As a cardiologist deeply committed to teaching strategies for longevity and vitality, I've studied the lifestyles of communities whose members frequently reach age 100 and beyond. (I've been particularly interested in centenarians who are still active and independent.) The current thinking is that lifespan is determined by 10% genetic makeup and 90% lifestyle (with some good luck thrown in).
So: What can we learn from the lifestyles of the ultra-elderly?
The most widely-known research on this topic has been done by Dan Buettner, a reporter and author, and has been published in several editions of a book called The Blue Zones. Working with National Geographic, Buettner researched and then visited communities where people who have lived the longest reside. He highlighted disperse areas (dubbed "The Blue Zones") where people live to be 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States. They are: (1) Okinawa, Japan; (2) Loma Linda, California; (3) Sardinia, Italy; (4) Nicoya, Costa Rica; and (5) Ikaria, Greece.
Common patterns were found among these 5 zones of excess centenarians, even though they are far from one another. These include:
- An absence of smoking
- Daily physical activity centered on walking
- A plant-heavy diet with very small amounts of animal protein
- Strong family connections, and strong social connections.
- Processed foods, fast foods, junk foods...? Forget about it!
Different areas had unique health habits. In Loma Linda, for example, where the Seventh Day Adventist Church is based, it's common to honor the Sabbath as a day of disconnecting from technology and visiting friends and family. Vegetarianism is a celebrated lifestyle, and eating nuts is common. Drinking alcohol is rare.
In Okinawa, it's taught that you should eat until you are 80% full, and the average daily food intake there is hundreds of calories less than in other parts of Japan. Sardinians are known for their cannonau wine reinforced with as much as three times the polyphenols like resveratrol than other regions growing red wine and consume a high amount of fava beans.
Costa Ricans consume many oranges and their water is hard and rich in minerals. Ikarians eat a classic Mediterranean diet rich in home grown vegetables. They enjoy herbal teas daily, and fast frequently. Another reason for their longevity and heart health? Recently boiled Greek coffee, which is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols.
Are there lessons we can incorporate into our lives drawn from 5 corners of the world where people age more consistently, more gracefully, and with more vitality? Buettner and others have summarized lessons to adopt including:
- Play daily
- Walk often
- Move naturally in work (for example doing yard work manually instead of using mechanical devices)
- Live with a purpose (for helping others)
- Find ways to reduce stress through rest, prayer, and/or humor
- Eat less
- Eat fewer animal products and use legumes as the core of a fiber rich diet
- Drink in moderation if it's acceptable to you
- Let faith have a role in your life
- Emphasize family and loving relationships
- Have social networks
The resident scholar of longevity in the United States, George Burns, was asked about his formula for living over 100.
“If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.”
Yoga is an ancient practice for reducing stress and anxiety so I wish you Namaste.
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