Cuban centenarians, cheered on by family, aim for 120 - GulfToday

Cuban centenarians, cheered on by family, aim for 120

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Cuban Delia Barroso, 102, blows out the cake candles during her birthday in Havana.

Looking into a mirror, Delia Barrios applies blush and lipstick -- she wants to look her best for her 102nd birthday celebration, when she will be surrounded by loved ones.

Barrios is one of more than 2,000 people in impoverished Cuba who are 100 years or old -- a reality that has piqued the interest of experts, and led some to aim for even longer lives.

"I don't feel like I'm this old. I have a family... that loves me a lot. That helps me to feel good.

She deftly maneuvers her motorized wheelchair with her seven-year-old great-great-granddaughter Patricia on her lap.

Only two candles were placed on her birthday cake, which Barrios blew out to the applause of around 30 guests gathered in the courtyard of a building in Havana's Playa neighborhood.

'120 Club'

There are currently 2,070 centenarians in Cuba out of a population of 11.2 million -- in a country where the average life expectancy is 79.5 years.

Those figures are comparable to those in many wealthier nations, despite the fact that Cuba's average public salary is just $30 a month.

The socialist country, where health care is free and doctors are numerous, now has a "120 Club" that encourages residents to aim for that ripe old age.

"Biologically, it has been proven that humans can live for 120 to 125 years," said Raul Rodriguez, a doctor and president of the "120 Club," which was created in 2003 by Fidel Castro's personal doctor, Eugenio Selman-Housein.

The club "tries to promote healthy lifestyles for all, because that's the only way to get to that age," said Rodriguez.

'Propaganda' myth?

Experts are a bit baffled as to why Cubans are living so long.

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In Cubaa "Club of 120 years" encourages Cubans to reach that venerable age.

"The family support network tends to help with longevity. We see that in Japan too," said Robert Young, an expert at the US-based Gerontology Research Group.

Warm weather helps too.

But Young says Cuba may not be telling the whole truth -- claims that its people are living longer than elsewhere could be "a myth that's used for ideologic propaganda purposes."

The conundrum could be explained by one key factor: car ownership is low in Cuba, and hence there are fewer car accidents.

He also cites food rationing during the economic crisis in the 1990s, which helped keep diabetes rates down.

"Cuba does very well in keeping people alive a long time," he said.

"But if you offered Cubans a choice between one more year and, for example, higher salaries or a different education, what do you think they would choose?"

Agence France-Presse