Lives Without Stress : Bulgaria--Land of the Centenarian

Times Staff Writer

It was the day after his 101st birthday, but Liuben Terziev spent it much as he had done most of the previous 90 years of his life--hard at work.

So when visitors came to this hamlet in the wild Rhodope Mountains near the border with Greece, they found him sowing a bean patch on a cool, drizzly hillside.

Dressed in nothing more than a shirt, wool trousers, their bottoms tucked into his socks, and a pair of rubber slippers, he stopped to chat, reaching up to greet a visitor with a kiss on the cheek.

“Welcome to Bulgaria,” he said. “Of course I can stop working for a while. Work has no end. It will still be here later.”

One of several hundred spry nonagenarians and centenarians who thrive in this hilly corner of Bulgaria, Terziev had returned a few days before from his weekly hike to visit a 70-year-old woman friend in a village 12 miles away.


Hand-Cranked Telephone

In his 19th-Century youth, he said, he used to walk twice as far to buy sugar, salt and other goods before there was any road to this village, so remote that even now the only telephone is cranked by hand.

“I’m strong as steel, but my legs won’t go very far now,” he said.

A doctor asked about his sex life, but Terziev laughed. “That’s none of your business,” he replied.

Short, bald, muscular and bandy-legged, Terziev professes not to know or care why he has lived so long.

“Gentlemen, for this there are no rules,” he said. “Nobody knows. It’s God’s work.”

But his environment and daily regimen fit a profile that Bulgarian researchers have assembled over 20 years of studying the physically fit and mentally alert old people in the region, who thrive here as in few other places on Earth.

Doubt About Yogurt

People often think of yogurt when they speak of long-lived Bulgarians, but Dr. Argir Hadjihristev, a local researcher, was dubious about the claims first made for yogurt by Russian writer Iurdan I. Metchnikoff before World War I.

“He said that yogurt was the single and unique factor for the longevity of the Bulgarians,” said Hadjihristev, chief of internal medicine at the district hospital in Smolyan, the nearest town. “Our scientific research proves there is no one single factor.”

Instead, the doctor cited a complex of reasons for the phenomenon: Most of the hale oldsters had long-lived ancestors; were born to young, healthy mothers; grew up in big families; married early and never divorced; spent most of their lives hard at work outdoors; drank herbal tea and boiled oats instead of coffee; ate nothing but fresh food; slept moderately, and benefited from the sunny, pollution-free and oxygen-rich atmosphere of the Rhodope Mountains, which resemble the western slope of the Sierras near California’s Yosemite National Park.

Devotion to Moderation

Similar pockets of longevity have been found among the Abkhazians of the Caucasus Mountains in the southern Soviet Union, the Hunzas of Himalayan Pakistan and the people of the Andean foothills in Ecuador. While these cultures differ in diet and drinking habits, they share an isolation from modern civilization and a devotion to moderation in all things except walking and hard work outdoors, researchers have found.

“It is very characteristic that they have led lives that are intimately connected with the rhythms of nature,” Hadjihristev said of the Bulgarian elderly. “They are even-tempered, moderate in work and moderate in emotions. They sleep eight hours a day. They always rest when they are tired. There are no nervous stresses or psychological overloads.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that yogurt, like other dairy products, can provide fats, sugar, minerals, salts and vitamins. Indeed, the very bacterium that turns milk to yogurt is known as Lactobacillus bulgaricus , and researchers have come from as far away as Japan to try to capture longevity in a spoonful of fermented milk.

As for Terziev, he eats yogurt three times a day, with bread crumbs.

Up before dawn, he spends much of his time in the outdoors, tending his six private strips of farmland. But he does not work every day.

“This is not a factory,” he said.

Occasionally Watches TV

In his spare time, he watches an occasional television show at his son’s house next door, weaves wicker baskets for sale to his neighbors and plays with his great-grandchildren--"their numbers are countless,” he said--and his five great-great-grandchildren.

His diet is a model of moderation: lots of fruit and vegetables, a lightly spiced meat dish--fish, chicken, beef or mutton--once or twice a week and at least one egg a day.

Terziev has never smoked and only occasionally took a sip of mastik , a home-brewed liquor with an anise taste like the French aperitif, Pernod.

“To be drunk is shameful,” said Terziev, who once worked as a building laborer and helped to erect most of the houses in the village of 700.

He recalled a celebration when the local school was completed a few decades ago: “The mayor brought in five gallons of wine and brandy and every man in the village was drunk except for me.”

Yagodina lies in a fir-shaded valley at the end of a narrow, twisting canyon. It is accessible by a one-lane road that crosses five log bridges over an ice-cold stream, a two-hour trip from Smolyan--the district capital and the nearest substantial town--and the stresses of modern life.

60 At Least 100 Years Old

There are more than 430 people between 90 and 99 years old in the Smolyan district and another 60 or more are 100 years or older, Hadjihristev said.

Three out of four of them live in remote villages like Yagodina, a settlement whose name means Strawberryville. The rest live in towns, but the towns of provincial Bulgaria were hardly more developed than the villages until recent years.

The world is closer, however, and Hadjihristev said the number of superannuated Bulgarians is expected to drop in the years to come. On the other hand, more people are expected to live until well into their 70s because medical care has become more available.

“To this day, the prescription for longevity has not yet been written,” said Hadjihristev, 53. He said his own urban life style rules out a life span as long as that of his research subjects.

The long-lived rarely get sick, although their bodies eventually do wear out. When their time comes, their whole system tends to collapse all at once, the doctor said.

According to Dr. Roy Walford, a geriatrics expert at UCLA’s School of Medicine, the Bulgarians’ explanation for longevity in the Smolyan District makes sense.

The Hyperborean Myth

Walford warned against the Hyperborean myth, the idea that such a group living to extreme old age in a far-off place has found the secret to eternal youth. The myth takes its name from the ancient Greeks, who believed in a place beyond the north wind where the residents enjoyed everlasting spring.

Instead, he said, “I think the causes are what one might suggest--low stress, good diet, exercise and the genetic component.”

Although Hadjihristev said that modern man would find it easier to assume Terziev’s life style than vice versa, Walford said the way of life in Yagodina may not be for everyone.

“I certainly don’t want to live in the high mountains and I don’t want to be relieved of the stress of being a college professor,” he said.

Big-city life did not tempt the 101-year-old Bulgarian, who tasted life in the city twice, seven decades ago, and did not find it to his liking.

7 Years a Construction Worker

“I have no job in the city, that’s why I don’t go there any more,” he said, recalling the noise and dirt of provincial towns in Greece and Turkey where he spent seven years as a construction worker while his family waited for him at home.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once noted in a comic poem that:

Little of all we value here

Wakes on the morn of its hundredth year

Without both feeling and looking queer.

Yet Terziev seemed to be suffering from none of the frailties of old age except a loss of hearing that makes him shout.

By the time his visitors drove away, he was back at his bean patch, casting seeds for his summer crop.

“Long live the younger generation,” he said. “Some of them are not happy with everything, but we’ve seen worse in the past. Things are better now but I’ve gotten old, goddamn it!”