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Vilcabamba is a village in the southern region of Ecuador, in Loja Province, about 45 km (28 mi) from the city of Loja. The etymology of the name “Vilcabamba” apparently derives from the Quichua “huilco pamba.” Huilco denotes the sacred trees, Anadenanthera colubrina, that inhabit the region; pamba (cognate with pampa) is a word meaning “a plain”. The area has been referred to as the "Playground of the Inca" which refers to its historic use as a retreat for Incan royalty. The valley is overlooked by a mountain called Mandango, the Sleeping Inca, whose presence is said to protect the area from earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Located in a historical and scenic valley, it is a common destination for tourists, in part because it is widely believed that its inhabitants grow to a very old age. Locals assert that it is not uncommon to see a person reach 100 years of age and it is claimed that many have gotten to 120, even up to 135, which would make it an area with the oldest inhabitants in the world. It is often called the Valley of Longevity.
According to The Bewildering History of the History of Longevity by Peter Laslett, "geographical variation in the incidence of long life is no doubt a reality but better general survival does not demonstrably raise the probability of extreme ages and systematic, sceptical analysis of these confidently asserted propositions has condemned them as entirely baseless."
Longevity in Vilcabamba has been attributed to nothing more special than the benefits of exercise, a healthy diet and good treatment of the elderly by the community. Longevity of the residents has also been attributed to a result of migration of younger people to cities.
Even as Vilcabamba's international fame grew, scientists continued to investigate the secret of the villagers' longevity, but some were beginning to grow skeptical. In particular, Dr. Alexander Leaf, the Harvard Medical School researcher who had been among the first to conduct research in Vilcabamba, was having doubts. His suspicions were aroused when he realized that the villagers were inconsistent in their self-reported ages. For instance, in 1971 he had met a man who reported his age as 122. When Leaf returned three years later, that same man claimed to be 134 years old.
Leaf then persuaded Dr. Richard Mazess of the University of Wisconsin Madison and Dr. Sylvia Forman of the University of California Berkeley to help determine the correct ages of Vilcabamba's elderly population. They reached the conclusion that there was not a single centenarian living in Vilcabamba. The oldest person in the village was found to be 96 years old. The average age of those claiming to be over 100 years was actually 86 years. The researchers presented these results on February 27, 1978 at a workshop at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
Far from being the 'Valley of Longevity,' the researchers concluded that "Individual longevity in Vilcabamba is little, if any, different from that found throughout the rest of the world." Further, they reported that "Life expectancy (corrected for exaggeration) at all ages in Vilcabamba (and Loja) is in fact less than in the U.S."
Mazess and Forman identified two sources of error. First, the villagers systematically exaggerated their ages and the older they grew, the greater their exaggerations became. Mazess and Forman provided the example of Miguel Carpio Mendieta (MCM):
Apparently MCM did not begin exaggerating his age until later in life. When he was 61 in 1944 he reported an age of "70". Five years later he was reputedly "80". In 1970, at age 87, he was reputedly "121", and in 1974, at 91, he was "127".
The researchers speculated that the villagers had originally exaggerated their ages in order to gain prestige in the community. This practice appeared to have been occurring for generations, long before academic researchers had arrived in the village. Additionally Dr. Leaf speculated that the international publicity, and subsequent rise in tourism, may have encouraged the villagers' exaggerations to grow more prolific.
The second source of error was the widespread use of identical names in the small community. This had initially confused researchers who had studied the baptismal and birth records. The birth-date of an identically named uncle or father would appear to confirm the extreme longevity of a resident. By asking the Vilcabambans for the names of their godparents, the researchers were able to identify the correct records for each resident.
It turned out that Vilcabamba did actually have a higher-than-normal percentage of elderly people, but that this was caused by migration patterns: Young people tended to move out of the area, while the elderly moved in.
Although the Vilcabambans did not enjoy greater longevity than the rest of the world, researchers noted that the Vilcabamban lifestyle, which included hard work in a high altitude combined with a low-calorie, low-animal-fat diet, did seem to keep the villagers healthy and vigorous in their old age.
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