‘Europe’s oldest man’ dies aged 111

Nazar Singh was born in India in 1904. Last week he died after living in England for 50 years. Will 111-year lifespans soon be the norm? And what effects might that have on our society?

Nazar Singh had already celebrated his 60th birthday when he left his home country of India in 1965. But his trip to England was no retirement plan — there was plenty of life in him yet. He arrived in Walsall, got a job at a local foundry and earned his living as a metalworker for 24 years before retiring aged 85. And 20 years later he was still going strong.

Finally, last week, Singh’s long life came to an end. ‘Europe’s oldest man‘ had just celebrated his 111th birthday (which he marked with a glass of his favourite whisky) and was visiting family in India when his final illness struck. ’He was an incredible chap,’ said one of his 34 grandchildren. ‘He has lived a very happy and fulfilling life.’

The span of an ordinary human life is growing longer all the time. In 1731, the life expectancy at birth of a person born in England was less than 28 years. In 1901, it was 50. Today, the average English person can expect to live beyond 80.

Much of this astonishing rise in longevity has come from spectacular decreases in infant mortality. In Medieval Britain roughly 30% of children died before their first birthday; today that figure is 0.4%. Our diets have become more varied, war and violent crime are less common and improvements in sanitation have vastly reduced our exposure to infectious disease. Then, of course, there are the miracles of modern medicine.

Even with these gigantic advances, living to 100 is still fairly rare. According to recent data, however, that is now beginning to change. In 2002, there were 7,740 centenarians in the UK. In 2012 there were 13,350. And that trend shows no sign of slowing down. Within a few decades, 111-year-old birthdays may no longer be confined to hobbits and medical marvels: lives as long as Nazar Singh’s could soon become the norm.

Grand old age?

Our ever-increasing longevity has been one of the most remarkable and important changes in recent human history. Older people have had an enormous social benefit, acting as carers for younger generations and passing down knowledge gained over the years. Many historians see this as one of the key factors behind humanity’s booming economic prosperity. Long may it continue, they say — bring on the century of centenarians!

But there is a downside to our expanding lifespans. Although doctors can stave off many deadly illnesses, they cannot negate the impact of old age. Many elderly people suffer years of painful decline before their death, and with a growing population of pensioners, societies are increasingly struggle to pay for their care. Perhaps, some doctors suggest, we should focus less on the length of human life and more on our capacity to enjoy the years we have.

You Decide

  1. How long would you like to live, if you could decide for yourself?
  2. Are we wrong to keep people alive for as long as possible regardless of their quality of life?

Activities

  1. Think of an elderly person whom you respect. Write down three questions you would like to ask them about their life and what lessons you could learn from them.
  2. Read Jenny Joseph’s poem ‘Warning’ (you can find it in the Become an Expert section). Do you find her idea of old age attractive? How would you like to spend your later years? Write a poem or other piece of creative writing in response.

Some People Say...

“Family need to look after their elders.”

Nazar Singh

What do you think?

Q & A

I’d love to live to 111! What can I do?
Nazar Singh put his longevity down to three things: ‘good family, good food and happiness’. That seems like sound enough advice! It’s certainly true that healthy diet and lifestyle can help (Singh was also very active and loved the outdoors) and research suggests that stress, depression and anxiety can decrease your lifespan. There’s not much you can do about your family, of course, but being sociable may well add years to your life. Alongside good diet, the societies in which people tend to live longest share the quality of being particularly sociable.
So — eat well, exercise plenty and spend time with friends?
That’s the theory. But in reality a lot of it is down to luck. You can live a model life and still die young — it’s the ultimate lottery.

Word Watch

Oldest man
Having been born in rural India in 1904, Singh did not have a birth certificate, and the Guinness Book of Records never confirmed his age. Nevertheless, his account is generally believed and the queen did send him a letter on his 100th birthday.
Diets
Up until the past century or so, malnutrition was very common in European countries. Most people’s diets consisted predominantly of hard bread, and fresh vegetables were scarce.
Violent crime
To take one striking statistic: murder rates in 14th century London were 100 times higher than they are today. This trend of decreasing violence continues to this day.
Modern medicine
A surprising proportion of the medical advances that have allowed us to survive once-fatal diseases have happened in the very recent past. Antibiotics, for instance, were not generally used until World War Two; until the early 20th century infectious diseases were treated using folk remedies.

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