Date: June 1st, 2009
You’ve probably heard that Americans are living longer than ever—in fact the average baby born today can expect to live to be 78 years old. But did you know there are close to 50 other countries with even longer life expectancies?
Scientists all over the world have spent countless hours studying the life expectancy differences between countries, cultures, and races. They have searched for answers in their genes, their diets, their exercise routines, their healthcare access, and even their tendencies to socialize and stay close with their extended families.
Unlocking the Centenarian Secrets
One group of people that has been at the center of a ton of research and attention are the centenarians—people who live to be 100 years or older. Their secrets to long life are particularly desirable since the majority of them seem to be living in good health.
The fact that people in their 100s have remarkably good health—and have managed to avoid or delay most of the diseases of old age—is especially fascinating to scientists. These oldest-old are certainly debunking the myth that “the older you get, the sicker you become.”
While the formula for a long and healthy life has not yet been found, a number of clues have been uncovered. For example, obese centenarians are rare and few have a history of smoking. Women tend to live longer than men; people in marriages live longer than those who are single; and remaining active increases your odds of living longer. Scientists have even found some potential genetic links that may lead to more answers down the road.
The Blue Zones
In the meantime, more and more researchers are traveling to the far corners of the globe to study the world’s oldest old. A number of clusters of centenarians have been found in what are sometimes called “longevity hot-spots.” Sardinia, Italy has long been considered a hot-spot but the list has recently been expanded to include Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California (a community of Seventh Day Adventists); and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. People in these areas tend to live longer, have healthier lives, and suffer from a small fraction of the diseases that the rest of the world suffers from. In fact, people in the hot spots are three times more likely to live to 100 than Americans are.
These areas have also become known as the Blue Zones—getting their name from the blue ink that Dan Buettner and his research team used to circle the areas with the highest life expectancies on a map. Buettner is an explorer and freelance writer who teamed up with National Geographic to study these blue zones and write a book with his findings.
He spent seven years traveling with a team of demographers, medical scientists, and other journalists and was able to learn first-hand how the world’s oldest-old have managed to live so long. Buettner’s book—The Blue Zones—Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest—teaches the secrets of the world’s longest-lived cultures and how these secrets can help you turn back your biological clock.
The Common Denominators
What they found in these blue zones is that the people have a number of things in common and it all pretty much boils down to lifestyle. Buettner condenses these lifestyle “secrets” into nine behaviors that he believes can help us lead longer, healthier lives:
- Exercise and keep your body moving
- Find and know your purpose in life
- Work less and find periods of calm in your life
- Eat wisely and eat less
- Include more vegetables, less protein, and less processed food in your diet
- Drink red wine—in moderation of course
- Stay social and engaged
- Participate in spiritual or religious practices
- Make your family your priority
Buettner and his team met people along the way that follow many, if not all, of these lifestyle factors and were still going strong. One woman in Loma Linda, California is 103 years-old and rides her stationary bike every day for seven or eight miles, at 25 miles per hour! Another Loma Linda resident, a 94 year-old heart surgeon, still performs surgery and has performed more than 12,000 operations in his life-time. And a 102 year-old woman in the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica still chops wood for cooking every day.
Is it Caloric Restriction?
One thing that they consistently found throughout the regions was that in addition to eating healthy foods, the people ate less at meals and consumed fewer calories overall. In Okinawa, Japan they even have a habit of calorie control called hara hachi bu, which means to eat only until you are 80% full.
The low-cal diets of Sardinians and their Mediterranean neighbors have become widely followed by scientists and dieters alike. The “Mediterranean Diet” has actually been found to make the hearts of those on the diet function like the hearts of much younger people, and may protect the brain from cognitive impairment and dementia.
While the benefits of eating right and reducing how much we eat is hardly news, the connection with caloric restriction is interesting. Caloric restriction is a diet that reduces calories by 30-40% and is one of the only ways scientists have found to reliably increase longevity in animals. Scientists are still trying to figure out why caloric restriction works, and don’t yet recommend the diet in humans, but perhaps our lessons from the blue zones are a step in the right direction.