Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Living to a ripe old age? That's just bananas

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What with the worldwide appetite for health-related news, we media persons are always on the lookout for stories about ways you, the average consumer, can live forever.

That's why every news organization worth its daily dose of salt jumps on fast-breaking medical stories, such as how Burger King, the world's No. 2 hamburger chain, is launching a new crinkle-cut French fry -- to be called "Satisfries" in the U.S. -- that contains 20 per cent fewer calories than its regular fries.

It also explains why I personally became excited in a medically significant manner this summer when I stumbled on stories about how Salustiano Sanchez-Blazquez, a 112-year-old self-taught musician, coal miner and gin rummy aficionado from western New York, had been declared the world's oldest man by Guinness World Records.

According to stories I read back in July, Salustiano -- better known to his friends as "Shorty" -- became the world's oldest man when Japan's Jiroemon Kimura died on June 12 at age 116.

The stories -- which I filed away for a day just like today -- were packed with interesting tidbits about Salustiano's extremely long life, such as the fact he was known for his talent on a double-reed wind instrument called the dulzania he taught himself to play and played at celebrations in the village of El Tejado de Bejar, Spain, where he was born on June 8, 1901.

But the thing I hunted for -- the thing you find in EVERY story about the world's oldest human beings -- was the part where they forced him to reveal the secret to his longevity.

And there it was, in black and white on my computer screen -- bananas! Seriously, the world's oldest living man attributed his amazing longevity to eating one bright-yellow banana every day, along with a handful of Anacin tablets.

What with being a health-conscious journalist, right away I said to myself: "Huh?"

I based that statement on the fact I did not have a clue about the health benefits of the humble banana. Moments later, I had another thought: "Hmm, maybe I should eat a banana."

And, so, based on the undeniable scientific evidence contained in online news reports about a 112-year-old man and his passion for a nutrient-rich fruit, I drove to the store and bought a bunch of beautiful ripe bananas.

Before buying them, I carefully hoisted them with one hand and, for safety reasons, gave them a good shake. I did this because I grew up listening to Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), wherein Harry Belafonte sings these alarming lyrics: "A beautiful bunch a' ripe banana/Daylight come and me wan' go home/Hide the deadly black tarantula/Daylight come and me wan' go home."

I plopped my tarantula-free bananas on the kitchen counter, and every morning I'd walk by them and think: "I should definitely peel one of those babies today." But I never did. I kept walking by until they turned the colour of charcoal briquettes, at which point my wife deemed them perfect for banana bread and popped them in the freezer.

The point is, despite being committed to improving my health, I could not find it in me to actually eat a banana, though I did show my newfound respect for their remarkable life-sustaining qualities by writing the following original poem:

"Roses are red/Violets are blue/Bananas are full of potassium/And they're easy to chew!"

I also visited websites praising the banana -- a typical one contains 467 mg of potassium -- as one of the world's healthiest foods. According to whfoods.org, "A banana a day may help to prevent high blood pressure and protect against atherosclerosis."

The important thing is, when I sat down Tuesday morning to write about the long life of Salustiano and his daily banana intake, I decided it might be journalistically wise to first check whether he was still, in fact, alive.

And, as sensitive readers may have already deduced, the news was not good.

According to several sad stories I have just finished reading, this simple man, a man who spent his life working in the coal mines of Kentucky before moving on to the industrial furnaces of the Niagara Falls area of New York, slipped away on Sept. 13, just three months after being handed the title of world's oldest man.

By all accounts, he was a loving husband, a caring father, and a man possessed of great humility. As for the banana-a-day diet, his daughter Irene had an entirely different theory about why her dad lived so remarkably long.

Here's what she told reporters: "I think it's just because he's an independent, stubborn man."

Which is comforting to me, because bananas may not have appeal, but stubborn I can do.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 25, 2013 A2

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