There are a number of destinations around the world renowned for the longevity of their residents, but one village is home to the oldest people on Earth. Find out their secret and how they reach the venerable age of 100.
In Japan, Okinawa has earned the nickname “Land of the Immortals”. On the other hand, Campodimele, Italy’s “Village of Eternity” is living proof of the Mediterranean diet. On the other side, in California, Loma Linda is a community of Seventh-day Adventists reaping the rewards of clean living.
However, there’s one long-lived corner of the globe you won’t have heard so much about, and it’s home to the world’s only Longevity Museum. This is Lerik in southern Azerbaijan. The South Caucasus country is home to several regions known for producing residents who live to triple-digit ages, including Lankaran and Nagorno-Karabakh. But another, Lerik, is reputed to have the highest concentration of centenarians.
In this emerald land high above the clouds of the Talysh Mountains, reached by loop after loop of a serpentine road, people seem to have discovered a secret to a long and healthy life. The two-room Longevity Museum, built in 1991 and renovated in 2010, holds more than 2,000 exhibits documenting the lives and memories of the region’s oldest inhabitants.
It showcases individual lifespans with surviving household items such as three generations of ironers. There are chests full of bathrobes and shirts, silver jugs and bowls, beautifully knitted socks and hand-dyed rugs that are still brightly colored despite their age.
And then there are the letters, written in both Azerbaijani and Russian, personal artifacts so old that the ink is beginning to fade. Perhaps the most captivating features are the portraits of centenarians that cover the museum’s walls. These images, dating from the 1930s, were donated by French photographer Frederic Lachop.
Azerbaijan’s museum and official statistics define “centenarian” more vaguely than you might expect: here, it means anyone over 90. However, in 1991, there were over 200 people in Lerik recorded as over 100 years old, out of a population of 63,000.
The figures have been less impressive since then, and locals blame radiation from communications towers and environmental decline, but it could just as easily come down to more rigorous record-keeping.
Today, there are 11 people over the age of 100 out of a local population of 83,800.
Lerik’s current oldest citizen is Raji Ibrahimova, who is 105 years old. That’s a good age, but it pales in comparison to the age attained by the area’s most famous centenarian, Shirali Muslumov, a shepherd who is believed to have lived to 168.
The yellow pages of his passport claim he was born in 1805, and his tombstone states he died in 1973. If true, he would be the oldest person who ever lived. Unfortunately, in the early 19th century, birth records rarely occurred in villages as remote as his birthplace, Barzavu, so there is no certain record of when he was born.
Countless letters sent from around the world on the occasion of his various birthdays leave no doubt that he was indeed of a very respectable age, but perhaps it is best to consider a margin of error of at least 20 years.
Among those who corresponded with Muslumov was Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who sent him a postcard greeting him with “Dear Grandpa.” This longevity gene seems to run in the family. His 95-year-old daughter, Halima Qambarova, told CNN Travel that while she may not live to 168 like her father, she at least hopes to live to 150 like her grandfather, or 130 like her aunt.
When the weather turns cold, most centenarians move to the milder coastal climes of Lankaran, but Qambarova was still in the village of Lerik Barzavu when CNN reporters passed her father’s modest two-story house, surrounded by massive apple and pear trees.
Sitting by the window, wrapped in a shawl, she speaks with a slight accent, often switching to her native language, Talysh, a dialect spoken by only 200,000 people and classified as “vulnerable” by UNESCO. She shows her passport, which doesn’t show a month or date of birth, just the year: 1924. She may be 95, but she is fully present, interacting with her great-grandchildren and demonstrating her sense of humour. When asked her age, she replies cheerfully, “15”.
“Peace of mind is part of their secret. They stay away from stress, thinking about life in a rather philosophical way, living one day at a time, without much planning or worrying about the future,” says the museum guide.
The world’s oldest people share their lifestyle secrets
Qambarova starts her day at dawn, waking up as soon as she opens her eyes. She spends all day working in the garden or around the house. Her room is small, with a thick soft carpet and cushions on the floor. Many people here prefer to sleep on the floor, just with a thin blanket instead of a mattress, as it is thought to be the healthiest way to rest their backs.
Contrary to popular belief, Lerik centenarians eat meat, but they inherited their preference for fresh dairy products such as cottage cheese, butter, milk and ayran from earlier centenarians, for whom abstinence from meat was greater due to economic circumstances.
“The secret to long life is good nutrition, the minerals in spring water and the herbs we add to tea to prevent sickness, so people don’t have to take any medicine, just using natural remedies,” the guide says.
Beyond its windows, it may seem that the village is quiet and still. But the physical work the villagers put in every day is immense. From dawn to dusk they work in the gardens and fields and around the house. They sew and knit and look after large families.
Such was the lifestyle of Mammadkhan Abbasov, a 103-year-old from the village of Jangamiran. Sitting on the carpet opposite the window, the centenarian has almost completely lost his sight and can barely hear his son telling him that the guests have arrived, but when he finally catches up with him, he starts singing, saying prayers and good wishes.
Next to Abbasov is his great-grandson, with a century between them. Like Qambarova, Abbasov has been a busy villager all his life, working in the fields until about seven years ago when his eyesight deteriorated. As for food, he eats “whatever God gives” with one restriction: he never drinks alcohol.
Abbasov attributes his long life to daily physical activity, not to the point of exhaustion, but enough to get the body moving. In addition to eating good farm produce, he used to drink gallons of ice-cold spring water, which is rich in minerals said to contribute greatly to longevity.
Headache-inducing mountain altitudes may also be a factor. A 2017 study from the University of Navarra, Spain, found that living at high altitude lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. A 2011 study from the University of Colorado Denver found that these sky-high residents live even longer.
The ages of some of these celebrated centenarians may still be disputed, but here in Lerik, their legacy lives on through people who still abide by Lerik’s simple secret to longevity: physical activity, good nutrition, plenty of water, and an attitude toward life that says, “We only live once, but if we do it right, once is enough.”