We read about them with astonishment and awe. In 2017 and 2018 there were many news reports of people who lived well past 100. Emma Morano died in April 2017 at age 117, 137 days. Violet Brown died in September 2017 at 117 years, 189 days. And Yisrael Kristal who died that same month at 113 years, 330 days almost made it to 114! Chiyo Miyako died in July 2018 cage 117, 81 days.
How did they do it? Surely they had something in common. Turns out they did.
Ways the long-lived live longest:
- Choose the right parents. Well, maybe it’s not a choice. But genetics have a lot to do with it. Simply put: If your parents and grandparents didn’t have diseases that have an inheritability and they lived past 90, chances are you will too. The big “if” is whether or not you do a decent job of tending to the body you inherited.
- Make a close knit family. You may not have been born to a healthy family, but you can make one. People who live the longest tend to be happily married and enjoy spending time with their children. They live near relatives who provide emotional support and practical help when they can. The culture of these families is to nurture the young and care for the old. You aren’t married? Then make a “chosen family” of close friends who are really there for each other and you can have the same benefits.
- Live in a “Blue Zone.” National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner identified places in the world with the most people who lived beyond 100. He named these areas “Blue Zones.” Among them are Sardinia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; a community of Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California; and Okinawa, Japan. But before you pack your bags, do understand that it’s not the geography so much as lifestyle in those places that contributes to long life. People in these areas encourage close ties with family and friends. They eat well, exercise regularly, keep stress levels down, have a sense of personal purpose and a strong spiritual belief.
- Eat well: This isn’t news. A healthy diet leads to a body that resists illness and to a generally healthier life. 80% or more of Americans are overweight to obese. Excess weight contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. It puts stress on bones and limits your ability to move. There is plenty of information about a healthy nutritious diet so I won’t repeat it here. But do read and heed. People in the Blue Zones don’t go on fad diets. They eat less meat and more vegetables than Americans do.
- Exercise: People in the Blue Zones move throughout their day, doing tasks that many Americans have given up to appliances and vehicles. They do their dishes and laundry by hand, sweep their floors, and shovel their walks. They garden, both out of necessity and for the joy of it. They walk. They walk a lot. If you can’t manage 10,000 steps a day and generally add in more physical tasks, consider signing up with a gym or for exercise classes.
- De-stress: Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. People in the Blue Zones don’t equate being too busy and feeling over-stressed with success. They take care of themselves so they have the emotional energy and physical ability to manage the usual stresses of life. The culture in many such countries encourages a break in the middle of the day for a real lunch “hour” and napping. Do as they do: Don’t eat lunch at your desk. Don’t skip breaks. Home with children? Nap when they do or institute a family rest time. Your rest is more important than folding the laundry.
- Find something that gives your life meaning. Looking back on their lives, those long-lived people from the Blue Zones say they did things they found personally fulfilling. Current research in Positive Psychology confirms its importance. What makes life worth living is as individual as you are. Meaning can come from raising children well, doing a job you believe is significant at least some of the time, or from being the kind of friend you want to be. If that doesn’t feel like enough, there are organizations that need your support and your involvement. Volunteering has been shown to help people stay physically healthy, more connected to others, and happier. It helps combat depression and anxiety. A study at Carnegie Mellon found that only 200 hours of volunteering a year can be correlated to lower blood pressure. Other studies found that volunteering as little as 100 hours a year helps people be healthier.
- Embrace spirituality. Communities is Blue Zones have strong connection to their religion. Whether affiliated with an organized religion or a spiritual group, people who live long find comfort and relief from stress through their belief in a caring god or universe. Spiritual groups also provide community, promote mutual help, and lend meaning to life. A 2018 nationwide study by researchers at Ohio State University found that Americans with religious affiliations lived nearly four years longer than those with no ties to religion.
In 2014, more than 70,000 Americans lived to be at least 100 years old. I suspect that most of them created a “Blue Zone” in which to live, regardless of geography. That’s a goal in reach of every one of us.