By Eric Sabo | Special for USA TODAY
There’s a good chance that Fidel Castro, who marks his 78th birthday Friday, could keep going for another 40 years, the Cuban leader’s personal physician says.
“It is very possible to live to 120,” says Eugenio Selman Housein, the doctor closest to Castro. And Selman says reaching that remarkable age is something that even average Cubans can achieve. The key, he says, is preventive care and attitude. “If you think you can reach 120 years of age, then it’s possible,” he says.
Castro’s aging communist revolution lacks much in the way of money or outside support. Financial help from Moscow dried up after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the country has been under a U.S. trade embargo for decades.
Undaunted by the country’s shaky economic health, Cuban doctors led by Selman have begun a campaign to bolster its physical health: an ambitious fountain-of-youth program called the “120-Year Club.”
The effort may be the first national attempt to set a record for old age, experts on aging say. Selman predicts that Cuba eventually will supplant Japan as the country with the world’s oldest population (Japan’s average lifespan: 81.4 years).
Not many people would consider Cuba an ideal place to grow old.
Cuba had an estimated per capita gross domestic product of $2,800 in 2003, compared with $37,800 for the USA. The elegant buildings that made the island a tourist mecca until Castro’s communists took over in 1959 are crumbling. The dull, Soviet-style buildings that sprouted up in the 1970s show signs of wear and tear. Black smoke that pours out of ‘50s-vintage cars and trucks chokes even the smallest towns.
Electricity outages and food shortages are less pronounced than they were during the lean days of the 1990s, after Soviet support ended. But the government is warning its people of tough times ahead because of Bush administration efforts to force Castro out by further isolating the country.
Yet efforts to improve health here have had remarkable results. More than 15% of Cubans are now 60 years or older. Cuba’s infant-mortality and life-expectancy rates are among the best for a developing country. The infant-mortality rate is 6.45 out of 1,000 live births, not far behind the USA, where it’s 6.63. At 77, the average Cuban lives longer than neighbors in the Bahamas (65.6) or Jamaica (76.1). The U.S. average is 77.4.
In many poor countries, infectious diseases and malnutrition are the biggest killers. But Cuba’s vaccination program ó Cuban children get 13 vaccinations ó prevents those diseases. In Cuba, heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death, the same as in the USA.
Coming from a dictatorship, such statistics, even when they are backed up by U.S. government estimates, are often greeted with suspicion.
At a special conference in January on how Cuba might withstand a medical or humanitarian crisis, Andrew Natsios of the U.S. Agency for International Development warned that dictators such as Castro have a flair for bending the truth. Alfredo Melgar, a Cuban doctor who fled the communist island for the United States in 1994, agrees. “Castro is a liar,” he says.
The data are further put in doubt by Cuba’s chronic shortages, which include medical equipment and medicines. Doctors earn less than taxi drivers. The government spends 16% of its meager annual budget on health care.
But Cuban physicians have shown the same kind of resourcefulness that drivers here use to keep their half-century-old cars running. “Cuba is obsessed with health,” says Frederick Burkle, a public health specialist at Johns Hopkins University.
“I call it MacGyver medicine,” says Sarpoma Sefa-Boakye, 23, who left UCLA to study for free at the Latin American School of Medicine, which is housed in a converted Cuban naval base. Much like the fictional TV character MacGyver, Cuban doctors perform near-miracles with rudimentary equipment, Sefa-Boakye says. She hopes to take these skills back to the USA to treat poor communities in California. “We learn how to do more with less,” she says.
Who wants to be 120?
Anna Alverez, 78, lives in a modest apartment near Havana’s main university. She supplements her $8-a-month pension by teaching Spanish to foreign visitors. She groans at the thought of living to 120. “We can barely live now,” she says.
Alverez would not be a good candidate for the 120-Year Club because of the importance it places on attitude. Cuban officials say the same revolutionary zeal that has driven nearly five decades of socialism can overcome the ravages of time.
The 120-Year Club is based on six keys to a longer life: proper nutrition, exercise, culture, a clean environment, preventive health care and willpower. These virtues are being pushed through educational seminars and the government media. Selman hopes to eventually have one out of every 15 workers act as spokespeople. Already, more than 2,000 have applied to join, Selman says, and at least 800 have been accepted. “When you apply for a membership, it’s not immediate,” Selman says. “We have to avoid contamination with people who are immoral.”
At least 40 different Cuban research groups are said to be at work unlocking the secrets of aging. The research ranges from studying special diets to basic research on genetics.
Selman won’t say whether Castro is a member of the club, but he points to him as a motivational figure. Selman tells audiences that Castro, through dogged determination, was able to overcome all obstacles to lead Latin America’s most enduring revolution. “He is a good example,” Selman says.
Many observers, however, are less than impressed.
“This sounds like another of Castro’s many crazy schemes,” says Brian Latell, a Latin America expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Experts on aging also are skeptical. Only one person, Jeanne Calment of France, is known to have reached 120 in modern times, and she spent her last years partially blind and immobile. She died in 1997 at age 122.
“The chances of living that long are 61/2 billion people to one,” says Thomas Perls, a geriatrics researcher at Boston University. “Those aren’t great odds.”
But Robert Butler, who directs the International Longevity Center in New York, says he was impressed by Selman when he met him two years ago to discuss longevity plans for Cuba.
Butler gave Selman several suggestions: Educate people on healthy lifestyles, create special centers for the elderly and put more money into research on aging.
While they agree on these steps, Selman and Butler disagree on just how long the human body can last.
At 74, Selman is not just the founder of the 120-Year Club, he is a member. “Motivation can be very decisive,” he says of surviving another 46 years.
Butler has his doubts: “It may sound majestical to say that we can live to 120, but I don’t think we are there yet.”