Secrets of longevity
The lessons we can draw from the world’s centenarian havens:
Where in the world do people live longest?
People have searched for and dreamed of regions of extraordinary longevity for centuries—as far back as Jonathan Swift’s fictional island of Luggnagg in Gulliver’s Travels. In the 1960s, the pioneering nutritionist Ancel Keys drew attention to long lives and low rates of heart disease in parts of Italy and the island of Crete. Though his recommendations, which urged a carb-heavy “Mediterranean diet,” are now controversial, Keys helped spark a more systematic search for locales with remarkable life spans. About 15 years ago, the explorer and writer Dan Buettner and his team at National Geographic pinpointed five such places—Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; and Okinawa, Japan. Residents of those areas, which Buettner called Blue Zones, made it to their 100th birthday at 10 times the rate of the general U.S. population.
So what sets the Blue Zones apart?
After analyzing all the data, Buettner and his colleagues zeroed in on nine contributing factors: keeping physically active, maintaining a sense of purpose and drive, taking time to relax or play, avoiding overeating, following a plant-based diet, drinking wine, participating in a faith-based community, having close family ties, and staying social. In all five Blue Zones, centenarians ate a plant-based diet made up largely of whole grains, greens, potatoes, nuts, and legumes. They are meat on average only five times a month, and wine was consumed moderately (1 to 2 glasses a day). For Blue Zone residents, being physically active meant leading lives in which they were almost always moving. They walked whenever they could and did yard work without motorized conveniences like lawn tractors.
What about genetics?
It plays a role, but not as much as you might think. Multiple family studies have shown that, for most of us, our genetic makeup probably accounts for only about 20 to 30 percent of our longevity. In fact, research has shown that healthy lifestyle choices—such as diet, exercise, and social interactions—can actually override genetic predispositions to certain conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes, thereby extending our health span too. That said, when a 2011 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society looked at the earlier BMIs, calorie intakes, physical activity, alcohol use, and smoking habits of a group of seniors ages 95 and older, they found little difference between their behavior and those of the general population who didn’t live as long—so it appears that the genetic makeup of a lucky few may be robust enough to delay their aging process regardless of their lifestyle decisions.
What if my life takes place mainly indoors?
Luckily for those of us who spend most of our days at work indoors, research shows that regular exercise, in or out of the gym, can provide life-lengthening results. For example, a 2017 study found that for every hour spent running, a person can increase life expectancy by seven hours. One British study of 1,655 men in their 70s, 80s, and early 90s found that even a half-hour of light activity a week cut the chance of dying during the six years of the study by 17 percent. And a recent study of more than 8,500 adults suggests that group sports are perhaps the most longevity-inducing of all: playing tennis added 9.7 years to participants’ lives, badminton 6.2, and soccer 4.7. The researchers suspect that the social aspects of team sports provide a bonus stress-reducing effect, amplifying the benefits of the exercise.
Why do social ties matter?
Social activity seems to lower stress across the board. When researchers followed nearly 7,000 people over a nine-year period, they found that those with more social ties tended to live longer regardless of other influencing factors such as socioeconomic status, exercise, and body weight. In fact, the mortality rate of men and women with the fewest close relationships was 2.3 and 2.8 times greater, respectively, than that of people with the most. The researchers surmised that having good friendships and strong family ties helps calm our stress-response system. Chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can suppress our immune system, increasing our risk of life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Will any of this help my mind stay agile too?
Yes, all of it. Studies have found that regular exercise, a plant-based diet, staying active socially, and maintaining close relationships can all have protective effects on the aging brain as well, by improving cognitive function or slowing any decline. Getting good-quality sleep is also key. Research shows that people who regularly sleep less than the recommended seven to eight hours a night score lower on tests of mental function. Finally, keep cultivating a sense of purpose—stay active in your church, take classes, volunteer. Two new studies show that not only can this protect against cognitive decline but it can also boost happiness. ■