How to live to a hundred
“EASY TO KNOW and it’s hard to leave.” That’s how the Sidmouth tourist website describes the seaside town in East Devon, where the red cliffs turn the sea water pink. The tagline relates to life as well as holidays. Almost a third of residents are over 75; locals refer to Sidmouth as “God’s Waiting Room”. “We get a lot of people to well into their 90s, 100s,” says a woman in a funeral parlor as an undertaker in a top hat walks by. A card shop has sold “three or four” 100th birthday cards from she opened in November.
Life expectancy in Britain has been stagnant for a decade but the country is still producing large numbers of elderly people. Britain ranks 29th in the world for life expectancy (at 81 years) but seventh for centenarians per 100,000 people. That puts it ahead of Italy and Greece, both of which are known for their “blue zones”, a term used to describe areas where people say they live in isolation. long
The food is not the secret to Sidmouth’s long-standing population. Islands like Sardinia and Icaria have a Mediterranean diet – heavy in olive oil, seafood and fresh vegetables. East Devon, home to the largest number of centenarians in England, has the pensioner’s specialty – small fish and chips and a big pot of tea.
The sea air needs help, says 76-year-old Graham Brooks who helps look after the Sidmouth antiques shop and whose mother, Audrey, turned 100 last November. (Mrs Brooks probably owes more to genes, luck and the fact that she has never smoked and doesn’t drink, except for half a glass of wine at Christmas.)
There are plenty of opportunities in Sidmouth for older people to be active and socially connected, both great ways to delay the grim reaper. At Fields, the local department store, the cafe has no music, the better to hear old friends. There are brass band classes, a ukulele club and jazz nights. In the window of Toto’s, a dog toy shop “for dapper dogs”, is a poster for a film version of “A Matter of Life and Death”, a classic released in 1946.
But places like Sidmouth are a silver lining to a darker story. Although some of its citizens live very long lives, Britain also excels at short production. Britain’s average life expectancy figures hide the extremes. Centenarians tend to congregate more on the south coast, in areas such as Bournemouth and Bognor Regis as well as in East Devon (see map). In many other coastal towns, such as Blackpool, life expectancy is much lower than the national average. London is also no place for the elderly: of the eight local authorities in England and Wales with less than ten hundred years per 100,000 people, six are in the capital.
Instead of blue zones, where a particular environment is associated with greater longevity, Britain is more likely to have silver zones, places that attract people with longer lives in middle age or when they retire. Marjorie Hodnett, who grew up in London, will be 110 in April. Her biggest health complaint concerns prescription toothpaste that was sent to the wrong pharmacy (at 105 she still had 26 of her own teeth; now she’s down to 21). She left Sidmouth for Merseyside in 2020, but only to become closer relatives after six decades in the area. “It’s a beautiful place,” she said with a smile. The first thing she will ask your contact is if the daffodil is out. ■