Rayomand Coins

When are you old?

Parsis have a long life expectancy. The average life expectancy at birth for Parsis in Bombay in 2019 was 83 years. In 2020 it dropped to 80 years and in the first quarter of 2021 to 79.3 probably due to the lives lost on account of Covid. (These are tentative figures.)

In 1995 when we first started collating statistics for our Telling Figures section, the average life expectancy for Bombay Parsis was 74 years. Over the course of the intervening 27 years average life expectancy increased by around three plus years per decade. This is more than the global average of around 2.5 years per decade.

"Life expectancy in India was 25.4 in the year 1800, and over the course of the next 220 years it has increased to almost 70," states statista.org a leading provider of market and consumer data. This is around two years per decade. "Between 1800 and 1920, life expectancy in India remained in the mid to low 20s, with the largest decreases coming in the 1870s and 1910s; this was because of the Great Famine of 1876-1878, and the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919... From 1920 onwards, India’s life expectancy has consistently increased, but it is still below the global average."

The United Nations estimates "there were about 95,000 centenarians in 1990 and more than 4,50,000 in 2015. By 2100, there will be 25 million," notes an article in The New York Times (NYT) reprinted in the Financial Express of May 2, 2021.

A glance at our Telling Figures (February 21-March 6, 2021) will show that the community lost six centenarians and 133 nonagenarians who constituted 17% of the deceased in 2020.

The oldest human on record was a French woman, Jeanne Calment who died at the age of 122 in 1997. She lived her "entire life in the sunburned clay-and-cobble city of Arles in the south of France," noted NYT. "She never needed to work, instead filling her days with leisurely pursuits: bicycling, painting, roller skating and hunting. She enjoyed a glass of port, a cigarette and some chocolate nearly every day." She lived alone until the age of 110. But while attempting to heat some frozen pipes with a flame she accidentally ignited the installation and thereafter shifted to a nursing home.

Noted physician Dr Farokh Udwadia often talks of Parsis having a longevity gene. Longevity results from a combination of genes (25%) and other factors (75%), says Stanford University Professor Emeritus of Developmental Biology, Stuart Kim. A healthy lifestyle does not ensure longevity, notes Kim.

Gerontology researcher Prof Tom Kirkwood of Copenhagen, while noting no one has come close to Calment’s record, points out that "there are no biological processes that put an absolute limit to maximum age," according to a report in Norway Today (NT) of March 23, 2017. He felt individuals have the potential to live up to 200 years.

An article in Cell Reports referred to in New Atlas (NA) of January 8, 2020 talks about the three to four-week life span of a C. elegans worm being increased up to 500% "by tweaking a couple of cellular pathways." The worm shares "many cellular pathways with humans," notes the write-up. "In order to develop the most anti-aging treatments we have to look at longevity networks rather than individual pathways," states Jarod Rollins, lead author of the study. His research "may help explain why nobody has found a single specific gene that bestows a longer life in humans," adds NA.

The world’s oldest land animal is a 183-year-old Aldabra giant tortoise in West Africa. Ming, a quahog clam died at the age of 507. A deep sea sponge lived for 11,000 years, notes an article in National Geographic by Liz Langley dated July 23, 2016.

When is a person considered old? That was the subject of a Pew Research Center study in the USA in June 2009. Those in the 18 to 29 age group on an average put old age at 60; middle-aged respondents put the threshold closer to 70, while those 65 and above put the figure at 74. The survey showed, "The older people get, the younger they feel — relatively speaking."

While differing yardsticks are referred to while determining when old age starts (bladder control problems, forgetting familiar names, grey hair, having grandchildren), "a handful of potential markers — failing health, an inability to live independently, an inability to drive, difficulty with stairs — engender agreement across all generations about the degree to which they serve as an indicator of old age."

Along with aging the parallel subject that arises is the issue of quality of life (QoL). Is life worth living as we age? The Pew study found several in the 60 plus group experienced "the good things associated with aging," namely time with the family, less stress, more respect, more financial security. Religion also played a greater part in their lives with two-thirds of those 65 and over stating religion was "very important to them."

Wikipedia cites Encyclopaedia Britannica as defining QoL as "the degree to which an individual is healthy, comfortable and able to participate in or enjoy life events," while the World Health Organization defines QoL as "an individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value system in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns."

Could we speculate and project that over the next 99 years the average life expectancy of Parsis could increase by 33 years? That many Parsis will live to 115 plus years?

If so, the QoL issue would assume greater relevance. How does one ensure the golden years are such? Health – physical and mental, financial security and companionship are the key factors for living happily.

A few years ago a study undertaken by Nawaz Merchant, Dolly Dastoor and Piroja Press assessed the needs of Zarathushti seniors in North America. According to their "executive summary," Zarathushti seniors are generally independent and active but the key issues they face are loneliness and lack of transportation that impedes their participation in community events. Some were looking for rental options near a dar-e-meher in the proximity of other Zarathushtis. Local associations and groups were encouraged to organize programs to keep their seniors active and engaged. A transportation coordinator to assist with the logistics of outdoor mobility and other volunteers to help seniors locate local services for food and entertainment, as also familiarize them with technological advances were the recommendations made by the study.

Can the community, especially in Bombay, work towards that end? Our priorities should shift from providing housing to making life more worthwhile for those who reside in those houses.


Villoo Poonawalla