Autumn 1994 (2.3)
Centenarians in Azerbaijan
Heredity as Stored Environment
by Chingiz Gasimov, Ulduz Hashimova,
Arif Abbasov, and Attiga Ismayilova
Left: Stamp issued in 1956 to commemorate the 148th birthday of the person believed to be the oldest citizen of the Soviet Union, Mahmud Eyvazov, from Azerbaijan. A collective farmer, he is shown here on the postcard surrounded by a group of "Pioneers." All Courtesy: Yakub Karimov.
Some of the oldest people on the face of the earth live in the Caucasus. According to Soviet authorities, the most famous of all was Shirali Muslimov of Azerbaijan, who died on September 2, 1973, at the unbelievable age of 168.1 He allegedly was born on May 26, 1805. But these days, gerontologists and physiologists at the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences say it simply can't be true-that 168 was an exaggerated figure.
But as they had never had a chance to interview him, they don't know his actual age. Even without passports, birth certificates and army records, scientists can general ascertain age in relation to known historical events or natural phenomena such as the strong earthquake2 which took place in the Shamakhi region in Azerbaijan in 1921 and also by genealogical analysis. Shirali "Baba" ("Grandpa" as he was affectionately called) lived to see fifth generation descendants.3
Longevity as a Populational Phenomenon
In international gerontological practice, longevity is the term applied to any individual who is 90 years old and actively functional. The phenomenon can be studied throughout the world on individual levels; however, there are only a few regions of the world where longevity occurs on a populational level. The Caucasus is one such area. Widespread reports of longevity in this region have attracted scientific attention in Russia since the turn of the last century4. Azerbaijanis, Abkhasians, Balkars, Ingushis, Karachaeyve, and Chechens of this region have all been identified as long-lived. Curiously, data from a 1970 census, indicates that groups of rural Russian populations, wherever they live, show low longevity indices equal to the life expectancy in the rest of the USSR.
Also Armenians have a lower index regardless of whether they are living in Armenia proper or the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is a prominent area of longevity in Azerbaijan.5 In the early 1980s, the longevity index of Azerbaijanis living in the foothills of Karabakh was approximately 80 people per 1,000.6
Throughout Azerbaijan, there are numerous regions where longevity is the norm including: Lerik, Lankaran, Masalli, Zagatala, Gusar, Gazakh, Tovuz, Ismayilli, Jalilabad, Shamakhi, Lachin, Kalbajar, and Aghdam (the last three regions are currently occupied by Armenians-all Azerbaijanis have fled and researchers have lost all contact, not knowing where they have dispersed or even whether they are still alive. No doubt the war has had tragic consequences due to stress, lack of normal living conditions including sanitation and variety of nutritious food.)
Mahmud Eyvazov commemorated with stamp in 1956 at the age of 148.
Badge at right commemorates the
"6th Celebration of Centenarians in Lerik, 1989."
American-USSR Joint Research
Longevity in Azerbaijan has been studied at the Laboratory of Physiology and Longevity and at the Physiological Institute (Ethnographic Section) of the Academy of Sciences. A great impetus for the initial studies was an American-Soviet Program which began in 1977 under the leadership of Vera Rubin (Research of Institute of the Study of Man in New York City) who initiated cross-cultural, multi-disciplinary studies with particular focus on medical and socio-cultural factors. Americans initially started studying the Abkhasians, only to realize later that a higher incidence of longevity existed in Azerbaijan. These days, it is generally believed that Azerbaijanis have the highest level of longevity in the Caucasus. Plans for the joint program to carry out studies of longevity in Azerbaijan vanished when Rubin died in the 1980s. Unfortunately, nothing on such an international scope has materialized since then.
Azerbaijani scientists will admit that it was difficult those days to have any scientific exchange with foreign experts. "Especially US scholars were hardly allowed in," according to Arif Abbasov, Director of the Ethnography Section of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences. "We were only able to hold brief seminars, as it was difficult to have them here for more than 2 or 3 days. The KGB hardly would allow us to take Americans to the field for interviewing."
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite Azerbaijan's eagerness for international scientific interaction, the ensuing critical economic crisis has hindered opportunities. For example, no money is available for field surveys and no papers have been published in the past four years. It's very rare for scholars to get the chance to travel abroad even when their papers are accepted at conferences. The best most can do these days is be content that their abstracts can occasionally get printed in international conference proceedings.
Majid Aghayev, aged 138, at time of photo, borrowing photographer's camera to, take a picture of his wife. Passport at right identifies date of birth as 1835.
Heredity - A Big Factor
Azerbaijanis credit their longevity to a combination of factors best described as the combination of heredity, environment, and psycho-socio-cultural patterns. They believe longevity basically is inherited; many people they studied confirmed that their parents, too, had lived long lives. Many of the longest lived people are those who have intermarried their own kinsmen-their cousins.
Environment plays a big role, too: the careful choice of diet from food grown on good soil in a good climate with particular attention to human beings' ability to adapt to the environment. The traditional social organization, including extended kinship inter-generational bonds contributes as it makes the transition of aging less stressful. Older people are highly esteemed in Azerbaijan and are given high positions in the family, community and greater society. The elderly are never left to feel useless or unneeded.
Not Just in Mountains
Contrary to wide-spread belief, the majority of long-lived people were not found to be living in the mountains but rather in the foothill regions where the average elevations was between 500-800 meters.7 Population longevity is possible in different climatic regions. More determinate was the people's adaptation to concrete environmental conditions which seemingly was related to the duration of that people in the area. Specifically, a non-aboriginal Russian group which had settled in Azerbaijan approximately 100-150 years ago had comparatively low longevity despite the fact that they were living next to Azerbaijanis where old age was the norm.
Plenty of Yogurt
Diet included yogurt and garlic on a daily basis. Meat was eaten only in the winter while green vegetables were primarily eaten in summer. It seems pickled foods, sweet baked products and sweet tea were rare. "Bahmaz" (concentrate made from white mulberries) was widely used which is known to contain more than 30 vitamins, minerals and amino acids and to lower the level of cholesterol in blood thus diminishing the possibility of heart diseases. Herbal medicine was believed to play a significant role, too.
Left: Not all centenarians have enjoyed optimal living circumstances. Not all have lived unstressful lives. Musa Zeynalov, who celebrated his 100th birthday this year was born April 7, 1894. He was imprisoned by Stalin for 22 years in 1933 and spent time in the dreaded Solovki Prison in Siberia; twice he experienced the horror of death row waiting for nearly a month only to have his sentence commuted. After Stalin's death, he was released in 1955. He started his family in his mid-60s. Pictured here with his wife, Kimya Yunusova, 74, in Amirjanli village near Baku. June1994. They have 3 girls, 1 boy and 9 grandchildren. Photos: Oleg Litvin.
Right: Great, great grandpa. Old people are deeply esteemed in Azerbaijan. Some believe a contributing factor to longevity is the important role the elderly play in the life of family, community, and nation.
People in Baku idealize the country life and suggest that lack of stress plays an important role. But many centenarians have not lived under optimal conditions. What tends to be generally true is that most of them are optimists and most were still married in their old age or were trying to remarry after their spouse had died.
Longevity is an important field for the health and benefit of all mankind and Azerbaijan has an important contribution to make to this field. Presently, the average life expectancy at birth in the developed countries is about 75 years. Despite the continuous development of medicine and public health, the possibility of higher longevity appears to have slowed and the expected conquest of cardiovascular and oncological disease has not been realized.
Azerbaijan scientists look forward to continuing their studies and in doing joint research with international groups in the future as the study of longevity is a field ripe for contributions from many disciplines-biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, physiologists, demographers, ethnographers, and folklorists.
All contributors to this article are associated with the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences. Chingiz Gasimov is Director of the Laboratory of Physiology and Longevity at the Physiological Institute. Ulduz Hashimov is with the Institute of Physiology. Arif Abbasov is Director of the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology as is Attiga Ismayilova.
Translation assistance was provided by Aliya Abassova, Jala Garibova, and Parvana Orujova
1 Even the 1986 of Guinness Book of World Records (32nd edition) mentions Muslimov but adds a disclaimer that "No interview of this man was ever permitted to any Western journalist or scientist." The current 1994 edition of Guinness, however, no longer includes Muslimov but identifies a 119-year-old Frenchman as the longest living person alive.
2 Kozlov, V.I. and O.D. Komarova. 1982. Geography of Longevity in the USSR (Ethnic Aspects) in Vera Rubin, ed., Proceedings of the First Joint US-USSR Symposium on Aging and Longevity: The First Two Years of Collaborative Effort in Abkhasia and Kentucky. Vol 1 of 2. p. 57. New York: IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board, 655 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017).
3 Kozlov. p. 57. Western researchers studying this region have found that there is a greater tendency for men to exaggerate their ages than for women, and that sometimes they do so by as much as 15-20 years.
4 The seminal work of Mechnikov on the physiology of aging, the "Schools" headed by Pavlov (1913-1958) and the work of a well-known Abkhasian educator and folklorist S.P. Basaria (1928-1930) were all concerned with the Caucasian centenarians.
5 Kozlov. p. 56.
7 Kozlov. p. 58.
Shirali Muslimov, 168
Soviet authorities often used the phenomenon of longevity to proclaim the superiority of the communist system over capitalism. Below is the obituary of Shirali Muslimov who, allegedly, lived to be 168 years old-the oldest person in the Soviet Union-as printed in newspaper, Soviet Kandi, on September 4, 1973. No. 103 (4504).
"The Centenarian of our Planet, and inhabitant of the Lerik Region, a veteran of the Kolkhoz, died at the village of Barzavu at the age of 168 on September 2 (1973).
"Shirali Muslimov was born in 1805 of a poor family of shepherds. Since childhood, he tended the sheep of the rich people for 100 years. "Grandpa" Shirali has witnessed every kind of injustice during his life. He suffered very much. He was exploited by rich people but he protested against the "exploitation of man by man" throughout all his life. He lived with the desire of a better life only after the victory of the Soviet power in Azerbaijan when he was able to fulfill his desires and begin to live well.
"He was one of the first to join the Kolkhoz in his village. He tried to teach young people the secrets of his profession. All his life, he did everything to strengthen the Kolkhoz and secure the welfare of the people. The Party and the Government have valued this labor. In 1966, Shirali Muslimov was awarded the Red Labor Flag Medal and in 1970 he received the Lenin Medal. He was a member of Bilaband Soviet. He always shared his experiences with young people. His 330 descendants include to the fifth generation.
"The Centenarian of our Planet and the 'aghsaggal' (white-bearded wise counselor) of the Kolkhoz enjoyed great respect from the people. He will live long in the memories of those who knew him.
Signed-Agricultural Ministry of Azerbaijan SSR, Sovkhoz Ministry of Azerbaijan SSR, and Azerbaijan Labor Union. Obituary written by the Editor of Kommunist (newspaper), September 4, 1973. No. 105, (4504)."
Translation from Azerbaijani (Cyrillic) by Azar Mammadov.
Special thanks to Mrs. Leyla Gafurova, Director of the Akhundov Library in Baku, and her staff for culling this and other related material about centenarians from their newspaper archives.
Shirali Baba is still remembered in Baku these days. Many anecdotes still circulate quite different in tone and substance than his obituary. For example, they say he was married six times and that his second wife became pregnant when she was in her 70s. At his 150th birthday celebration, a Russian colonel with his pretty wife were at the party. When the people started to give him presents, he reportedly told them, "I don't want anything. Just give me that pretty woman." Late in life he was invited from his town to go to Moscow as an official guest. He later complained that the flight and the metro were so frightening that it took years off his life.
From Azerbaijan International (2.3) Autumn 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.