LONGEVITY LESSONS FROM THE BLUE ZONES: THE SECRET TO LIVING OVER 100 YEARS
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Ever wondered how some people seem to live into a ripe old age without much fuss, while the majority seem to battle with a long list of age-related diseases? A similar question was asked by Dan Buettner in 2004, which lead him on to the discovery of the planets Blue Zones - areas where people commonly live to be 100 years and older (aka centenarians).
After teaming up with National Geographic and the National Institute of Aging, Dan's team found five Blue Zones:
- Loma Linda, CA, USA
- Sardinia, Italy
- Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Ikaria, Greece
- Okinawa, Japan
The team went on further to identify what these areas had going for them that seems to dramatically increase the population's lifespan. It turns out the centenarians that live in these areas share 9 common characteristics which Dan and his team have since dubbed 'the Power 9.'
Aging in the Context of our Genes
Before we get to what the Power 9 is exactly, it's useful to understand that this discovery adds to a body of research known as epigenetics. This field of medicine specializes in the way our lifestyle, diet and environment shape our genes, which are not strictly stuck in a permanent state since birth but are rather constantly changing in response to these external factors.
In contradiction to the previous models of aging in which we believed our hereditary genes were the only factors that determined how long we live; studies conducted on twins have since proven that our longevity is only 20% dictated by these hereditary genes and 80% dictated by our lifestyle, plus other epigenetic factors. With this in mind, it's possible for anyone to extend their lifespans just as the citizens in the Blue Zones have been doing!
Secrets to Upping your Lifespan and Living Over 100
Here below we discuss the 9 commonalities between these Blue Zones and share with you the best secrets behind longevity that even your healthcare physician may not know about!
Natural Movement and Exercise
We all know that exercise is a requirement for healthy living, so it's not a big surprise that it is one of the secrets of longevity - yet the amount and type of exercise that works best may be surprising to most.
In the five blue zones listed above, all centenarians have a lifestyle that focuses effortlessly around constant physical activity. When most people think about getting physically active, the gym immediately comes to mind. However, none of the centenarians living in the Blue Zones ever visit the gym. Instead, they live a life that incorporates natural movement and exercise without them thinking about it or needing to pursue it over and above their daily routines.
Centenarians lives and hobbies emphasize being active over sitting, as well as adopting nature over technology. Activities such as cycling, gardening, walking long distances daily and using as little mechanical tools as possible to get a physical job done are all par for the course.
So if you want to live longer, sit less, find more ways to incorporate physical movement into your life without relying on modern gadgets such as a treadmill. Here are some good recommendations:
- Choose to stand more versus sitting down
- Stop spending time in front of the TV, computer or other electronic devices that promote inactivity
- Invest in physical hobbies or nature-bound activities such as surfing, hiking, sports, horse riding, dance classes, yoga, etc
- Cycle or walk to your local shops instead of driving
- Grow a garden and tend to it by hand as much as possible
In reality, human beings are designed for continuous physical activity in nature, just like every other animal on the planet. The bottom line here is use it or lose it!
Having a Happy Life's Purpose
Every centenarian that was interviewed, especially those from Costa Rica, all swear that having a reason to live adds years onto their lives. In Costa Rican culture, they even have a special term for this known as their 'plan de vida'. The Japanese have a similar term 'ikigai' or 'why I wake up in the morning.'
Having a sense of purpose in life is one of the best ways to feel upbeat and stave off depression. We all need a reason to get up in the morning and to participate in life. It seems that our bodies are rather responsive to our state of mind and those who no longer have a reason to live or a life's purpose are prone to feeling depressed - which is naturally linked to stress, a weaker immune system, and living a shorter life in general due to an increase in all-cause mortality.
Do you have a reason to wake up every morning and smile? The truth is that most of us do (and multiple reasons at that), however not many of us stop to think about it each day. According to centenarians from the Blue Zones, having even just one reason to be grateful each day that motivates your being alive is enough to extend your lifespan.
If you struggle to find purpose in your world, another takeaway from this is that most of these centenarians were motivated by family, loved ones or heart-centered work to be alive. Joining organizations that do good in the world or supporting others are excellent motivators aside from feeling grateful for everything you have.
Expert Stress Management
Most people know that lots of stress can make one sick. From a scientific point of view, stress increases bodily inflammation which is associated with every age-related disease. The elderly populations in the Blue Zones are not impervious to the effects of stress as one might think, but unlike many Western cultures, they make a great effort each day to diffuse their stress.
Meditating, feeling grateful and having faith in their ancestors (or having spiritual faith), midday naps and taking at least an hour to oneself daily are all lifestyle choices employed by these centenarians that help to shed their stress. Physical activity, having strong loving relationships and many of the 'Power 9' suggestions in this list also help with keeping stress down.
One connecting factor between all the above themes that reduce stress is taking time out to do things you enjoy as well as activities that will enrich your health, allow you to relax and promote letting go of your worries. For you, stress management could mean reading a good book, chatting to a loved one, eating a plate of greens, getting your tan on or all of the above.
Either way, whatever your bent, it's very important to keep yourself as stress-free as possible if you want to live to see your 100th birthday!
Caloric Restriction with the '80% Rule'
In Okinawa, Japan, they have recited the Confucian phrase 'hara hachi bu' for more than 2500 years before consuming a meal. This phrase means 'belly 80 percent full' and reminds people to stop eating when they feel they are 80% full. In essence, this practice mimics moderate caloric restriction, which can (in theory) extend lifespan.
Another eating practice common to the Blue Zones is that people eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then proceed not to eat again until the next day. This approach to food not only limits calorie intake but also mimics fasting, something known as intermittent fasting.
When mild caloric restriction and intermittent fasting were combined in the lab, test animals certainly increased their lifespans, adding more weight behind what these lively centenarians do to keep on going!
In theory, both of these practices allow for the body to spend less energy and resources on digesting and more on other functions such as physical activity, regeneration and immunity. When it comes to how much to eat, less truly is more.
Make sure you talk to a dietitian or a nutritionist before starting on any new diet plans.
More Plant-Based Food, Less Meat
Medicine likes to look at aging as a state of protein deficiency, amongst other things. Hence a common dietary plan adopted in the West revolves around heavy animal product consumption to replenish our protein stores.
However, Blue Zone dietetics seems to meander in a different direction as most centenarians consume a diet rich in plant-based proteins. Beans are the cornerstone of many of these individual's diets, while meat is largely reserved for special occasions (if consumed at all). On average, these aged survivors typically consume small portions of meat ±5 times a month, with portions being roughly 3-4 oz. or 85-114g.
On the note of plant-based foods, all the centenarians appear to consume hearty portions of fruit and vegetables on a daily basis; many of which come from home-grown gardens. In Costa Rica, another advantage was that the water in this particular Blue Zone was rich in both calcium and magnesium, no doubt contributing to the lower incidence of bone and heart diseases observed in the area.
So it seems that shifting your diet to include a decent variety of fruits, vegetables and legumes as well as eating less meat and drinking mineral-enriched water goes a long way towards our longevity.
If you want to get more active and consume more plant-based food, then starting a vegetable garden is a great way to go. Luckily, legumes are some of the easiest crops to grow and seem to encourage longevity.
A Sense of Faith and Belonging
The overwhelming majority of people over the age of 100 that were interviewed by Dan and his team, attended church every week or were highly involved in some kind of faith-based community. These communities help to instill both a sense of purpose and belonging in those participating.
Scientific research has documented that this alone is enough to add between 4 and 14 years onto an individual's life expectancy, regardless of any other factors. It seems that cultivating a spiritual side, especially alongside a community of like-minded (and like-hearted) people helps promote longevity.
Aside from feeling like one belongs, other benefits include activities that lower stress such as prayer or meditation. Those in faith-based communities also often strive to help one another and rarely feel isolate, alone or depressed.
If you are an atheist or simply don't have a religious or spiritual preference, it may be useful to join a like-minded community that hosts weekly get-togethers and makes an effort to support one another. Local NGO's or charity organizations could be good options for non-religious folk as it allows one to develop a form of faith - specifically faith in humanity at large.
Placing Loved Ones First
Centenarians everywhere all appear to place their family above all else, taking more pride in looking after their loved ones than anything else. This often means that they live very nearby their relatives and are highly involved with their grand-children and sometimes great grandchildren.
In these cases, the family members tend to be close to one another with tolerance, care and love being prized above all else. As a result, disease and mortality rates are far less across all age groups of these family members and the entire family is involved when it comes to looking after the older and younger members.
Not everyone comes from a loving family background and this ideal can be difficult for many to achieve. However, it's important to maintain close relationships with people you can depend upon and to find healthy ways to work through any difficulties that may arise.
This is especially true for those who came from a difficult family background; as our relationships later in life are often defined by the relationships we had with our parents and grandparents as children. Consider consulting with a therapist or other qualified healthcare professional if you find you have difficulties in these areas - it could help you to live a longer and far more rewarding life overall!
Being Part of a Healthy Tribe for Life
More on the subject of forming close bonds, centenarians also hold their friendships in high esteem and tend to have had the same friends for decades. Aside from putting a lot of effort into maintaining healthy, stable friendships; successful centenarians also chose their life-long friends wisely, choosing dependable friends who encourage them to be happy and healthy.
Research has shown us that who we hang out with on a daily basis has a huge impact on what we think and do. Without even thinking about it, friends seem to adopt one another's behaviors - even smoking, obesity, happiness (or other moods) and loneliness appear to be contagious amongst close friends. In this respect, over-100 year olds have chosen healthy friendships that accommodate and promote many of the healthy behaviors listed above.
An inspiring example would be in Okinawa, Japan where children are encouraged to forge lifetime bonds in groups from as early an age as 5. Dan's team found that a group of five ladies had been friends together for just over 97 years! Every day the group would get together and gossip over a cup of coffee. If one member was absent, the group would make an effort to walk across the town to check up on their friend. In this way, a stable secure social network allows for these women to shed stress and be well looked after.
The Beatles song "With a Little Help From My Friends" comes to mind with this one! So choose your friends wisely and make sure that each of you live to see your 100s with impunity.
In summary, it seems that Blue Zone centenarians have truly mastered living a naturally healthy life, covering all areas of mental, emotional and physical well-being.
Forging deep and satisfying long-term relationships that emphasize healthy behaviors, keeping active, doing away with stress, participating in and being grateful for life, moderating food, alcohol and meat intake, as well as a hearty appetite for fresh fruit, vegetables and legumes appear to be the key takeaways.
Dan Buettner and his team have taken these 9 lessons from the world's longest lived and have managed to change policies in some US cities to naturally incorporate healthier options for people. Blue Zone Project Communities are now striving to live longer, happier and healthier lives and we hope that after reading this, you will too!
Should you suspect that you have an underlying health issue, then you should think about talking to your doctor. For those of you who don't have access to a credible doctor, you can connect with any of the world's leading healthcare providers and practitioners to arrange a consult at the touch of a button with Mya Care.
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