I recently wrote a post about an article online discussing Blue Zones, or places in the world where people live the longest. This particular article covered a Greek island called Ikaria. I learned that a book about four other Blue Zones was written just last year. Since my 30th birthday was coming up, it seemed like a fitting book for my birthday weekend away. What better way to celebrate getting older than to read about 100 year olds!
The Blue Zones, written by National Geographic journalist Dan Buettner, is such a pleasurable read. It’s packed with information, but in a great narrative with a lot of personal stories and pictures of some of the oldest people in the world. The book celebrates aging, a concept relatively foreign to Americans. It made me excited about growing old, living a long fulfilling life, and making good decisions now so that I can not only live longer but live more of those years disease free.
The book elaborates on four Blue Zones that scientists have discovered– Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California; and a peninsula in Costa Rica. Each of those areas has an extraordinarily high number of people living longer, some well over 100. In some of the Blue Zones, the number of people over 100 is 30 times that of what we typically find in the U.S. Buettner describes how the people in these Blue Zones live–what they eat, when they sleep and for how long, what they do for a living, what their family life is like, what their priorities are, what their religion is (and yes, the longest living people were all religious), how they handle stress, what their outlook on life was (“there wasn’t a grump in the bunch!”), etc, etc. Not every Blue Zone was the same–in fact, some were strikingly different. But the final chapter of the book lists the similarities between the Blue Zones and comes up with nine suggestions for how we can live longer.
1. Be active naturally.
- The longest living people engage in regular, low-intensity physical activity, often as part of a daily work routine.
- Low intensity exercise is easy on the joints.
2. Stop eating before you are full.
- Eat until you’re about 80% satisfied.
- Part of the benefit of this comes from the inevitable weight loss (none of the long living people in The Blue Zones were ever obese).
- Serve food on smaller plates (people who get larger portions eat more than those who get smaller ones).
- Eat more slowly.
- Have your biggest meal of the day early (breakfast or lunch). Dinner in all the Blue Zones was a smaller meal.
3. Avoid meat and processed foods.
- Interestingly, this completely confirms what I recently read in The China Study and am trying to personally practice.
- Most of the oldest living people ate meat, just very rarely–maybe once or twice a month, or only on special occasions.
- Scientists have analyzed diets and found that those that restrict meat are associated with living longer.
- People over the age of 19 only need 0.8g of protein for every kg of body weight (or about 50-60 grams, which is double what most Americans eat).
- Instead of meat, fill up on fruits and vegetables.
- Get protein from eating beans, tofu, and nuts. Nuts are “perhaps the most impressive of all longevity foods.” People that eat nuts 5 times per week had half the heart disease of those who never eat nuts. In fact, the FDA now allows the claim that “eating 1.5 oz per day of most nuts….. may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
4. Drink red wine in moderation.
- The secret to drinking red wine is moderation and consistency.
- Red wine contains “artery-scrubbing polyphenols” that may help fight arteriosclerosis.
- Have only 1-2 glasses per day.
5. Have a strong sense of purpose.
- A strong sense of purpose in the elderly may act as a buffer against stress and help reduce their chances of suffering from many diseases (Alzhimer’s, arthritis, stroke).
- An 11-year study found that people between the age of 65 and 92 who expressed a clear goal in life lived longer and were sharper than those who did not.
6. Take time to relieve stress.
- The oldest people in the world live a lifestyle where they often take breaks–naps, tea with friends, heading to the streets or bars, gathering for meals with much socializing, honoring the Sabbath. The result is a greater sense of well-being.
- Americans employed full time work an average of 43 hours a week and take the shortest paid vacations in the industrialized world. When they do take time off, 20% stay in touch with the office. Few cultural institutions exist to encourage us to slow down, unwind, and de-stress.
- Try minimizing electronic entertainment in your home (TV, internet, etc.) Most of it feeds mind chatter and works counter to the notion of slowing down.
7. Participate in a spiritual community.
- All of the oldest living people in the Blue Zones were religious.
- A study of over 3600 people found that those who attend religious services at least once a month reduced their risk of death by one third.
- As a group, attendees of religious services had a longer life expectancy, with an impact about as great as that of moderate physical activity.
8. Make family a priority.
- Take care of your children well while they’re young so that they’ll be more inclined to take care of you when you’re older.
- Elders who lived with their families have much sharper mental and social skills.
9. Surround yourself with people that share these values.
- Higher social connectedness leads to greater longevity.
- Spend time with your social support network on a regular basis.
I recommend giving this quick 260 page book a read. It’s enjoyable and motivating. You can also check out a website associated with the book. There, you can even take a quiz (click on Vitality Compass) to estimate your life expectancy. According to that site, my current lifestyle suggests that I could live to be 98, with 88 of those years being disease-free. What I need to work on to push that to 100 is my stress.