Long Healthy Lives in Dominica

A popular adage states that if Christopher Columbus ever returned to the West Indies, the only country he would recognize is the Commonwealth of Dominica. The terrain, flora and fauna of Dominica are unforgettable, and there have been few changes since Columbus first visited.

The combination of Dominica’s clean environment and simple lifestyles has given the island nation more than 20 centenarians. © Dominica Tourist Office

Dominica is now becoming known for something else than long-ago visits by European explorers. The “nature isle” is now synonymous with longevity. At 29 miles long and 16 miles wide, with a population of 70,000, Dominica boasts 20 centenarians, and has the second-highest longevity in the western hemisphere (second only to Canada), according to Janice Jackson of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

Dr. Gerald Grell, dean of the Portsmouth campus of Ross University (an offshore medical school), says that having so many centenarians in such a small population is remarkable. Dr. Grell is currently supervising a research project to determine the causes of this phenomenon, and he says that evidence so far points to the environment as the major factor.

Dr. Grell notes that the island’s centenarians are not restricted to any one geographical area, but are widely spread. The common denominator is that they ate organic foods and fresh fish, and breathed clean air. Elizabeth “Pampo” Israel claimed to be 128 when she died. Her neighbor, Rose Peter, reportedly reached 118.

Today’s centenarians grew up on an island without chemicals, fertilizers or motor vehicles. Most people had to walk long distances or go to the capital by boat. Everyone worked hard for a living, grew their own crops or worked on sugar plantations.

One centenarian, 104-year-old Clarita Jean Jacques, still speaks in her native Creole (French patois), and credits her long life to hard work and good food. Her caretaker says that she refuses to eat anything processed. Jacques needs little prompting to extol the benefits of river crayfish, crabs, cassava, dasheen (also known as taro root) and tannias (a tropical root plant).

Merrifield Jolly is a vibrant and communicative 103, and he says that a simple way of life is key. He is not of the television generation, so he goes to bed early and is awake before sunrise. “Go back to a natural way of living,” he says, “with peace and freedom. Be close to your family, have a home full of love. Then eat fresh food, drink clean water, get lots of exercise and try to live stress free.”

At 101, Augusta Darroux credits her long life to healthy food. “Eat arrowroot, fish, river crabs and crayfish,” she says. She drinks herbal or “bush” tea and swears by the virtues of bush medicine for simple ailments.

Asked how others might live as long, she offered, “Stay away from fertilizers.” Asked if she thought that there was something special about Dominica, she replied, “It’s the fresh air, good food and healthy surroundings.”