Soon we will say farewell to 2020, a year filled with challenges and surprises. For many, this is also a year filled with reevaluations: what do we value the most and what should we value the most? I hope good health is on your list. The pandemic forced us to rethink life and death, some suddenly realized we are born with desire to live, which explains why human beings have been obsessed with finding the secrets of longevity. The precise answer to this question may not exist even though we have a lot of evidence supporting what pertains to a healthy diet and lifestyle. Dan Buettner, a well-known American author and explorer, has identified five places in the world where people live exceptionally long lives. He called these five places, Blue Zones. Together with his team of researchers, they interviewed these fantastic people and asked about their way of life, diet, and secrets to a long life. And I will focus on two of these places:
- Loma Linda, California. Yes despite the highest overweight/obesity rate in the world, we do have a valid blue zone in the US. Members of Seventh-day Adventist Church turn their backs on drinking alcoholic beverages and smoking. They also lessen their exposure to television and the Internet. Their diet focuses on fruits, nuts, grains, and vegetables. Some of them eat small amounts of meat, but only from sources the Bible states as clean.
Around 40% of them embrace a plant-based diet. Some are pesca-vegetarians with a serving of fish once a day. Some of their favorite foods include nuts, beans, whole wheat bread, oatmeal, soy milk, and salmon. Their diet is based on the biblical Book of Leviticus, which emphasizes plant-based foods.
- Okinawa, Japan. Okinawans enjoy fabulous weather, a laid-back vibe, and white sand beaches. Despite Western influence on the Okinawan diet during the past decades, Okinawans manage to eat something fresh from the sea and land daily. On the top of their list of longevity foods are sweet potatoes, seaweed (up to 3x the amount of mainland Japanese), milk, meat, turmeric, and rice. They also manage to include shiitake mushrooms, green tea, tofu, garlic, and Ashitaba, a super green leafy vegetable grown along the marine coastline, to their recipe for longevity.
In Okinawa, people over 100 years old comprise 40-50 per 100,000 persons as compared to 10-20 per 100,000 persons in industrialized countries. They attribute their longevity mainly to their diet, which focuses on vegetables and lean protein sources. They avoid processed foods that contain a lot of sugar and saturated fat. Retirement in Okinawa is relatively unheard of. The residents remain active and work well into old age. Some of them have never visited a hospital. They know how to relax, remain optimistic, control their emotions, and enjoy a simple life.
So, what do you do to live a long life (or at least add a few more years to your life)?
Two research studies done separately in the US among females (called Nurses’ Health Study) and males (Health Professionals Follow-up Study) have provided valuable evidence on how to add years to your life. These include:
- Drink alcohol in moderation. You will never see a healthy elder who drinks himself to oblivion daily. And yes, Blue Zone people do drink wine and other alcoholic beverages, but always in moderation. According to a study done in the Netherlands between drinking alcohol and longevity, the highest probability of making it to 90 years old (not bad) was found to be those consuming 5 to 15 grams of alcohol per day. Wine was better for women, and distilled spirits were better for men when it comes to longevity (I guess I just made many readers very happy!)
- Do not smoke.
- Have a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9. Based on a study published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2017, excess BMI translates to shorter disease-free life expectancy.
- Embrace a healthy diet. Most of what centenarians consume are plant-based. Recently, there’s much interest in the Mediterranean diet as a way to add years to your life. An article that appeared in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care (2016) stated that a Mediterranean diet could increase your life expectancy, decrease your risk of developing chronic diseases, and improve your well-being and quality of life. There’s no one definition of a Mediterranean diet, but generally speaking, it’s abundant in vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts and seeds, beans, and of course, olive oil.
- There’s no such thing as a sedentary healthy senior. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day.
- Love your family. Many healthy seniors live that long because they have loving family members to take care of them. They choose their families as the center of their lives.
- Have a sense of purpose in your life, even when you get old. Your sense of purpose in life may change, but it shouldn’t disappear after you retire from work or get old.
Do Genes Play A Role In Longevity?
According to an article posted in Scientific American, how long you live is hugely dependent on the environment you live in and genetics. The article suggested that based on studies on twins, genetics only contribute a 20 to 30 percent chance of making it to 85 years old. Imagine what you could do with the 70 percent to make that goal of living a long life happen. Most scientific studies also state some obvious and undeniable facts that help you live longer, like exercise, diet, and not smoking.
Almost all of us want to live long lives. It’s not easy to copy the lifestyles and diet of Blue Zone citizens. But it’s possible. You might be continuously bombarded with hypnosis from processed foods and persistently yearning sweets that elicit that addicting sugar rush. One thing we know for sure is not to do anything drastic to change the way you eat and live. Do it gradually and set realistic goals. You might not live as old as some buildings or experience two pandemics in a lifetime, but enjoying life to the fullest as a super senior (or as long as you can) is, in fact, amazing and fulfilling in itself.