Monday, April 23, 2007

Despite hardships, Cubans live longer

Leading the Charge

2007/4

By WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press Writer Sun Apr 22, 4:56 PM ET

HAVANA - "Fidel: 80 More Years," proclaim the good wishes still hanging on storefront and balcony banners months after Cubans celebrated their leader‘s 80th birthday. Fidel Castro may be ailing, but he‘s a living example of something Cubans take pride in — an average life expectancy roughly similar to that of the United States.

"Sometimes you have all you want to eat and sometimes you don‘t," said Raquel Naring, a 70-year-old retired gas station attendant. "But there aren‘t elderly people sleeping on the street like other places."

Cuba‘s average life expectancy is 77.08 years — second in Latin America after Puerto Rico and more than 11 years above the world average, according to the 2007 CIA World Fact Book.

Most Cubans live rent-free, and food, electricity and transportation are heavily subsidized. But the island can still be a tough place to grow old.

But most prescription drugs and visits to the doctor are free and physicians encourage preventive care.

Tache lived in New York for six straight summers starting in 1945, paying $8 a month for a furnished apartment at 116th Street and Broadway. An English teacher, he retired 30 years ago.

A relaxed lifestyle, which prizes time spent with family over careers, helps keep Cubans healthy, Tache said.

The government runs residence halls for seniors with no family to care for them, though space is severely limited. Community groups make sure older people look after one another.

Shortly after 8 a.m. every weekday, Gil leads two dozen elderly women through 40 minutes of calisthenics on the windowless, water-damaged ground floor of a state-owned building adorned with photos of Castro and his brother, Raul.

One of Fidel Castro‘s personal physicians, Dr. Eugenio Selman, in 2003 helped launch the "120 Years Club," an organization of more than 5,000 seniors — many 100 or older — from several countries including the United States. They hope to reach the 120-year mark through healthy diet, exercise and a positive outlook.

Selman has not spoken publicly since Castro fell ill, but had previously suggested the president could live to 120. Whether Castro is a member of the club is unclear.

Gerardo de la Llera, who still practices medicine at 77, is the club‘s vice president. He said the oldest member was a 122-year-old woman who lives in the eastern Cuban province of Granma, but he did not know her name or exact birthrate. Cuba has a history of claiming very old citizens whose ages have not been authenticated.

The government says it wants Cuba to become the world leader in life expectancy, vying with the 82-year average for Japan and Singapore.

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