How many people in the United States live to be 100? According to census data, just 55,000 Americans reach 100; that’s .02% of us. Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones (2008), along with anthropologists, demographers, epidemiologists and other researchers, identified five communities in the world with a disproportionate number of centenarians: Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, Calif.; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Okinawa has one of the highest centenarian ratios in the world: about 6.5 in 10,000 people live to 100, as compared with 1.73 in 10,000 in the U.S. Buettner and his colleagues interviewed many of these people to determine commonalities.
One aspect of lifestyle they studied was diet, and they learned that the people living the longest ate mostly plants, and especially beans. Meat was only eaten in small portions (3-4 ounces) about five times per month. The smallest meal of the day was generally consumed in late afternoon or evening, and it was advised to stop eating when the stomach is 80% full. Alcohol was consumed regularly, but not in excess of 1-2 glasses per day. The scientists reported that moderate drinkers actually outlive non-drinkers. Wine has high levels of polyphenols and antioxidants, and the alcohol in it also helps lower cortisol levels, a hormone associated with stress. Buettner studied Seventh-day Adventists, who comprise about one-third of the 22,000 residents of Loma Linda. and found that they live as much as a decade longer than the rest of us. It is believed that their diet, which is mostly plant-based, is a major reason they have the lowest rates of heart disease and diabetes in the U.S. and very low rates of obesity.
The amount of physical activity people get is also strongly correlated with longevity. In The Blue Zones, Buettner reported that planting a garden is helpful, since it leads to the further activities of watering, weeding or harvesting. In Ikaria, a 99-year-old man walks three miles daily to tend his goats. Making changes to lifestyle, such as riding a bicycle instead of driving, walking to the store instead of driving, and using the stairs instead of the elevator, are a natural way to build more physical activity into one’s daily routines, and these changes are more likely to be sustained for a longer time.
Social connectedness is another contributor to longevity for people living in the Blue Zones. The type of socialization was not important, and for some was achieved through marriage, spending time with friends and relatives, volunteering, and/or participating in clubs.
Spirituality also contributes to longevity. Adventists, for example, observe the Sabbath by focusing on God, their families, and nature. It is believed that this rest results in a greater sense of well-being and less stress, which reduces chronic inflammation and its accompanying diseases.
Statistically speaking, where you live is the biggest, non-genetic influence on how healthy you are. If you’re living in close proximity to restaurants serving junk food, you may be less healthy. In Binghamton, about 37 per cent of the people are obese, and they have very lax food policies. In contrast, San Luis Obispo has only 11 percent obesity; their leaders determined a long time ago to institute policies to help their residents eat better, and it worked!
The overall premise of The Blue Zones is that engaging in the lifestyles practiced by centenarians living in those five parts of the world may give you an extra decade of good life you would otherwise miss. Since writing his book, Dan Buettner has formed an organization, the Blue Zone Project, which has worked in 23 U.S. cities to improve school food, reform local health policies, and get public works agencies to make streets more walkable. For recipes based on the project, go to http://www.bluezones.com/recipes/
You can access the Vitality CompassTM tool at www.bluezones.com and complete a 33 question inventory that calculates your potential life expectancy, your healthy life expectancy, the number of extra years you are likely to gain if you optimize your lifestyle, and a list of suggestions to help you do that. May you live healthily to 100!