Longevity in Karabakh

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MODERN HARDSHIPS CATCH UP WITH KARABAKH OLD-TIMERS
By Ashot Beglarian in Stepanakert

Institute of War and Peace Reporting
Oct 14 2005

Mountain air and good food used to keep people living well past a hundred, but the stresses of war and poverty are now hitting home.

Elizaveta Pogosian celebrated her 100th birthday last week in grand style - inviting more than a hundred relatives including her great-grandchildren to a lavish feast in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorny Karabakh.

Time has not slowed Elizaveta down. At the party, paid for by her grandson Ashot, a Moscow businessman, she was still sprightly enough to perform a traditional Armenian dance and her family says she can thread a needle without glasses.

Nor has she lost her sense of humour. She likes to tell people that she is "under 90".

Elizaveta says she has led a happy life, and when asked if she plans to go on for another 50 years, she exclaimed, "Have pity on me! There is a time for everything!"

Born in the village of Nngi in 1905, Elizaveta has lived through three wars and two revolutions, and seen the end of two empires.

In Karabakh, centenarians are no rarity, and Elizaveta was not the only one celebrating a birthday last week: a woman called Zara from the Martuni district turned 105.

This mountainous region boasted one of the world's highest rates of longevity during the Soviet era. But it was just one of several areas in the Caucasus famed for its "dolgozhiteli" or "long-livers" as they are known in Russian. There are also disproportionately high numbers of nonagenarians and centenarians in Ajaria, Abkhazia and Lenkoran in the south of Azerbaijan.

In Karabakh, war and hard times now seem to be taking their toll on the oldest generation. Precise figures are hard to come by, but the number of people aged 90 or over is probably around 160, compared with well over 200 when the last census was recorded in 1989.

Population movements over a turbulent decade-and-a-half may have affected the figures.

What is certain is the life here has become a great deal more difficult, for older people in particular. Changes in diet, health problems, war, meagre pensions, and stress caused by uncertainty about the future have had an effect on what was once a remote mountain community.

David Karabekian, a sociology professor, says that in the last 15 years alone, the elderly have experienced a lifetime's-worth of troubles.

"The break-up of the Soviet Union, the [Karabakh] war, the continuing animosity with Azerbaijan, economic hardship, adaptation to new lifestyle, a change in mentality - all this has had a disastrous effect on people's health and life expectancy," said Karabekian.

"Many old people lost their life savings overnight during the Soviet monetary reform of 1991, and many of them never recovered from the blow. Now they can barely afford food on their miserly pensions, let alone medicines."

The secret of longevity in Karabakh - as in any place with a higher-than-average number of very old people - is a mystery, although many experts attribute it to the mountain climate, mineral-rich water and healthy, fresh produce.

"Our examinations have shown that Karabakh residents have a healthy cardiovascular system, as well as solid peripheral and central nervous systems," said David Babayan, a local environmental expert.

"Their motor system is in excellent condition, and they have no serious digestive tract problems."

Diet is believed by many to be the main contributory factor to a long and healthy life.

According to Babayan, residents tend to avoid spicy foods, and instead eat natural dairy products, vegetables, fruit, wild berries and herbs, all of local origin.

The region's favourite dishes include soups made from beans, berries or yoghurt; "hashil" - boiled wheat with butter; "kchakhash" - boiled wheat, beans and peas; and rice pilaf. Perhaps the most popular item is "tanav", the local sour-milk yoghurt.

Many Karabakhis avoid eating fat, believing that it accelerates ageing. Instead, they consume green grapes, and drink wine as well as grape juice. They also go through large amounts of mulberries, from which they make a sugar-free syrup. Some scientists believe mulberries can prevent or cure heart, stomach and liver illnesses.

Aida Saakian, a nonagenarian who was in charge of Karabakh's medical system in the Soviet period, believes that it is specifically a decline in food quality that has had a negative impact on public health.

"The environment as well as food quality was much better before - everything was natural and pure," she said. "Now people for the most part buy low-quality products, there's no quality control, and all these concentrates are bad for people's health."

Karabakh families tended to cook more often during the Soviet era, when few ready-to-eat meals or canned foods were available.

Nonna Musaelian, who chairs a medical panel at Karabakh's social-security ministry, says that post-war syndrome, stress, economic hardship and inferior quality foods have lowered average life expectancy. Moreover, she says diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart complaints are now more common than before.

Diabetes, which Musaelian says is often associated with poor diet, is now particularly widespread in Karabakh, with 700 people registered as diabetics, most of them pensioners who cannot afford the medication.

Tsovinar Javadian agrees that life has got harder in many respects.

The 90-year-old Stepanakert native, who has lived on her own since her son was killed in the 1992-94 Karabakh war and her husband's death a few years later, thinks that as a result, there are fewer people of her age around than there used to be.

"Back then [in the Soviet period], there was much that was good, although people worked hard on the collective farms and aged quite fast - but they lived for a long time nonetheless," she said. "We were taken care of, everyone had money, and no one was in need. That was best for older people.

"Now we're more free, but you can't enjoy life unless you have money."

Tsovinar watches every penny of her pension, which is just over 30 US dollars a month. She spends about a third of it on housing and utilities, one-third on bread, and the remainder on noodles and vegetable oil. Occasionally she treats herself to some biscuits or sweets.

"Now there's plenty of everything, but you can't be sure about the quality. You never know what you're buying," she said.

"I don't feel old. I could live to 100, but illnesses, worries and bad memories do take their toll."

Ashot Beglarian is an IWPR contributor in Stepanakert.


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