Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Want To Live To Be 100? Dan Buettner's "Blue Zones" Shares The Secrets Of Some Of The Longest Living People On Earth

How to live a long and productive life.

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Blue Zones
Want to live 100+ healthy and productive years? The Blue Zones, by Dan Buettner, gives you insight into how pockets of people around the world have done just that. The four Blue Zones described in the book have an unusually high concentration of centenarians (someone who reaches the age of 100 or older). Buettner visits these Blue Zones - Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, and interviews some of the longest living people on earth. The interviews uncover some secrets to living a long and productive life - some of which are useful and some that are not (I don't plan on walking 5 miles a day herding sheep any time soon). He and his team collect extensive data and then try to find a common thread to help us find the key to longevity. Here's some of what he learned:

Sardinia, Italy
The centenarians in this Italian city eat mostly a plant based diet consisting of fruits, garden vegetables, whole grain bread, beans, pecorino cheese made from grass-fed sheep, goats milk and a small amount of meat. They also enjoy a daily glass or two of a deep, red wine made from Cannonau grapes.
The Sardinian shepherds walk about 5 miles a day. 
With respect to relationships, the family is extremely important to Sardinians. Grandparents have a  key role  which gives them a sense of purpose. Friends also play a key role and men are found laughing together in the streets each afternoon displaying their sense of humor which is very typical in Sardinia.

Okinawa, Japan 
These Japanese centenarians also eat a plant-centric diet with lots of stir-fried vegetables, tofu, sweet potatoes and bitter melon. They occasionally eat small amounts of pork. They typically have a vegetable garden as well as a medicinal garden containing herbs such as mugwort, ginger and turmeric.
My favorite thing they do is they say "Hara hachi bu" before each meal. It means "Eat until you are 80 percent full." Most of us eat way past that point! (Doug and I started saying that before our meals.)
Besides the exercise Okinawans get from gardening, they also are avid walkers. Walking and gardening outdoors also exposes them to the sun which gives them a high concentration of vitamin D. Okinawans also sit on tatami mats on the floor rather than chairs and couches. The activity of getting up and down off of the floor many times a day contributes to the development of their lower body strength and balance. 
Friendships are key to these centenarians. They meet daily with their "moai", lifelong friends that provide their social network. They also have a keen sense of purpose and have a reason for waking up each morning. They live in the present and enjoy today's simple pleasures rather than dwell on past tragedies. 

Loma Linda, California
Loma Linda is home to 9,000 Seventh-day Adventists, a faith that endorses healthy living. In fact, much detailed nutritional data about health and longevity has come from studying this group of people.
Many Adventists are vegetarians although some eat meat in moderation. The Adventist centenarians tend to eat their biggest meals early in the day and a light meal for dinner. They enjoy lots of fruits, vegetables and nuts and drink lots of water.
They exercise regularly but focus on moderate, not extreme, exercises. They maintain a healthy body mass index throughout their lives.
Adventists tend to spend time with other Adventists who share their health goals - this makes it easier to maintain their good diet and exercise habits. It also gives them a strong sense of community.
Their weekly 24-hour Sabbath allows Adventists to get away from daily routines and focus on  family, friends, God and nature.
The Adventist Church provides many opportunities for members to volunteer throughout their lifetime. This gives many of their centenarians a strong sense of purpose.

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
The Nicoya's diet is centered around beans and corn tortillas, tropical fresh fruit like sweet lemons, oranges and bananas. They eat a very light dinner and drink lots of hard water, rich in calcium. That, together with lots of sunshine, gives them strong bones and fewer bone fractures. They get their exercise from everyday chores.
These Centenarians live with their families and play an important role with their children and grand children. They have a strong sense of purpose and feel needed.
The Nicoyan centenarians also maintain a strong social network and enjoy their friends and neighbors with whom they visit frequently. 

Lessons Learned
What can we learn from this? Can we take some lessons from these healthy centenarians and apply it to ourselves? What do they have in common?

They all eat very natural diets and don't consume processed foods. All of them eat mostly plant-based diets, and those who eat meat do so in moderation. Actually, they eat most everything in moderation and maintain a consistent weight throughout their lives. But there are no magic foods and no big surprises in their diets. 

Ditto on exercise. They are all very active. No couch potatoes here. Many move in the natural course of living - herding sheep, walking to town, getting up from their tatami mats. Except for the folks in Loma Linda, most exercise is not done in the gym or on a treadmill.

We have control of our diet and exercise and certainly have the ability to mimic these healthy lifestyles in these two areas. But what about the other characteristics like family, community and sense of purpose?

I think the most enlightening trait that stands out to me is the strong sense of community among these centenarians. They are all part of a tight-knit community and have close friends whom they socialized with regularly. After all, they don't move around like many of us do. They live in the same town their entire lives. I can't name 3 people I went to high school with!
They also live near or with their families and have a key role in the family structure. They all live purposeful lives and have a reason to wake up each day. 

This is a bit disturbing since so many people today live apart from their families. Parents rarely get to live with their children in their old age and have to resort to assisted living facilities where their diet is institutionalized and they lose their life purpose. 
The lesson to be learned here is if you are not near family, create one. Get involved in a community of like-minded people and create relationships and friendships. Most of all, find a purpose for your life - one that you can articulate. One you can be passionate about.

Snooze Alert
Although there are some very interesting stories and lots of good information throughout this book, it is definitely not a page turner so you may only be able to read about 20 to 30 pages at a time before you get sleepy. But it certainly will inspire you to eat better, get off the couch and think about your relationships and life purpose. 


Fiona said...

Hi Dr. Williams,

I recently found your blog after doing an online search for recipes with tomato and basil. (I ended up making your vegan manicotti recipe, which I loved since it was fun using tofu in place of ricotta).

Anyway, I wanted to comment on this post as I had a shock of recognition after realizing what you were writing about. I was lucky enough to see Dan Buettner give a presentation about his Blue Zone research, and it was fascinating! He is a very engaging speaker and the topic matter is quite interesting. Thanks for reminding me about this with your post. I'll have to pick up the book!

Take Care,

Dr. Joanne L. Mumola Williams said...

Hi Fiona,
How lucky to get to hear Dan Buettner speak. I would dearly love to meet some of the centenarians that he interviewed too!
Thanks for the comment,