For the JC issue December 9 2016
Not a week passes in the JC Social and Personal pages without someone celebrating landmark birthdays. And more and more often, the celebrants are in their ninth decade or have received their 100th birthday telegrams from the Queen — and seem set to go on. And on.
As a community we are ageing, but we are ageing with style. In Bournemouth at Rosh Hashanah, the combined ages of those on the bimah at the town’s Orthodox synagogue was 412, a feat boosted by two of the congregation’s centenarians, Robin Segal and Harry Ellis. Mr Segal is 104 and Mr Ellis turned 100 in July. Two other stalwart members of the synagogue are Maurice and Helen Kaye, aged respectively 104 and 103, and married since 1934. And there are “numerous” members of the congregation in their 90s, some of whom live in the highly-regarded Hannah Levy House.
Rabbi Adrian Jesner, Bournemouth Hebrew Congregation’s minister, is in no doubt about why his community is so long-lived. “It is an older congregation, but it is not old people as we are used to thinking of them. These are mostly very fit, active people. They play bridge, they go on holiday, some still play tennis.
“And Bournemouth is a place where there is relatively little pressure in people’s daily lives. There are no parking problems for those who still drive, so people can go and visit each other and live easily”.
But Jewish longevity is not confined to the seaside. Jewish Care currently has a staggering 59 clients in London and the south-east who have celebrated — at the very least — their 100th birthdays. They include the former chorus girl, film and stage actress Rita Burger, who turned 100 in October and is one of four centenarians living at Jewish Care’s Princess Alexandra home in Stanmore; Berlin-born Annelise Winter, 101; Jack Mindel, 100, a former bookbinder and historic guide to London; and Rosetta Goodman, 101, a one-time fashion saleswoman in central London.
Over at Jewish Care’s Vi and John Rubens Home in Redbridge, two residents, Julia Gilbert and Ian Rodin, celebrated an astonishing joint 212th birthday in September — Julia was born in 1908, making her 108, while Ian was born in 1912, a mere sprig at 104 years old.
Each of the centenarians has a fascinating story to tell — and each seems slightly surprised at having lived so long.
But there may be a reason. Research carried out by Dr Daniel Slaetzky of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR) indicates that our community is definitely longer-lived than the wider population.
Dr Slaetzky says: “Indeed, Jews in the UK live longer than non-Jews, on average. That, in combination with low fertility, created a situation where the proportion of the elderly is higher among Jews compared to non-Jews and the total population”.
Specifically, he says, according to data in the 2011 Census, the proportion of persons aged 85 years and over is 2.23 per cent in the total population of England and Wales, compared with 4.15 per cent among Jews in England and Wales. In other words, we are almost twice as long-lived as our non-Jewish counterparts.
Our mortality, says Dr Slaetzky, “is significantly lower than the mortality of the general population. In that, British Jews follow the pattern observed in other Jewish diaspora populations.
“British Jewish male death rates are approximately 40 per cent lower than the rate in the total population for age groups 45–79 years, while British Jewish female death rates in this age group are 20–30 per cent lower than those in the total population”.
This information does not answer the question why we appear to be living longer than the wider population. But according to Dr Slaetzky, “It is pretty much a matter of scholarly consensus by now that the chief reasons are a low level of health-destructive behaviour (heavy drinking, anti-social behaviour) among Jews, and Jewish men in particular; and the relatively high socio-economic status of Jews in many diaspora communities. This, in itself, is linked to better nutrition, lifestyle in general, and greater attention to matters of health (exercise, consulting doctors etc)”.
So all those jokes about Jewish hypochondria, and having a semi-permanent place in GPs’ waiting-rooms, may actually have a basis in fact.
Dr George Leeson is co-director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and he says that the growing number of centenarians is replicated in all communities around the world. “We are seeing a general pattern of radical life extension,” he says, “and so we are beginning to see an increasing number of people reaching a very great age. The generation being born today in Britain will certainly have a life expectancy of more than 100 years.”
According to the Institute, in Britain, in the population as a whole, there were an estimated 120 centenarians aged 105 and over in 1984; in 1994 these numbers more than doubled to 280. Another decade later (2004) these numbers increased to 380 and in 2014 it reached 780.
And this, of course, has a knock-on effect. The days of retiring at 65 and drawing a pension until the end of one’s life are over, thinks Dr Leeson. Not only are people living longer, but they are living better, and one can probably factor in an extra 20 years or so, for better medical care and longer useful times of work, careers or professions.
It’s not only pensions that will need a re-think, he says, but work and health and housing. And he has some good news: “The prevalence and incidence of dementia and related diseases is diminishing. The new generation will live longer — but they are likely to be better educated and thus less likely, according to new data from the US, to contract dementia.” In turn, medical advances have allowed health professionals to become better at tackling cardio-vascular diseases, the next major cause of death, after Alzheimer’s and dementia, among the elderly.
Last word, perhaps, to the one-time businessman and investor Sam Almond, who is 90 and lives in Eastbourne. Mr Almond is 90 and has written a useful self-help book entitled “How to live easily into your 90s”. His suggestions are common sense: a good diet, a positive outlook, exercise and brain training. Oh, and being Jewish will almost certainly give you a fighting chance.