A Healthier Tomorrow
Imagine a Healthier Tomorrow
By Alison Page
Most people want to live a long and healthy life. The question is, how we can best achieve that goal? Of course our genetics play a role in our life expectancy, but most of us have the capacity to make it well into our early 90’s. How?
In 2004, National Geographic researcher Dan Buettner was given an assignment to locate pockets around the world where people live longer and better. He and longevity researchers identified five geographical areas or populations with the highest life expectancy or with the highest proportions of people who reach age 100:
Barbagia region of Sardinia, Italy – Mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
Ikaria, Greece – Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – World’s lowest rates of middle age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians.
Seventh Day Adventists – Highest concentration is around Loma Linda, California. They live 10 years longer than their North American counterparts.
Okinawa, Japan – Females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.
These zones were called the “blue zones” for no particular scientific reason. It’s just that one of the researchers happened to circle these areas on a map with a blue marker. The study’s goal was to identify the lifestyle characteristics of these older people that might explain their long life.
Looking, for example, at the one Blue Zone in the United States, Loma Linda in Southern California; its residents lead the nation in the longest life expectancy. Their lifestyle provides us with some clues.
Loma Linda is the center of activity for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Their faith embraces what we may call healthy living. That includes volunteerism, which inspires a sense of purpose and keeps their community strong. The Sabbath is observed and is considered important “sanctuary in time” from work day stressors. Many of the Adventists have a vegetarian diet heavy in nuts and fresh California fruits and vegetables. They experience less obesity, which lowers their risk of certain types of cancers. And they have a lifelong commitment to regular moderate exercise, many belonging to a gym.
Further study by the research team revealed a pattern of behaviors that are common amongst the residents of Blue Zones around the world. Dan Buettner outlined these characteristics, called the Power 9 on the Blue Zone website (www.bluezones.com).
- Move Naturally
The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy
- Down Shift
Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.
- 80% Rule
“Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.
- Plant Slant
Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of deck or cards.
- Wine @ 5
People in all Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all weekend and have 14 drinks on Saturday.
All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.
- Loved Ones First
Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).
- Right Tribe
The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.
There are many ways to weave these characteristics into our own lives and communities to create our own Blue Zone. Imagine what that could look like! In future columns, we will.