value of life. That's why I kept myself from rumors, and I was relaxed."

No one finds old age remarkable on the verdant slopes of the Talish Mountains, close to the Iranian border and more than 200 miles south of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. Old age doesn't begin until at least 90.

Fatullayeva says she has never been to a doctor. She has never, a daughter-in-law says, left this hamlet of 30 houses. No, another relative contradicts, she certainly has traveled to the far sheep meadow.

Looking out the window, it's as if rich green velvet has been draped over the whitewashed stone house, with the mountainside tilting so sharply down that the lush and brilliant grass seems pressed against the window. Chocolate-colored sheep graze peacefully, and turkeys with bright blue necks are on patrol. Freshly washed clothes flutter on the fence.

Though it appears isolated, Peshtatuk is not cut off from the rest of the world. Buses travel the road to the city of Lenkoran near the Caspian Sea, and a train and buses run north to Baku.

Still, lives are measured out in different rhythms here, the tone is set by work and it's easy enough for a hundred or so birthdays to pass unsung. "We have never celebrated my birthday," Fatullayeva says. "I'm not even interested."

Every morning, Fatullayeva rises from her sleeping pallet on the floor, has something to eat and begins to work. "Sometimes I eat milk, yogurt, honey," she says, "anything that comes my way."

She feeds the chickens, she makes butter and she washes. A granddaughter drags in a vase-shaped clay pot, about 2 1/2 feet tall, to show how butter is made. Fatullayeva's job is to rock the pot for 30 minutes or more, until the butter forms. Her hands, she says, are beginning to get weak and she has a rag tied around one to steady it. "The last three or four years," she says, "I felt I was getting old."

Fatullayeva was born into the Russian empire ruled by a czar. She remembers the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin's path to power. She lived through the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and saw Azerbaijan become independent. Now she's disappointed because all that history has left her country poor and jobless. "My great-grandsons have nothing to do here," she says. "That's my biggest complaint."

Sevinj Guseinova, a biologist who works in the Laboratory of Long Life at the Institute of Physiology in Baku, says an extraordinary number of people do live long lives here - long being about 110 - because of genetic factors enhanced by diet, exercise and fresh air.

Eat yogurt along with garlic and mint, says Chingiz Kasumov, the laboratory director. Eat cilantro and chives, saffron and tarragon, and sumakh, a red spice made from dried berries, he says, and such a diet will prevent cholesterol. And, Guseinova counsels, forget about the news. "The less information a person has," she says, "the longer he lives. There's less stress."

At the end of World War II, she says approvingly, a group of nearby villagers wrote to Stalin, wondering why they had only just been told a war had raged the previous four years. Too much information, Guseinova says, overloads and finally ruins the brain. She looks sadly at the newspaper reporters with her. "Less information," she advises. "Less information."

She shares information, though. Guseinova recalls a man of 128 she once knew. "He had three wives," she says. "With such a man, a woman can't live long - they each had 12 children."

"I know of a woman of 105," says Agaddin Babayev, a local journalist who covers a vast territory by bus, "and she doesn't look a day over 80. Another woman - she looks as good as a 75-year-old."

But times are growing more difficult, Babayev says, and people are feeling it and dying younger. "Ten years ago, it was a ridiculous thing to die before 90," he says. "We used to say if someone doesn't live until 100, it's their own fault."

Elkhan Kambarov, a mere 55, lives higher in the mountains, in Lerik - elevation about 6,000 feet. His grandfather, he says, lived to 167, a record widely reported but not conclusively proved to Western scientists, who are skeptical about documents in this part of the world. But Kambarov encourages today's pursuit. More than 200 people older than 90 live in the region, he says, as the travelers head deeper into the mountains.

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