Canada's Special Envoy to Myanmar: 'We have to try to engage Aung San Suu Kyi'
Guest: Bob Rae
When we came, our home, our life savings and my entire dreams had turned to smoke and ashes. Everything was destroyed. But the soldiers were not done. They came back and beat us. They said they were looking for terrorists. So three soldiers called me over. I knew that they wanted to rape me. Afterwards, I lay on the ground, naked, under the sky.
AMT: Well that is an excerpt from a virtual reality documentary called I Am Rohingya produced by Al Jazeera and Amnesty International. It tells the story of one refugee, Jamalinda Begum, a 26 year old Rohingya woman from Myanmar. She and her two sons fled across the border to Bangladesh after their village was burned down and her husband was killed. It is a story such as hers that sent Bob Rae to the region. 600,000 refugees have fled Myanmar since August to escape what the United Nations is calling deliberate ethnic cleansing. Bob Rae is the prime minister's special envoy to Myanmar. He advised Mr. Trudeau before his meeting with Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Vietnam, last week. Bob Rae returned home to Canada over the weekend and he joins me in our studio. Hello.
BOB RAE: Good morning.
AMT: Where were you able to go?
BOB RAE: Well I was able to visit the refugee camps in southern Bangladesh near the place called Cox’s Bazaar which is a port city. And I was able to spend the better part of two days talking to aid workers and aid organizations and the organizers of the camp, as well as a great many individuals where I heard some stories that were quite similar to the one you just broadcast. And then I went to Yangon and met with a number of officials and aid workers and civil society representatives and diplomats and others. I was not allowed to travel to Rakhine state which is the state where the Rohingya live or did live. But I was not able to get to the Naypyidaw, the state capital. But I did visit. I did have a chance to join the meeting with some with Aung San Suu Kyi with the Prime Minister. So you know I was it was a quick trip at the beginning. I wanted to get a sense of the situation on the ground. I think I have a good sense of that. I'll be going back to the region obviously as well as talking to officials at the U.N. in New York and Geneva and some other capitals and then I'll be completing a final report for the PM by the end of January.
AMT: And so let's talk first about the actual refugees. What stands out for you and what you heard and what you saw?
BOB RAE: Well the camp it's just jam packed. I mean it's there's over half a million people have come since August 25th and it's just a makeshift. Up on the several hills. It's hard to imagine 500,000 people jammed very very close together. People wandering around, people doing whatever they can to line up for food, line up for bedding, line up for clothing, line up for to get inoculated because there's a real threat of disease and epidemics, I saw some lovely kids and spend some time with them talking about their situation and getting them to tell a few stories. And then spend some time privately with a group of women and then with five or six individual families where I just wanted to get a sense of what they had been through. No cameras just me and a couple of other people in the room just listening to what they had to say.
AMT: How did you react to what they told you? What were you hearing?
BOB RAE: Well it's appalling. I mean it's horrific. I mean you know you listen to stories and you say well these are allegations and you have to accept the fact that you know people can say all kinds of things. So of course if I say I believe them that I am accused by some people being a dupe. But on the other hand it's hard to disbelieve the stories on the whole because of the extent of the Exodus. This is the largest and fastest growing refugee camp in the world. And this is a number of people who've left in the space of 75 days. So the stories are pretty awful that basically people were burnt out or shot out. I think a there's generally little doubt that there was an insurgent attack on the 25th that was quite well-planned and quite systematic. And just as a taking place in the previous October what happens when this when that happens, when there is an insurgent attack, where this group called ARSA, the army really overdoes it. You know the army just responds with - to put it mildly - a very very heavy hand and a great deal of brutality. And that involves burning down the villages, clearing people out. There are a lot of accounts of physical violence, sexual violence, rape, and those accounts are going to have to be listened to and people are going to have to be held to account for these because these are absolutely unacceptable breaches of people's human rights and human dignity. And there's enough stories and enough evidence of that to warrant a much deeper investigation which I'm really hoping iss going to continue to take place. And this has been this has been the experience of everyone who visited the camp. No one has come away from the camp saying I didn't hear anything. People are very specific about what happened to them, what happened to their families, loss of life, people getting shot randomly. And then the additional factor which is, I think equally troubling, is not just the activities of the military but the fact that there were vigilante groups who were also engaging in efforts moving people, pushing people along and getting them to leave. You have to say that it isn't just they did not murder everybody - that's true. But on the other hand they certainly did everything they could to force people out.
AMT: So what did you tell Prime Minister Trudeau before he met with Aung San Suu Kyi in Vietnam on Friday?
BOB RAE: Well I told him two things. First of all I told him about the conditions in the camp and that they really are terrible and that in fact is a whole separate issue in terms of what we have to do as a world, because the risks in that camp are serious; risks of mudslides, epidemics, water shortages in the dry season and then heavy heavy flooding and in the wet season. Even in the best of circumstances one could envisage in Myanmar it's going to take quite a long time to get several hundred thousand people back, particularly after their villages have been burned and they have nowhere to go back to. So that's going to pose a serious humanitarian challenge for us. That was the first sort of thing that I told them. The second was that, as difficult as it is, we have to try to engage Aung San Suu Kyi, as the state counselor and as representing sort of the civilian side of the government, in understanding that a lot of a lot of the explanations that have been given about what's happened or what isn't happening or what they say has never happened. It can no longer be denied and that we have to find a way to deal with it and that we have to engage. The government has to engage with the rest of the world in trying to find solutions. And that was the sort of the beginning of the conversation with with Aung San Suu Kyi.
AMT: What was that conversation like?
BOB RAE: Tough. It was difficult. She's a very extremely disciplined woman in sense of very careful what she says very focused, and where she felt there were there were exaggerations or factual errors in what the world was saying or what the evidence was, She was very insistent that Myanmar itself would take the lead in resolving these issues. She said that the refugees would be allowed back and that would need to be facilitated to come back. She said it would take time because there needed to be ways of making sure that people could be settled and insisted that in her country people of different races and religions were welcome. And she very much regretted the terrible things that happened but wanted to move on. And she kept saying I'm a practical person and I want to make sure that we make some better progress than we've been able to make.
AMT: So she said they would be allowed back. Did she give any time frame?
BOB RAE: No time frame. But she stressed the fact that Myanmar people who have been living in Myanmar would be able to come back. She also stressed that this was going to be a bilateral negotiation between Myanmar and Bangladesh and that the foreign minister of Bangladesh was coming soon. I actually met with him the week before and there are some tricky issues which have to be negotiated between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
AMT: Does that mean that she doesn't want the international community being part of any negotiation.
BOB RAE: That's a tension. That's a real issue and it's going to be an issue in future discussions. Because the international community has had very - the NGOs the U.N. organizations - have had very little access to Rakhine state and very little access to be able to travel and see what's actually going on. There was a report that I saw this morning from Sky News. British journalists who took a boat from Bangladesh to Rakhine state and were on the beach and saw some very tough things and reported on them. And frankly that's the kind of thing that the U.N. and others should be able to see. It should not be impossible for people to get to Rakhine state, and in fact, at one point, she kept saying you know that it was terrible what was happening because we're kind state was so beautiful. And I pointed out to her that there was no way that I could know that because I hadn't been allowed to go. And she said well the next time you'll be able to go. So maybe they'll start opening up a bit. I don't know.
AMT: And so when the prime minister was talking to and you were in that room who else was there with you? A lot of people?
BOB RAE: No. There were officials from Burma and officials from Canada, foreign minister was there, Chrystia Freeland.
AMT: Did Aung San Suu Kyi get her back up as she listened to what the prime minister had to say?
BOB RAE: No I don't think she did. I think she was. This is the second time that I've met her. And the thing that impresses me about her is her discipline. She chooses her words carefully. She's very precise in her language that she uses. But where I think it's hard for anyone listening is that I'm not sure to what extent she's fully apprised of the details of what is happening, or fully appreciates how international this has now become. As much as she might think this is just a domestic issue within Myanmar, the reality is is that of 625,000 people have left your country and gone to another country. It's suddenly no longer just a domestic issue.
AMT: Did Mr. Trudeau use the word ethnic - the phrase ethnic cleansing - in talking to her?
BOB RAE: I actually don't recall. But I think the key thing is that we were under no doubt - I mean nobody can be under any doubt that when that many people leave, whether it was the original intent to do that, that is the objective effect .90 percent of northern Rakhine, which is where most of the Rohingya have lived, is empty of Rohingya. So I don't know what else you could call it.
AMT: Germany and France call it genocide and there's a lot of push on the international community to join them in that.
BOB RAE: Well I think that's important that the discussion about that continue. But to me the real question is what are we going to do? We know for a fact that people have been forced to leave because of who they are, in massive numbers, in numbers that exceed anything that we've seen before. We've seen exoduses before from this area. But in terms of where I see things my perspective is that the purpose of what public policy needs to be now is to prevent a genocide. Nobody is denying the violence.
AMT: Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize. She has been made a hero around the world 15 years under house arrest. Was the world wrong about her? Were we wrong about her?
BOB RAE: No I don't think so. I think that what she did in her time and in her circumstance was incredibly brave and incredibly courageous. And I think that deserved recognition. The problem is we're now dealing with a different situation. We're dealing with a situation where she's part of a government which in which the military controls the border, controls all the interior, controls all of defense, and in which as the leader of the civilian part of the government she's not the president. She's not the de facto leader of the government. There is a terrible ethnic conflict underway and that's going to require a very different set of skills. And I think she has to be put to the test.
AMT: Bob Rae, thanks for coming in.
BOB RAE: Thank you.
AMT: Bob Rae is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a special envoy to Myanmar. He joined us in our Toronto studio. Stay with us. The news is next. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. You're listening to The Current on CBC Radio 1.
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Want to live to 110? Largest study of supercentenarians reveals secrets to longevity
Guests: Jane Berry, Thomas Perls
AMT: Hello I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you're listening to The Current.
AMT: Still to come the air in Delhi India has been so dirty the residents can see it.
When you go outside you feel this irritation in your eyes, and there is definitely congestion that you feel in your chest. You don't feel that you know you are outside and it's fresh. There is a kind of congection and definitely visibility's so no. There is basically this cloud of white smog everywhere.
AMT: That is Shutri Sharma mother worried about sending her children outside. We'll explore just how deadly pollution can be. But first learning how to live longer, better.
[Group singing] Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday dear Mom.
Happy birthday to you.
VOICE 1: Thank you all.
VOICE 2: How old are you?
VOICE 1: Truthfully, truthfully, I am 122 today but it feels sometimes like much older and the times I feel like picking up my heels and flying.
VOICE 1: I love to fly.
AMT: You heard that right. Margaret Meister is one hundred and two. And for her birthday party this year she celebrated the same way she has for the past few years, out on the water.
VOICE 1: There you go. Step right on there.
VOICE 2: [Unintelligible]
VOICE 1: No I'm glad to have you. You are the youngest girl we've ever had in this story.
VOICE 2: This is here.
VOICE 1: Yes we lost the throne. Yep.
VOICE 2: Whoo.
VOICE 1: I'm going to push you out a little bit and I'll jump in.
VOICE 2: This is a dream come true.
VOICE 1: A dream come true, isn’t it?
VOICe 2: Yes.
AMT: Margaret Meister is out on a dory boat in Bayport Nova Scotia. It's an area she loves so much that she took up painting its landscapes when she was 99. And by the way that's Margaret rowing the boat herself.
Row row row your boat gently down the stream
Merrily merrily merrily, merrily
MARGARET MEISTER: Life is all a dream. Row row
AMT: You can see her in action on our website CBCcbc.ca/thecurrent.
MARGARET MEISTER: I am enjoying the dory ride and also the smell of the water. It reminds me of my youthful days when I lived right by the water at our own dory.
[Sound: Running water]
AMT: Margaret lives in Lunenburg County along Nova Scotia is Rocky South Shore. And while her robust health and energy at age 102 would be impressive anywhere, she's not alone in the Lunenburg area. In fact longevity researchers are quite interested in that area because so many people there thrive in very old age. It's an area like Sardinia, in Italy or Okinawa, in Japan that's home to an unusually high population of very old people. These areas are sometimes called Blue Zones and they're a draw for researchers from all over the world.
VOICE 1: Hello, Mrs. Oliver? Hi. It is [unintelligible]
VOICE 2: What do you want?
VOICE 1: We’ll be quick about it.
AMT: A team of undergraduate researchers and their professor from the University of Richmond in Virginia traveled to Lunenburg County to meet several of the area's older residents. They're studying the relationship between happiness and longevity. Joy Saunders is another of the women they're interviewing. She's 99. She still lives on her own in a two story house. She walks her dog, Prayer, every day.
JOY SAUNDERS: I love to walk.
AMT: And even volunteers at a foot clinic.
[Sound: Door opens]
JOY SAUNDERS: Hello.
VOICES: Hello. Hi.
JOY SAUNDERS: Welcome home, nice to see you.
JOY SAUNDERS: Well I I've lived everyone. I literally would be 99 next week. I have no one left here. That's one of the hard parts.
VOICE 2: How many children do you have? Any grandchildren?
JOY SAUNDERS: Eight. 16 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.
VOICE 2:How do you define happiness? Are you happy?
JOY SAUNDERS: If you can't laugh you might as well end it, because it's always something to laugh about. If you have humor then you're happy. And if I died tomorrow I'll be happy. I have no fear of death none. I'm ready.
VOICE 2: Do you think that you have a purpose in life? And if so has that purpose changed throughout your life?
JOY SAUNDERS: Yes it has. I think the most important thing is to contribute. I still do the foot clinic. I've run it for 30 years so I still do that. Contribute to your community. There's always something to do. There's no reason in the world to be bored and all because you could always help somebody. You know if you do something for somebody and you feel you've done something good, that that makes you happy.
VOICE 2: So when you look back on all your past experiences and just your life what kind of feelings come to mind? Are you satisfied? Fulfilled? What do you think?
JOY SAUNDERS: Oh yes I am except that I've been alone too long. I don't know I had a good life. Now I have no complaints. I have a little more sex. Well you know it's 30 years.
VOICE 3: To what do you attribute your long life?
JOY SAUNDERS: I think the main thing is to keep fit but I can't say that I did anything to stay this long. I did everything wrong actually. [Laugher] Oh well I smoked for years and I love too drink. And I want to I feel like you know I don't… I just live and I think the best thing is moderation. You know everything in moderation is not going to kill you. It hasn't killed me.
AMT: Those were some students from the University of Richmond interviewing Joy Saunders in Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia. Jane Berry is the student's psychology professor. She specializes in cognitive aging and she's back in Richmond Virginia now. Hello.
JANE BERRY: Hello.
AMT: I love listening to that. Tell me about the people you are studying in Lunenburg.
JANE BERRY: Well we've been fortunate to visit Lunenberg two years in a row now. They are unique because of the combination of their genetic makeup and I think this close knit community. As well as perhaps some of the hardscrabble lives that they've had to live over the decades and centuries since settling there in Lunenberg in 1753. I think many of the people we interviewed and the more I read about Lunenberg, I have come to understand that people are - and Joyce said it very succinctly -She keeps fit. And many of these centenarians and nonagenarians are just very fit people and that goes beyond being healthy. To be fit means that you are not frail and that you probably have good bone density good muscle mass and good cardiovascular and pulmonary functioning.
AMT: So you see they're fit not frail. But this isn't from the gym. These are very active people. They're just doing stuff. They're moving their bodies and doing things every day.
JANE BERRY: Right. So the example of Joy I think is appropriate. She goes upstairs to fetch her glasses several times a day. She deliberately leaves them up stairs so that she has to take those stairs to the second floor. She walks her dog every evening. And I think back to the early lives of some of these people we interviewed before- For example we had power mores and washing machines and dryers to help us with daily chores. These people were washing clothes using clothes ringers and maybe scrub boards and hanging them out to dry, were using push mores instead of sitting on a lawn more to cut their grass. So they've been physically active in their daily lives for most of their lives which is very different from 21st century younger adults.
AMT: Are they happy?
JANE BERRY: They seem content if not happy. Not all of the ones we interviewed, not all of the individuals we interviewed were happy per se, but they don't seem to have complaints. Very few have regrets in life. So they seem to be very much living in the present and looking forward to getting up each day with a sense of purpose and they find meaning in their lives.
AMT: What are you trying to figure out then.
JANE BERRY: It's such a complex puzzle. It's a giant jigsaw puzzle I think. And we are trying to piece together information from interviews with people firsthand and compare that to what we're learning from the scientific research on longevity. And to see if the stories that people bring to our interviews are consistent with what we know from the literature. So you know genes account for about 30 percent of the variance in longevity. That leaves a lot to be explained by lifestyles, habits, behaviour, personality and the environment.
AMT: Do you think the location or maybe the ocean has anything to do with how long they live?
JANE BERRY: I really like that idea and it would just be purely speculative for me to assert that is an important factor. I think the fact that they've interacted with the ocean in meaningful ways in terms of their livelihoods, shipbuilding and fishing and mastering the ocean or having to cope with the ocean may have contributed to ways that they adapt to a pretty harsh life at times. But I also think there's something to being in nature and how it helps us to shed stress. And so there may be something to being able to look at the water every day and feel that salt air in your face and in your hair that makes you feel alive. Right. I mean my students commented on that just the natural beauty of Lunenberg and how that might contribute to a sense of well-being and contentment and fulfillment in life.
AMT: The people you are talking to are they lucid or do any of them have any forms of dementia or starting of that or does that at all factor into who you talk to or who you look for?
JANE BERRY: The people we talked to, living in the community there in Lunenburg, We're all very mentally alert and sharp including Margaret Meister. She was just phenomenal. So we were impressed by the cognitive alacrity that they showed. And they were alert, engaged, interested in us, kept us on our toes with interesting questions. For example one of the people we interviewed when we asked her about happiness she said “well what does happiness mean to you?” And so she wanted to hear from us first before she told us about happiness.
AMT: We heard Joy Saunders wishing she had more sex in her life. Did you hear that often?
JANE BERRY: Did I hear that often? No. Oh no. You can imagine you would miss that when it's gone and women outlive men as you know on average, they have longer life expectancies. And so they are living without the benefits and pleasures of physical intimacy much longer than males do. Of course males are more likely to re partner in older adulthood because there are so many more partners to choose from.
AMT: What have the people who you're studying taught you about your own life?
JANE BERRY: That I need to get cracking, that I need to start working on some of those controllable factors that might allow me to live not just that long life, but a better life if I am lucky enough to reach an old age. My grandmother lived to 102 and she was one of these robust and contented farm girls from North Missouri. And if I aspire to be like her I think I need to give up some of my bad habits and start adopting some good habits in terms of physical fitness and dietary habits and attitudes. I'm a pretty cheerful person. I'm an optimistic person so I have that going for me. But I just really need to get to the gym and that's kind of ironic because these centenarians aren't going to the gym. They aren't working out. They aren’t jogging. They just have incorporated an active life into their daily lives since they were younger adults. Look at Margaret being able to row a boat, a dory at 102. That's just phenomenal.
AMT: Well you're 30 percent there with the genes.[Laughs]
JANE BERRY: I am hoping. Right.
AMT: Really nice to talk to you. Thank you.
JANE BERRY: Thank you. You're welcome.
AMT: Jane Berry, a psychology professor who specializes in aging and Cognition at the University of Richmond in Virginia. While most of us liked the idea of living to be 100 but only about 8000 thousand Canadians can call themselves centenarians. Dr. Thomas Perls is trying to figure out how they and others do it. He is a geriatrician. He's the director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine. This is the biggest study of centenarians and super centenarians in the world. Dr. Thomas Perls is in Boston. Hello.
THOMAS PERLS: Hi Anna Maria.
AMT: First of all what are super centenarians.
THOMAS PERLS: These are folks who live to 110 and older.
AMT: Are there a lot of people out there who are that old?
THOMAS PERLS: No they are extremely rare. They're about 1 per 5 million in the population and there's about 350 of them worldwide at any one time.
AMT: And you study them.
THOMAS PERLS: Indeed we do.
AMT: So what are super centenarians like?
THOMAS PERLS: It varies. There's this phenomenon called the compression of morbidity that when these folks get to achieving what is essentially the limits of human lifespan, which is defined by the oldest ever person who was 122 and she passed away in 1997. So it's been many years since anybody has even come close. And that was actually a 119 year old who was in our study. She was the oldest ever in our study and she passed away in 1999 and no one has come close. So it's really hard to try and fill the shoes of the oldest ever. But for super centenarians, on average, they were living independently and really without any significant age related diseases at about a 155, 106. They are very very special because a lot of centenarians - those who get to 100-101 are not like that. They can have age related diseases for many years. What's different about centenarians generally is they just seem to manage those diseases a lot better than the rest of us who would otherwise die from those diseases. But the super's are kind of the creme de la crème, in terms of just aging extraordinarily well. And so slowly and avoiding or delaying age related diseases. And that again is different from people who lived to 100. There's many many more of them, instead of it being 1 per 5 million in the population, they are one per 5000 in the population. In the United States, there's about 70,000 centenarians as you said there's about 8000 in Canada. To get to these most extreme ages, genes actually play a really really important role. The tables get turned and it's more 70 percent genes and 30 percent environment and behavior to get to these most extreme ages.
AMT: How do you know exactly how old some of these very old people are?
THOMAS PERLS: You have to be very careful because 99 percent of claims of Ages of 115 and older are false. When we do encounter really extreme ages we first of all get a hold of a birth certificate but we also look for other forms of corroborating proof like school, age, reports, military records, marriage certificates. We look for multiple forms of proof that together prove the person's age. We don't really do that for people who live to 100. There we just get a birth certificate and we're happy.
AMT: That's too common for you.[Laughs]
THOMAS PERLS: Yes it is. In fact we started the study back in 1995 enrolling men aged 95 and older and women 98 and older, and now we really want people to be 103 and older. Because in part genes are playing a pretty strong role at that point and we're very very interested in that. And the molecular cellular mechanisms that may be helping people age much slower and avoid or delay these diseases, because that's after all the reason why we're studying these folks. It is not so much to learn how to get a bunch of people to be a hundred or older but much more importantly I think, how we could slow aging and help people avoid or delay a disease like Alzheimer's disease.
AMT: So you can see in the genes of those who managed to go farther you can start to see clues to what it is.
THOMAS PERLS: Well that's the plan.
AMT: So you mentioned the oldest person you ever studied was in Pennsylvania. Right?
THOMAS PERLS: That's right sir. Sarah Knauss who was in Allendale and lived to 119. And as I mentioned before we had to go through all kinds of hoops to prove her age because it's so incredibly rare. And I might add that when you hear about a person who is 130 in the media, that the surest reason why that's false is because you didn't hear about them eight years earlier when they would have passed the world record at 122. But Sarah one of the really interesting ways we figured out she was the age she was, was we got the family together for a photo for Life magazine, and seated next to her was her ninety nine year old daughter. Wow. And who then became a member of our study later. We don't have very many of those alive mother daughter combinations or both centenarians. But she actually in this photo presided over five younger generations so there was a total of six generations in the photo that included the great great great grandson.
AMT: And how healthy was she?
THOMAS PERLS: Well Sarah, like Madame Kamal the oldest ever, and most super centenarians at the very end of their lives - whether that be 110 or 116 - at the very end of their lives they entered this about a year maybe less of really extreme frailty. But prior to that it's just one of the things I do when I give lectures, and what I do is I get photos. I show photos of these individuals say when Sarah was 99 or when John Kamal was 116 you wouldn't be able differentiate those folks from people in their 70s early 80s. It's just remarkable when you see those photos how incredibly slowly they're aging. But of course everybody has to die at some point. And for these folks they're lucky enough that after these extraordinarily long lives they have a very short period of time, relatively, speaking in which they're experiencing disability and illness. Again that is not the case for people who are living to 100. We have these survivors and delayers and escapers. Where the survivors are individuals who've had age related diseases even before the age of 80, the delayers or those who have age related disease after the age of 80. And then we have these escapers the ones who had a hundred really have no appreciable diseases. There are of course the ones who go on to be hopefully rolling their dories at 110. But again though, they're dealing with those diseases - those who get them - much much better than the rest of us. And so that's why they're living independently well into their early to mid 90s. Who's the healthiest and most capable person you have ever studied.
THOMAS PERLS: The healthiest and most capable person I've studied, at a 110 or older, was a guy named Walter Breuning. First of all, he was a man, much much rarer than women, about one out of eight centenarians are men and the rest are women. The women for sure when the longevity marathon. But Walter who we went to visit in Great Falls Montana,+ not too far from the Canadian border, was amazing at 114 and what ended up being the fifth oldest man ever. Walter was very very special for the fact that at 114 he was living in an assisted living situation, mostly because he was a bit lonely and wanted to have a lot of social network and activities through the day. He dressed up in a three piece suit every day. When I met with him what was so remarkable was that he talked my ear off, for probably 90 minutes without repeating himself once. And what we were just so struck by was here was a hundred and fourteen year old brain, that had absolutely no evidence of Alzheimer's disease. And this notion of if you live old enough you'll get Alzheimer's is just not true. There are folks who can get to these extreme ages without that disease. And while half of people over the age of 85 appear to have some form of cognitive impairment, some of that culminating in Alzheimer's disease, one has to remember that the other half of people over the age of 85 do not.
AMT: He was cognitively intact I guess is the phrase but how long did he work for?
THOMAS PERLS: He worked for the railroad. He absolutely saved his life during the Depression, in the 1930s by giving him work and money but he worked till the age of 99. And there was a huge celebration for his 100th birthday attended by the current president of the railroad and just a huge fabulous crowd that he just lit up when he would talk about that gathering. Really an amazing person, very very inspiring.
AMT: He sounds extraordinary. And on that inspiring note, Dr. Perls, stay with us we have to take a short break. I'm speaking with Dr. Thomas Perls. He's a geriatrician and he's the director of the New England Centenarian Study at the Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine. When we return we're going to talk about concerns around growing anti-aging industry efforts as well. In the meantime visit our website cbc.ca/thecurrent. To see photos of some of the centenarians and super centenarians in Dr. Perle's study. We'll be back to continue this conversation in just a moment. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti This is The Current.
AMT: Hi I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and this is The Current. In a few moments we'll hear about the toxic smog blanketing New Delhi and the dangers of that level of air pollution. But first we want to continue the conversation we were having just before the break. My guest is Dr. Thomas Perls. He's a geriatrician. He's director of the New England Centenarian Study at the Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine. We've been talking about what he's learning in his study of centenarians and super centenarians, those rare individuals who live to be 110 or older. This is the largest study of such very old people in the world. Now their genes play a very important role. We also heard that most of them stay active and alert. Some even work through their 90s. So Thomas Perls, how does that sense of purpose in their lives figure into your research?
THOMAS PERLS: Oh I think that purpose in life, social Engagement, that's very very important for any older person. And loneliness and isolation are very very bad for older people generally. And along those lines certainly exercise and healthy diet and not smoking and not drinking. These are all factors that are very important for what I would say is average aging. And there is the Seventh Day Adventist health study the Seventh Day Adventists are in fact one of Dan Buettner’s blue zones. They constitute a blue zone because they're very healthy habits, get them to the oldest average life expectancy of any group, which is 86 for men and 89 for women. And the reason they get there is because of the health habits dictated by their religions. So they're vegetarian. They don't smoke. They don't drink. They exercise every day. They eat in moderation and they also spend amount of their time with family and religion which may help them manage their stress better, which is one theory, and gets to this issue of being an thriving social situations. But what that study indicates to me and others is that the average bunch of us should be able to get to 86 if you're a man and 89 if you're a woman. And that's where this figure of 30 percent of how old people live to be on average is going to be dictated by genes. And the vast majority of it is these health habits. But once you start hitting 100 and then especially getting to 105-110 it turns the other way around and that's not one gene. It's not one fountain of aging well gene. It's probably many genes each with modest effects but in the right combination. Kind of like winning the lottery with getting the right combination of numbers then you win the jackpot. And that's why it's so rare it's getting that right combination.
AMT: And let's talk about Blue Zones. First of all do you believe in Blue Zones per se?
THOMAS PERLS: Well I spoke with Dan early on he came to interview me. Dan Buettner who's the originator of this term and Dan is not a research scientist. He's an adventurer and delivers messages extremely effectively and he's very very interested in promoting good health habits. His adventure with aging first began with what he thought and it heard about pockets of populations around the world that had inordinate numbers of centenarians. And in fact I was quite interested in Prince Edward Island and particularly the West Coast of Prince Edward Island that has a pocket of Acadians where we thought there was a concentration of centenarians. But the actuarial person from the government of Canada had assured us that they really didn't think that that was a real phenomenon. But in terms again of any areas whether that be Okinawa or Sardinia or even the island of Dominica which was claiming a lot of centenarians that it was entirely false. That seemed to be more a push for getting some tourism, just like the area of China where they were claiming that the air was particularly conducive to exceptional longevity and you needed to come stay there for a week and you too could live to extreme old age. Some of these things like promoting certain substances that are called fountains of youth that is starting to get into the whole arena of anti-aging quackery.
AMT: You don't have any patience for that, I'm guessing.
THOMAS PERLS: I have very little patience in fact. It's not so dangerous to claim clean air or a glacial milk or the water runoff from the Andes as is, or pomegranates as being something people should indulge in. But when you have people claiming to be bonafide doctors who want to sell you multiple different kinds of hormones, some of them injected like growth hormone. It's been an easy sell for some gullible folks that hormones are equated with youth. And so by replacing some of these hormones to youthful levels as these folks claim, you can stop and reverse aging. And in fact taking on growth hormone or testosterone and DHA and a whole number of concoctions, that I call toxic hormone soup's, I think are very dangerous for you. Both for your wallet as well as more importantly your health.
AMT: So and in the research you do and you mentioned you added the daughter of one of the women you were studying to do your research because she was ninety nine turning 100. What are you learning from the children and from the parents who are this old?
THOMAS PERLS: Well the kids are very much following in the footsteps of their parents. These are folks now in our cohort in their 80s almost 90s and they have half the rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer when they were in their early 80s compared to other people born around the same time. And 30 percent less mortality in their 70s compared to others. Now I do think that families have a lot in common besides genes whether that be diet, years of education, access to health care, general socio economic status and these are incredibly important factors for average life expectancy. And I think that among centenarians you're going to see increased rate of people being better off in those respects. Now once you start delving into the thin air of people getting to know 107-108 I don't think those factors played such a role such an important role in the face of how important genes become. And the other thing that you sometimes see particularly - in another study that I collaborate with the Ashkenazi Jewish Centenarian Study at Einstein College of Medicine - a really amazing portion of that group of centenarians they have really bad health histories in terms of their habits; lots of smoking, terrible diets ,conducive to being obese and yet they're still getting to very old age which speaks to probably some genes that allow them to get away with some pretty bad habits, especially smoking, which we all know has a very high risk for cancer and other forms of lung disease. For those folks who certainly not should not be emulating their health habits that they are probably getting away with because of some genes.
AMT: That's really interesting I'm sure a lot of people want to use the example. Do you think we'll get to the point where we live to 120 or 30?
THOMAS PERLS: No I don't. Nor do I think we should be spending much time listening to some folks like Ray Kurtzweil or Aubrey de Grey who are these Futurists who claim - for example Aubrey declaims that there's a baby boomer alive today who's going to live to 1000, as they take advantage of major advances in science over time. And I think until one learns how to replace the brain, I just don't think that's going to happen and probably nor would anyone want to do that. But there are some really interesting studies being done that are promising for actual medical interventions that may slow aging and decrease risk for some of these age related diseases that I think are looking very promising, particularly in the area of stem cell research. Looking at these cells that are associated with aging that if those can be somehow taken out of the system, it leaves behind more healthy aging cells called [unintelligible] class of drugs that are being investigated that looks very promising.
AMT: You've been at this study for more than 20 years, have you changed anything about the way you live feed? Does it make you think differently, live differently?
THOMAS PERLS: Oh for sure. You know when I started the study it was a real eye opener, when seeing people getting to 100. That is 20-30 years beyond the age of 80. It really raises the bar. When you see a bunch of people living to a hundred, you know, I think it's like a bunch of people's looking at folks who run marathons. It makes it a lot easier to run a six k race. To me they raise the bar for the rest of us to having a very open mind to the notion wow if I really take good care of myself there's big pay off, for potentially living 30 years beyond the age of 60, much of it independently and in good shape. They're really very very inspiring and I think a beacon of hope really for the idea of aging well. Instead of looking at aging as the older you get the sicker you get, to me it's much more the case of the older you get the healthier you've been.
AMT: Well it's fascinating to hear your work. Thank you.
THOMAS PERLS: Oh my pleasure. Thanks for asking me to be on.
AMT: Dr. Thomas Perls is a geriatrician and director of the New England Centenarian Study at the Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine. He joined us from Boston. Great thing to remember. The older you get the better you've been. You'll find some great photos of the people we've been talking about on our website cbc.ca/thecurrent. If you tune in partway through our conversation will post it in its entirety, so you can listen from our Web site to our podcast or on the CBC radio app.
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New Delhi's toxic smog poses serious health threat, warns doctor
Guest: Dr. Arvind Kumar, Nil Basu
AMT: This is The Current on CBC Radio 1. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti.
You know, I think particularily, the worst day was Wednesday when we could breathe, speak, eat or sleep. Today what we see is on the worst days that people actually come out in the parks and I have been talking to them. They say that you know they are willing to take it as a compromise for the time being. I mean it's still better than Wednesday. But even today, it's one of the worst days that I've seen in a long long time. From what I understand, Wednesday was probably the worst in the last 20 years and which was when diesel vehicles used to play in the city. And despite [unintelligible] do you see such a thick envelope of smog. So people have been looking into what is the real reason for this, and what we understand is that it's crop burning.
AMT: A man in New Delhi describing the apocalyptic scene, a thick blanket of toxic choking smog that is cloaking India's capital. One official called the city a gas chamber. Schools were closed, traffic has been snarled, residents say they feel nauseous and it hurts to breathe. Doctors say the air quality is so poor that simply being outside is equivalent to smoking up to 50 cigarettes a day. It began last week when pollution spiked hitting 30 times the world health organization's safe level. That prompted doctors in the U.S. Capitol to warn of a public health emergency. Crop burning, factory emissions, garbage fires all contribute to the chemical stew making the city dangerous, even deadly, for the people who live there. We spoke with Paroma Dutt Mehra and Shutri Sharma, two mothers in Delhi.
PAROMA DUTT MEHRA: I think it does to everybody. And for the first time I'm paranoid. And as a parent of two children I am scared beyond belief. I talked about why this is happening and what we could do. I thought that we as parents did whatever was asked of us. You know we did the no [unintelligible], car pooled, and we walked and we took the Uber. You know for the longest time I would think that the kids with the low immunity, with EN tissues and the constantly coughing, but I now realize that's unfair of me to think that of my children. I think it's a larger problem because just a few days ago my younger daughter who just turned three is coughing away. And I can make out that it has nothing to do with - you know your nose or throat. I know it's because she's finding it difficult to breathe. And the other day my son said “Mom I always feel as if there's something in my mouth” and I'm like “what are you doing spitting?” and he says “no, there is something in my mouth.”.
SHUTRI SHARMA: It doesn't smell fresh. It doesn't smell like environment. It smells like you know there is some kind of gas leak. It's nauseatic. What quality of life are we talking about for our kids? When it comes to natural air and something which is so precious, I just feel that we have betrayed them. So disheartening to see that we are not letting up gets out to play games. Basically as parents and as I think as a country we are failing our future generations.
AMT: The voices of Paroma Dutt Mehra and Shutri Sharma, two mothers in Delhi. Well for more on what people are facing I'm joined by Dr. Arvind Kumar. He is a lung surgeon at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital and the founder of the Lung Care Foundation in Delhi. That's where we've reached him. Hello.
ARVIND KUMAR: Yes I am with you, Anna Maria.
AMT: Hi. What's the air quality like in Delhi today?
ARVIND KUMAR: The inequality is, to say the least, it's terrible. The ppm 2.5 which is the toxic kind of small particles, which goes into the last part of our lungs, it's several, several, several times. I mean some places it is ten times higher, some places it is 20 times higher. On an average it's about 15 to 20 times higher than the permitted WHO standards in a country that all kinds of toxic chemical, if the air is acidic in nature. You know if you walk on the road with your mouth open, after a few minutes that is a peculiar acidic kind of taste on your tongue and on your lips. Even normal persons are coughing. They are finding it difficult to breathe. On minimal exertion, they're feeling choked, they're feeling breathless. Patients who are already asthmatics but well-controlled are coming back to ERs with the extra [unintelligible] of asthma. People are developing infections and in the long run, as the lung surgeon, you know I have been seeing the effects of pollution on the color of lungs of people in our country, and I shatter to think what kind of toxic and harmful long term effects it will have on the lungs of children who are being born in this city children who are being reared up in the city. And of course the adults and the elderly. It's going to affect lives of all of us, badly.
AMT: Dr. Kumar, so what are you already seeing in the lungs of young people?
ARVIND KUMAR: So as a lung surgeon I have been looking at the lungs of people since 1988 when I started up printing on the chest. At that time I used to see mostly pink lungs and black lungs only in smokers. But the last few years I'm very very horrified that I have been seeing black spots on the lungs of even teenagers, nonsmoker teenagers, having black blood deposits on the lungs means that they already have been exposed to a significant amount of pollution. And other development is that I'm actually also noticing lung cancer occurring a decade or two earlier than the Western countries in my population. I'm seeing increase in the number of non-smoker lung cancers. Now all of these are very serious warning signs of significant lung damage accuring to the population on account of extremely high levels of pollution that we are all exposed to around here. See what we are talking right now is an acute rise in pollution. But mind you, if you look at the average air quality in the city for the last one year, most of the time we are at least five times the permitted WHO standard. And mind you, the permitted WHO standards in our country is six times the normal. You know it's 10 micrograms ppm 2.5 elsewhere but 60 here, but our average is about 200 to 250 which is normal. These days, it's crossing thousand. So air here is extremely extremely polluted.
AMT: That sounds just frightening. What can you tell patients like what do you advise people to do?
ARVIND KUMAR: Well these days the city is in crisis mode. So you know our schools are shut, there are advisory that we as doctors have given to people not to venture outdoors. So there is no morning jogging or walking being done in the city. Lot of cyclotrons and marathons which were scheduled, children's walks which was scheduled, have all been canceled. And till about 10:00 when it's bright sunshine, till that time, people are scared to go out of the house. But even inside the house, after all inside their house also comes from outside. So even inside the dining room, the bedroom air is… I mean when you get up in the morning there is no feeling of freshness because it's all polluted air that you're breathing 24/7. It's actually quite a bad situation here.
AMT: And are people angry enough to try to force some kind of change in some kind of air quality clean up?
ARVIND KUMAR: Yes there is anger. And I as a doctor I actually feel sad that last year around the same time we've witnessed a similar situation. We all talked about it for about 10 days. The city was under siege. The media, the print media, everybody was only discussing this issue. And I, as a lung surgeon, hope that corrective measures will be put in place. And probably November 17 we will not repeat but unfortunately same story, maybe five-10 percent versus actually and the same things. I don't know. Again I am optimistic that at least November of 2018 we will be talking about the corrective measures being effective and not repeating the same story. I do hope so.
AMT: Dr. Kumar thank you for bringing us up to date on what's going on there. Thank you.
ARVIND KUMAR: Thank you very much.
AMT: Dr. Arvind Kumar, lung surgeon Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in Delhi, India. Well it is not just Delhi making headlines. In Lahore Pakistan air particulates are currently more than 30 times higher than what the Pakistani government considers safe. Pollution is taking a staggering toll worldwide according to a major new study. Nil Basu is the Canada Research Chair in environmental health science at McGill University. One of the authors of the study which was published in the medical journal Lancet last month and Nil Basu is in Minneapolis, Minnesota today. Hello.
NIL BASU: Hi Anna Maria.
AMT: What are you thinking as you hear the situation in Delhi right now?
NIL BASU: Oh geez what's happening in Delhi right now, but also countless other places worldwide, but also in Canada I really think it's a human rights issue. We all have a right to clean air, right to clean water, clean food, clean workplaces. But clearly these rights are being violated and it really bothers me or bothers the authors of a report and the whole scientific community that I travel in. These stories coming out of Delhi, they just really hit home for me on many many personal levels.
AMT: So what did the study reveal about the impact of pollution worldwide?
NIL BASU: So this study revealed a few things. One is that pollution is a global issue and this is really the largest effort of its kind, that we're able to show that pollution endangers the health of the planet but also the economy. And that if we're going to tackle it we really need a global approach to it. So the work with the unique in a sense that it's the first report to analyze all major types of pollution. So we looked at water pollution. We looked at air pollution and we looked at pollution in soil but also in the workplaces. And we evaluated its impacts not only on human health but also on the economy and broader society. To do a report like this, you need to bring in experts from around the world. And that's what we did. We brought in experts from across disciplines we had economists working with medical doctors, working with environmental specialists, working with lawyers. We had the World Bank working with the United Nations, with the European Commission and a couple of commissioners from Canada. And we looked at the evidence. We looked at the evidence in a very objective manner and the evidence base is really really solid and strong and it really provides that base for us to act and act now.
AMT: You have numbers that suggest that there are 15 times more deaths a year due to pollution than due to all war and violence.
NIL BASU: Correct. So the numbers are hard and they're sobering. So we found that the number of premature deaths caused by pollution worldwide in 2015 was about 9 million people. This is three times more than AIDS tuberculosis malaria combined and then 15 times more than wars and all forms of violence. So the numbers are staggering. We're talking about one out of every six that's around the world that is mediated by pollution and we do go in the report to talk about this large this is likely and underestimated the conservative estimate we only looked at a very few pollutants. There are many many more out there for which we weren't able to make that conclusion quite yet. We looked at a handful of health outcomes. There are many other types of health outcomes that we're concerned about. When we think about the global state of pollution, it's largely affecting low and middle income countries. But we have very few monitoring studies in place there. So again even though the numbers are staggering right now, they really are a conservative estimate of the reality.
AMT: Give me one more staggering number. What's it doing to the economy worldwide??
NIL BASU: The economy, it is having a great toll on the economy worldwide. So the economists in the report calculated staggering numbers such as certain countries their GDP is being affected by about two percent per year. We know that pollution can have a tremendous burden on local health care systems and national healthcare systems, with up to maybe 7 percent of health care costs in low and middle income countries being pollution related. It is having a staggering toll on the economy worldwide. And because of that and many other reasons is important for us to take steps to try to remediate this.
AMT: Well you also looked at Canada. You've identified the Inuit as one of the populations in the world most impacted by pollution.
NIL BASU: Yes this is somewhat of a paradox in the pollution world, that you have First Nations communities across Canada but the Inuit in the north who are far removed from major source of the pollution but ironically they have some of the highest levels of pollution on the planet. And this is because many of the industrial pollutants, especially that are released from the global south. They get into the air system. They get into the water system and they can travel far far distances. Now as they get closer to the Arctic the environment cools down. Chemical reactions cooled down so these chemicals tend to start building up in the Arctic. Now the food system in the Arctic it's very ingrained with livelihoods in the Arctic. So once chemicals get into the food systems and they build up these delicate and long food chains. The concentrations of these chemicals we see in marine mammals, in certain types of fish are amongst the highest in the world. And given that these country foods form the main sustenance for Inuit populations in the north, again somewhat tragically, they are exposed to some of the highest levels of pollution worldwide, even though they're far far remotr from the sources.
AMT: We're almost out of time but before I let you go, you've called this then yet you're talking about rights to clean air, clean water. The importance of rights.
NIL BASU: That's right. So again we all have a right to clean air clean water and clean workplaces. And unfortunately what we're seeing is that this issue of pollution on the planet is something that we haven't dealt with well enough. With that being said it's solvable. And there is good news there are a number of win win solutions. There are a number of cases we've been able to document in which pollution prevention actions take place in what they end up doing is that they end up cleaning up the environment. And at the same time they help grow the economy. They help grow the potential of populations to drive. So I think there are a number of win win solutions that can be achieved.
AMT: Nil Basu, thank you very much for talking about your research today.
NIL BASU: Thank you Anna Maria.
AMT: Nil Basu, Canada Research Chair in environmental health sciences at McGill University. He joined us from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Let us know what you think about those numbers and what he's saying. You can find us on our website cbc.ca/thecurrent, find us on Facebook or on Twitter we are @TheCurrentCBC. That's our program for today stay with Radio 1 for q. Guest host Ali Hassan is sitting in for Tom Power today, talking about a new documentary from Hari Kondabolu about a new documentary called The Problem With APU. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. Thanks for listening to The Current.