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Biography of Centenarian Shirali Mislimov

About the 168 year old Russian centenarian Sirali Mislimov, biography and history, diet and advice for longevity.

A LESSON IN LONGEVITY

SHIRALI MISLIMOV (1805-1973)

The first time in his life that Shirali Mislimov of Azerbaidzhan, U.S.S.R., fell sick was in the winter of 1972-1973, when a bout of pneumonia laid him up for a few months. But the illiterate mountain herdsman bounced back quickly and marked his birthday the following May with his usual daily half-mile constitutional and a few hours' work in his garden. He was 168 years old.

When Mislimov died later that year, the Soviet government officially reaffirmed its acceptance of his assertion that he was indeed 168 and as such the oldest person who ever lived. Born in 1805--or so he claimed--just a year after Napoleon's ascension to the French throne, he had married at 65 and lived his entire life in the Caucasian mountain hamlet of Barzavu, to the west of the Caspian Sea. He had worked all day every day until age 165, he said, grazing sheep, riding horseback, chopping wood, and tending the fruit garden he had begun over a century earlier. His recollections of the Crimean War, fought in the 1850s, remained clear to the day he died.

But centenarianism is not quite a rarity among Mislimov's Azerbaidzhanian neighbors. According to a 1970 census, there are 2,500 centenarians in this Soviet republic, or 63 per 100,000 population. By comparison, the U.S. can claim only three centenarians per 100,000 population. At his death in 1973, Mislimov was survived by a 107-year-old wife and 219 other family members, including a 100-year-old grandson.

For years scientists have descended on Azerbaidzhan to study the life-styles of Mislimov and fellow centenarians, whose singular longevity is most often ascribed to the clear mountain air, the unhurried pace of life, and a moderate, low-fat diet. Infectious diseases are rare in Azerbaidzhan and heart ailments are all but unknown.

Skeptics have noted that not one of the 500 individuals claiming to be over 120 years old, including Mislimov, has been able to produce a verifiable birth certificate. Exiled Soviet-born biologist Zhores A. Medvedev believes that many Russian men escaped being drafted into the czarist forces in the early 1900s by obtaining doctored birth documents that added 30 to 40 years to their ages. That may be so, physiologist Abdulla I. Karayev concedes, but Mislimov did indeed own a passport documenting his birth in 1805. Besides, he says, Medvedev's facts are a bit garbled. "The czar didn't take Azerbaidzhanians into the army."

Diet: Like many Azerbaidzhanians, Mislimov was a practicing Muslim and thus drank nothing alcoholic. His light diet ran to vegetables, fruit, bread made from coarse-milled grain, and low-fat cheeses. Mislimov was a nonsmoker because a single taste of tobacco some 150 years earlier had left him weak and nauseated. The one time he tried strong drink--in 1831--he thought he was "burning inside."

Advice: Mislimov often told scientists who came to interview him that he had lived as long as he had largely by not smoking, drinking, napping during the day, or in any way losing control of his appetites. He also liked to say that delaying his first marriage until he was 65 didn't shorten his life any.

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