Who would have thought that a third-world country in the Caribbean would have the highest percentage of people who live to be more than 100 years of age?
I admit that I was pleasantly surprised, as I would not have guessed that it would be a beautiful Caribbean island with mountain peaks, rain forest walks, hot springs, wind surfing, and scuba diving.
Turns out that Dominica, an island in the eastern Caribbean island chain, holds the record for the highest number of centenarians in the world (centenarians are people who are more than 100 years old).
Some call this island the home of the fountain of youth. In 2020, there were 27 centenarians living on this lovely island (with a total population of about 72,000). At one point, they had four centenarians living on the same street within a short walk of each other!
This is nearly four people per 10,000, which is 50 percent higher than Japan, 65 percent higher than in the United States, and three times as many as in Great Britain.
Given that Dominica is one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean with an economy dependent upon agriculture and tourism, this is a remarkable achievement.
Why do people live so long in Dominica?
- People have cited Dominica’s pristine, unspoiled environment as the main reason for longevity on the island. Dominica’s waters are unpolluted, and its vegetation is largely pesticide-free. There is no large-scale industry on this island.
- A healthy diet also contributes to a high life expectancy. Traditionally, a Dominican’s diet includes natural foods that are grown in gardens, fruits and herbs that grow wild, and fish that are caught locally. Animal protein is largely wild or pasture raised. Herbal teas (bush tea) and clear fresh water are consumed in abundance.
- People on Dominica have also been very physically active. The islanders worked the land over their lifespan and today’s elderly had to walk long distances on rough terrain in their youth because there were few roads until well into the 1960s. Walking was a necessity of everyday life, along with hard physical work.
- People benefit from community and spiritual support. They live within extended families and self-sufficient communities and they respect and care for their elders. They also have a deeply rooted belief in God.
Dominica is the home of the oldest documented person on the planet, Ma Pampo Israel, who died in 2003 at age 128. During an interview, she ascribed her long life to hard physical work, natural food straight from the earth without pesticides, and a relationship with God.
My wife, Nicole, and I arrived here in Dominica recently with our sailboat, Mariposa, and have been traveling across this lovely island, meeting the people and enjoying the pristine and beautiful environment (nicknamed the “nature island” with good reason). It does not have mass tourism or many pristine beaches as seen across the Caribbean. This has been a welcome change as its lure is geared more to ecoadventure tourism.
The population is friendly, English is the primary language spoken, with 86% percent of the population of African descent, 9% of mixed descent with European heritage, and 2.9% uniquely made up of indigenous Carib natives who lived on the island before Europeans or slaves arrived; this is one of the very few islands that has any Carib natives, as they were exterminated in the rest of the Caribbean by European settlers. Dominica was the last island to be colonized in the region.
Some fear that the story of Dominica’s remarkable centenarians will come to an end within the next couple decades. This is because of the lifestyle changes of the island’s younger generation. Younger adults show a tendency to eating American style fast-food, increased television viewing, and a rapid drop in outdoor agricultural work. Obesity, unheard of in older generations, is now becoming common in younger adults.
In contrast, Dominica still has most of the older generations who have not known life-shortening habits.
I feel that there is a great deal that we can learn from the traditional Dominican lifestyle.
I wish you the best of health,
Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, CNS
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