This is how to have a long awesome life: 7 secrets from research

There are plenty of ways to make your life a little better. But making your life longer is trickier. Does any of that anti-aging stuff work? Let’s ask an expert…

Thomas T. Perls, M.D., M.P.H, is the director of the New England Centenarian Study, and an associate professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston University’s med school. What say you, Tom?

A good start to adding more good years to your life would be to get rid of the anti-aging quackery. … These guys are just trying to sell you stuff. What does work is living the lifestyle of those who we know are living longer, like those people, I suppose, living in the Blue Zones.

Ouch. No magic pill to prevent aging. But what did he say at the end there? What the heck is a “Blue Zone”? Gimme a sec while I put my research hat on…

A while back a bunch of demographers published a paper in the journal Experimental Gerontology about a place in the Barbagia region of Sardinia where people lived exceptionally long, healthy lives. (They circled it on the map with a blue pen and the name “Blue Zone” stuck.) Well, some place has to have the people who live the longest, right? Just random…

Actually, no. Because they started to find other Blue Zones. Areas where people were up to three times more likely to live to 100 than the average American. And they didn’t just live long — they lived well. Healthier. Happier. Fewer diseases. More energy. Hmm. Care to take a quick trip around the world with me? (We’ll have separate hotel rooms, I promise.)

Okinawa, Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world. Their rate of cardiovascular disease is 20% that of the US. Breast and prostate cancer? 25% as often. And dementia is one-third as likely.

Men from Nicoya, a peninsula off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, have twice the chance of making it to age 90 as men from the US, France, or Japan. It took them a while to even realize this was a Blue Zone because life expectancy is so low in neighboring countries that mortality studies didn’t even bother to ask if anyone lived past 80.

In Loma Linda — just 60 miles outside Los Angeles — people live more than 7 years longer than the average Californian. When researchers interviewed a woman there she told them a story about when her father got gored by a bull. Cool story but what’s cooler is that the event happened 107 years ago. Lydia just turned 112.

What the heck is going on in these places? We know magic pills don’t work. Must be due to good genes, right? Wrong:

Scientific studies suggest that only about 25 percent of how long we live is dictated by genes, according to famous studies of Danish twins. The other 75 percent is determined by our lifestyles and the everyday choices we make. It follows that if we optimize our lifestyles, we can maximize our life expectancies within our biological limits.

So demographers, doctors, and scientists collaborated with the National Institute on Aging to get to the bottom of this, analyzing what these groups ate, how much exercise they got, how they socialized, etc.

These are very different places with very different people — but they found patterns. Much of the data is correlational. We can’t just say “do this and you’ll live to 100.” There’s no magic formula. But certain activities, behaviors and rituals came up again and again that seem to point to lessons that might help us all live longer, healthier, happier lives.

Ready, Methuselah? Let’s get to it …

Inconvenience yourself

A better header would have been, “Exercise.” But if I said that, you wouldn’t do it. And, to be totally honest here, the Blue Zone people (if I say “Blue People” you might think I mean Smurfs) never deliberately exercise either.

But they move. A lot. Their lives are more active — but not in an “Aw, crap, now I have to put on my Nikes and go to Zumba class” kinda way. Activity is built into their day.

From The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest:

… they engage in regular, low-intensity physical activity, often as part of a daily work routine. Male centenarians in Sardinia’s Blue Zone worked most of their lives as shepherds, a profession that involved miles of hiking every day. Okinawans garden for hours each day, growing food for their tables. Adventists take nature walks.

So don’t worry about the gym. But engage in activities you enjoy. Or just make your life a little less convenient. Take the stairs. Don’t drive when you can walk.

(To learn more about how you and your children can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

Now we all know that eating is key to health and longevity. So let’s learn a very helpful concept that is easy to use but kinda tricky to say …

Hara Hachi Bu

No, not Hakuna Matata. “Hara Hachi Bu” is a Japanese phrase uttered numerous times a day in the Blue Zone of Okinawa.

From The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest:

All of the old folks say it before they eat. It means ‘Eat until you are 80 percent full.’

The researchers never met a centenarian who was on a diet. They never met one that was obese. And again, genetics were not the primary factor here. They didn’t overeat. This helps keep blood pressure and cholesterol under control, reducing the chance of heart disease.

(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)

Eating less is good — but what should you eat?

Plant slant

Nobody in the history of the world has ever said, “Eating more green veggies is a bad idea.”

Most Blue Zone diets were vegetarian or close to it. Meat was eaten rarely.

From The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest:

Beans, whole grains, and garden vegetables are the cornerstones of all these longevity diets. Sardinian shepherds take semolina flatbread into the pastures with them. Nicoyans eat corn tortillas at every meal. And whole grain is part of the Adventist diet. Whole grains deliver fiber, antioxidants, potential anti-cancer agents (insoluble fiber), cholesterol reducers, and clot blockers, plus essential minerals. Beans (legumes) also provide a cornerstone to Blue Zone meals. Diets rich in legumes are associated with fewer heart attacks and less colon cancer. Legumes are a good dietary source of healthy flavonoids and fiber (which can reduce the risk of heart attack) and are also an excellent nonanimal source of protein.

I didn’t say *I* think you need to be a vegetarian; I’m just telling you what this research said. Paleo preachers, stand down.

Now there was one thing that deserves special note because it’s the closest thing we have to a magic pill and, frankly, it surprised the heck out of me. Even the FDA said, “Um, yeah, we’re really having trouble arguing with that data. Fine. We’ll kinda say something nice about it.”

And the magic food is, well… nuts. Not crazy. Nuts like actual nuts.

From The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest:

Recent findings from a large study of (the Loma Linda Blue Zone) show that those who ate nuts at least five times a week had a rate of heart disease that was half that of those who rarely ate nuts. A health claim about nuts is among the first qualified claims permitted by the Food and Drug Administration. In 2003, the FDA allowed a “qualified health claim” that read: “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

The researchers sliced the data up every way they could think and still, it showed nuts profoundly impact health and longevity. You look at this very impressive chart, I’m gonna go buy some almonds:

long-awesome-life

And Blue Zoners like their booze. A glass or two of good red wine per day got the thumbs up from the researchers.

(To learn how to deal with passive-aggressive people, click here.)

Alright, we’re nuts about nuts. But if you want to be a full-on Blue Zoner, don’t just shove some in your mouth as you hastily respond to emails and rush out the door …

Downshift

Nicoyans take a break every afternoon to rest and socialize with friends. The Seventh-day Adventists of Loma Linda take Saturday as a sabbath. The little old ladies of Okinawa gather every day at 3:30 PM to gossip in traditional social groups known as “moai.”

From The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest:

Italian endocrinologist Dr. Claudio Franceschi has developed a widely accepted theory on the relationship between chronic inflammation and aging. Over time, he believes, the negative effects of inflammation build up to create conditions in the body that may promote age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Slowing life’s pace may help keep the chronic inflammation in check, and theoretically, the related disease at bay.

Designate a time to take it easy. To turn off the smartphone notifications. To meditate. Or to laugh with friends until the sun goes down.

(To learn the 4-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

So far we’ve covered things you can do on your own. But being on your own too much is more Red Zone than Blue Zone. (Or maybe it’s a Gray Area?) Anyway 

Belong

Dr. Ilias Leriadis, the vice mayor of the Blue Zone of Ikaria, said the island “is not a ‘me’ place. It’s an ‘us’ place.”

And that was another constant among all of these spots where people forget to die: Family. Religion. Community.

From The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest:

Professor Lisa Berkman of Harvard University has investigated social connectedness and longevity. In one study, she looked at the impact of marital status, ties with friends and relatives, club membership, and level of volunteerism on how well older people aged. Over a nine-year period, she found that those with the most social connectedness lived longer.

What’s a good way to get more connected? Rituals. Weekly family dinners. Celebrating holidays. Consistently scheduled get togethers.

The most incredible story about Blue Zone community would have to be that of Stamatis Moraitis. He was born in the Blue Zone of Ikaria but moved to the US as an adult. At 65 he was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six months to live.

He refused chemo, in fact, he refused any treatment at all. He had lived a good life. He decided to return to his homeland to die.

Though weak, he fell in with the rituals of the island. He went to church. He drank wine with old friends. All the while he was counting down the days until he would be buried next to his parents under the oak trees by the blue Aegean Sea …

And then, somehow, thirty-five years went by. He didn’t die. He was 100-years-old. Don’t buy your ticket to Greece just yet — spontaneous cancer remission is far from a common occurrence. In fact, the Blue Zone researchers where so shocked by it they asked him what happened to his cancer. He didn’t know. He had gone back to America at one point to get checked out but he got no answers …

His doctors had all passed away.

(To learn the nine rituals that will make you an amazing parent, click here.)

Belonging is key, and it makes for a happier life. So what’s the most powerful Blue Zone secret of them all? The one that ensures the others work?

Don’t zone alone

Belonging in terms of family and religion is great but what makes the Blue Zones so powerful is that everyone supports this same lifestyle. It’s easy to eat a certain way when everyone does.

This doesn’t mean you need to go convert everyone around you but, um, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea if you had a few buddies for your Blue Zone journey, would it?

From The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest:

Seventh-day Adventists make a point of associating with one another (a practice reinforced by their religious practices and observation of the Sabbath on Saturdays). Sardinians have been isolated geographically in the Nuoro highlands for 2,000 years. As a result, members of these longevity cultures work and socialize with one another, and this reinforces the prescribed behaviors of their cultures. It’s much easier to adopt good habits when everyone around you is already practicing them.

If you want to live longer, share this post with a friend. Walk together. Eat right together. Downshift together. And don’t forget the nuts.

(To learn how to deal with out-of-control kids — from hostage negotiators — click here.)

Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Yes, this post was long but you’re going to live a lot longer now so I feel no guilt whatsoever.

Let’s round it all up and learn reason number seven — which may be the most profound of them all …

Sum up

This is how to live a long, awesome life:

  • Inconvenience Yourself: Build more movement into your day. Take the stairs, not the escalator. Don’t use the phone, go see a friend. If you want French Press coffee, walk to France.
  • Hara Hachi Bu: Eat until you’re 80% full. (The people of Okinawa seem pretty cool and I don’t think they’ll mind if you culturally appropriate this concept for the purposes of death prevention.)
  • Plant Slant: More veggies. Nuts are the Infinity Stones of longevity eating, Thanos.
  • Downshift: I’m not writing a description for this. I deserve a siesta. Taking it easy will extend my life so I can write more blog posts later.
  • Belong: In the Blue Zone of Ikaria, there is no word for “privacy.” Now I do enjoy my privacy — but being so supported and loved that you don’t even bother to create a word for being alone is pretty cool too.
  • Don’t Zone Alone: Start a “Blue Man Group” — sans face paint. Surrounding yourself with others who follow some of the Blue Zone ideas will make living longer easier and more fun.

So what’s number 7?

Purpose in life.

Ask yourself, “Why do I wake up in the morning?” If it’s a good reason, you’ll probably have a lot more mornings ahead of you.

From The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest:

Okinawans call it ikigai, and Nicoyans call it plan de vida, but in both cultures the phrase essentially translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” The strong sense of purpose possessed by older Okinawans may act as a buffer against stress and help reduce their chances of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and stroke. Dr. Robert Butler and collaborators led an NIH-funded study that looked at the correlation between having a sense of purpose and longevity. His 11-year study followed highly functioning people between the ages of 65 and 92 and found that individuals who expressed a clear goal in life — something to get up for in the morning, something that made a difference—lived longer and were sharper than those who did not …

Your purpose in life doesn’t have to be something epic like single-handedly solving global warming. It can be as simple as meaningful work, a hobby you’re passionate about or just wanting to make sure those grandchildren reach their full potential.

And that last one isn’t just something I randomly came up with. It’s a true story the researchers came across during their travels…

Nona wasn’t doing well. She had just celebrated her 100th birthday when she fell ill. She could not get out of bed. Her daughter, Pietrina, thought this might be the end.

Pietrina summoned the entire family — 4 daughters and 13 grandkids. Some of them had to come in from mainland Italy. Nona’s condition worsened. She lay in bed unconscious.

Pietrina’s nephew, who had been flunking out of college, sat at his grandmother’s bedside whispering to her how much he was going to miss her …

And Nona’s eyes popped open. In her native Sardinian she snapped:

I’m not going anywhere until you’re done with the university!

Nona recovered. And her grandson graduated. Sometimes all we need to keep living is a purpose.

And take it from Nona: there is no better purpose than making sure the ones we love are doing well.

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This article first appeared on Barking Up The Wrong Tree.

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