Page last updated at 01:21 GMT, Sunday, 7 March 2010

Azerbaijan's long lifers 'a dying breed'

Mahbuba Fatullaeva
Everyone agrees Mahbuba Fatullaeva is 112

The famously long-lived people of the Talysh Mountains are now said to be dying younger, reports the BBC's Tom Esslemont from Azerbaijan.

A shaft of pale sunlight provides welcome warmth in Mahbuba Fatullaeva's bedroom.

At the age of 112, she prefers to recline against a set of fluffy pillows than to sit up and give an interview.

Yet, here in this stunning mountain valley, it feels like I have stumbled upon a rare find - one of the oldest living people on the planet.

Ms Fatullaeva is so old that she doesn't speak the national language, Azeri. She has never needed to.

She mutters away in the local Talysh dialect, her mother tongue, leaving her son, Baloglan, to do the talking. He is 70.

"My mother has always been healthy. She loves people - and loves having guests," he says.

"She has always lived here and she always ate loads of natural products. She never ate too much meat. She eats lots of yoghurt," he says.

No records

Whatever her secret is, she isn't the only one to possess it.

Talysh Mountains, Azerbaijan
The Talysh Mountains are becoming more open to the outside world

About five minutes drive down the road lives Kishi Bandiyev who, according to his passport, is 106.

He says he is much older - though he has no birth certificate to prove it either way.

His face is wrinkly and his eyes watery, but that doesn't stop him chopping wood.

"Last year I had an accident," he says.

"I was in a car and it went off the road into a freezing cold river. I got out but only after some time sitting in cold water. I feel a bit sick since then."

In the nearby town of Lerik the authorities have a list of 12 local people who are over 100. But not everyone who comes here is entirely sure that they are all as old as they say they are.

Physiologist Chingiz Gazimov - who works in the Azeri capital, Baku - doesn't question Ms Fatullaeva's 112 years. But he does doubt the way ages were recorded a century ago.

"Back then in Soviet times they came along to hand out passports - and to record people's dates of birth. So they would come along and say - oh yes, this person is 20 years old, and no more questions were asked."

Changing world

Even Mr Gasimov says he can tell Ms Fatullaeva really is 112. She is still smiling because she is surrounded by her great, great grandchildren, born a century after she was.

A lot has changed. The long lifers, as we call them, are a dying breed
Dilara Fatullaeva
Director, Museum of Long Life

But the strains of modern life are already affecting the next generation of Talysh people. Experts say they are dying younger.

At the Museum of Long Life, in the nearby town of Lerik, the walls are adorned with pictures of the tanned, wispy-haired members of the community who reached 100.

"These days people watch so much television that they are less active than they used to be," says Dilara Fatullaeva, the museum director.

"Also people get more stressed because of work problems or because they have to travel more. A lot has changed. The long lifers, as we call them, are a dying breed."

Modern life means many think Talysh 'ancients' are "a dying breed"

Soaking up the atmosphere in the snow-coated mountain valleys, it seems appropriate that centenarians should hail from a place with such pure, fresh air and where, in summer, fruit and tea grow in abundance.

People, I'm told, also only smoke their own home-grown tobacco here, not the manufactured sort.

But the asphalt road means that the once faraway talk of modern-day life is now a reality.

The pollution, fast traffic and stresses associated with the capital city, Baku, are just a few hours away by car.

This, it appears, is having an impact on the notion of longevity in the Talysh Mountains. It may soon be a thing of the past.

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