Do you dream of living a long and healthy life, free of chronic disease and ailments? It can be your reality. In fact, it is real life in “Blue Zone” regions of the world. They’re parts of the world where people know the secret to healthy aging. Living to 100 is common in these remote parts of the world, and one American city. So, what do they know that the rest of the world doesn’t? Let’s explore the research-backed secrets to aging gracefully.
Healthy aging around the world
Despite groundbreaking and cutting-edge health care and technology in the United States, people don’t live as long as they do in other countries. The average life expectancy is higher in Japan (84.2) than in the United States (78.6).
In America, advances in healthcare do not lead to increased longevity and fewer health concerns. So, what does improve your odds of aging gracefully?
Have you ever heard of a “Blue Zone”? These are parts of the world where people live longer and healthier lives. Instead of living to 80, people live to 100 without chronic disease. The rate of reaching this age is ten times greater in these regions of the world than in the United States.
The Blue Zone regions include islands in Greece and Japan, a region of Italy, a small city in California, and the peninsula of Costa Rica.
The lifestyles of mountain villagers, Seventh-day Adventists, and islanders are all different. They each have their go-to recipe for longevity. However, researchers found a few lifestyle traits that these three communities have in common and published their findings in National Geographic in 2005. These include:
- No smoking
- Putting family first
- Physical activity every day
- Social engagement
- Eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
Some of the unique community traits include faith, eating nuts and beans, drinking red wine in moderation, sharing the work burden with a spouse, eating foods rich in Omega-3, small portions, finding purpose, and keeping lifelong friends.
What is a Blue Zone?
This discovery of Blue Zone regions started as a National Geographic expedition, led by Dan Buettner. Their goal was to uncover the secrets of longevity. They discovered those secrets plus five regions of the world where there’s a high concentration of people living healthy lives until age 100.
This talk of living to 100 is not just for people living in remote areas of the world.
Buettner took the concept of living a long and healthy life to middle America – Spencer, Iowa, where meat is a staple of life. The city manager’s kidneys were failing, and he took some medications. By following a plant-based diet and several other lifestyle changes, his body healed, and evidence of his kidney disease reportedly disappeared in six months.
This idea spread to city employees, and in one year, the cost of healthcare reportedly dropped by 25 percent.
The Blue Zones Project® focuses on transforming how communities operate, with a strong focus on policies that make overall well-being a priority.
It takes a village sometimes, and these projects focus on the village that makes up a community. There’s a focus on work environments, schools, grocery stores, restaurants, community amenities, faith, and helping individuals find purpose in life.
It can be challenging to change the culture where you live. However, you can make a difference in your own life today by following some of the healthy aging principles in your own life.
You may be thinking, “But I have bad genes, so this is all just a dream.” A Danish twin study found genes are only responsible for 20 percent of how long we live. The rest is your lifestyle.
So, you can make a difference in how you feel even later in life.
Secrets to living a long life
Researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and scientists came up with nine principles of the Blue Zone culture. They call this Power 9®:
- Move naturally
- 80 percent full rule for eating
- Plant slant
- Right tribe
- Loved ones first
While these are specific habits, they all fit into five themes: optimism, exercise, nutrition, social support, and stress management. That’s what I focus on in my workshop, “The Art and Science of Healthy Aging.” My co-creator and I also add a sixth focus. That’s sleep. It’s also important to living a long and prosperous life.
The original scientists and researchers also stressed faith, keeping lifelong friends, and sharing the work burden with a spouse.
No matter what’s on your list, it’s possible to live to 100 if you focus on healthy lifestyle habits that enrich the mind, body, and soul.
First, identify your purpose in life. That is a strong character trait in centenarians who live in a Blue Zone.
Okinawans refer to purpose as “ikigai,” and the Nicoyans in Costa Rica call it “plan de vida”. What drives you to get out of bed each day, and makes you feel fulfilled? Find ways to do those things more often.
Studies back up what Blue Zone researchers discovered. A 2019 JAMA Network Open study followed adults for four years, mostly women. The study found adults over the age of 50 who had a high “life purpose” ranking were less likely to die during the four year study period. Researchers found low purpose in life was significantly associated with death.
The study authors used this definition of purpose – “’a self-organizing life aim that stimulates goals’ promotes healthy behaviors, and gives meaning to life.”
Why does purpose help you live longer? It’s thought that purpose helps drive healthy well-being behaviors that lower inflammation in the body from cortisol, which increases during times of stress and lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines.
How to find your purpose in life
Finding your purpose may also help slow down your life, so you’re not as stressed and running from one task to another. It’ll force you to focus on being instead of doing. Listen more, do one thing at a time, and find your one thing.
Reflect on your journal. Is there one thing that stands out that makes you happy every day? Perhaps it’s your family, your faith, your friends, or your health. Find that one thing and prioritize it every day.
If you’re not sure what that purpose is, try these exercises to find happiness every day. While we’re trying to avoid the end of our life, the first exercise will take you there for a brief moment. Of course, there’s a purpose, though.
NYT mega-bestselling author and small business guru, Michael Gerber, asks you to imagine what you want people to say about you at your funeral. When you’re gone from Earth, how do you want people to remember you? Are you making the things you want to be remembered for every day a focus every day?
Then ask yourself, what makes you smile?
Your answers should bring your purpose into focus. Now, make it a priority every day, and you’re on the way to aging gracefully.
While it should be personal, you may also find your purpose aligns with that of your “tribe” or social network. Lean on them for support to follow your heart every day.
Of course, work helps you pay your bills and supports your passions. However, it shouldn’t consume your life. Going to work should not be the only reason you get out of bed in the morning.
In the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, Buettner wrote that an Okinawa centenarian said it’s like “jumping into heaven” when holding a great-grandchild. That’s their purpose. To be there for future generations to celebrate their success and share their wisdom.
So, what’s your purpose?
If you don’t have one yet, try volunteering or meditation. The JAMA study found volunteering, Well-Being Therapy©, and meditation improved purpose and quality of life, along with specific health outcomes.
Ask yourself, are you working toward your purpose every day? Or is your day filled with unrelated tasks. Living a life of purpose will also keep you moving!
Move more! It doesn’t have to be a chore or a strict exercise routine. If you incorporate movement into everything you do during the day, you’ll likely meet or exceed exercise recommendations.
It’s recommended that you exercise at least 150 minutes a week, plus do two days of muscle-strengthening exercises.
However, the chance of reaching this goal decreases with age. According to the CDC, one in two women and one in three men no longer exercise by age 75.
Why is exercise so important? It helps:
- build strength to reduce the risk of falling and breaking a bone
- lower the risk of developing colon cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes
- reduce your blood pressure if you’re already experiencing hypertension
- reduce the risk of coronary heart disease
- lower stress
- improve your mood
- reduce pain associated with arthritis
When exercise is boring to you, you’re more likely to stop this healthy habit. So, find your accountability partner. Perhaps it’s someone to encourage and motivate you when you don’t feel like exercising.
Add variety to your routine by walking, dancing, taking a Pilates or Yoga class, or swimming.
These are ten great exercises for menopausal women. They work the trouble spots, like your midsection, and improve flexibility and strength.
In regions of the world where people live the longest, they walk everywhere, including the store. And, they often move while gardening.
A recent study from Washington State University found walkable neighborhoods contribute to one’s likelihood of reaching centenarian status, among several other factors, including your environment, socioeconomic status, and education. Why? Usually, a walkable neighborhood has greater access to public transportation, healthy food, and healthcare. Plus, you walk everywhere rather than taking your car to the store down the road.
That may not be possible in every city in the United States but think about ways you can move more each day.
Under-eat rather than overeat
Exercise is one way to maintain a healthy weight, but it’s just one part of the equation. Nutrition also matters.
There’s lots of conflicting research on the best nutrition plan and whether you should drink alcohol or skip it. There’s also variety in the go-to nutrition plan for areas of the world with the highest concentration of centenarians. They eat plant-based foods or a vegan or Mediterranean diet. Fast food and fried foods are not on the menu. The staples are fresh leafy vegetables and fruit, beans, legumes, nuts, and lentils and very little meat, if any.
Many of these foods are also staples for menopausal women looking for the right combination of nutrients to manage and control their symptoms. Get an easy-to-follow shopping list designed for a menopausal woman.
No matter what you eat, focus on your portions. The average meal in the United States continues to get bigger, exceeding most portion-sized recommendations.
World-renowned centenarians focus on a deck of cards.
Next, look to the 80 percent rule out of Okinawa, Japan. They say a 2500-year old Confucian mantra before eating that reminds them to stop eating when they feel 80 percent full.
People eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and don’t eat again until morning.
Following these two principles could make a dramatic change in your overall well-being.
Alcohol consumption as you age
Excessive drinking is not just a young person’s problem. It causes more than 21,000 deaths among adults aged 65 and older every year in the United States.
It also can cause your overall health to deteriorate. Excessive drinking puts you at greater risk for high blood pressure, liver disease, certain cancers, heart disease, stroke, and other chronic health problems.
Despite the numbers and risks in the U.S., moderate drinking is a lifestyle of highly-concentrated centenarian regions. Wine is typically the go-to drink due to the high levels of antioxidants and polyphenols. Buettner found it’s more common to drink wine with dinner than water because it triples the flavonoid absorption.
Buettner’s team prioritizes wine in American Blue Zones®, encouraging drinking at 5 P.M. with friends.
Consult your doctor and identify potential risks in your particular situation. For menopausal women, learn the facts about alcohol and the increased risks and potential benefits of light drinking.
How to downshift
Exercise, having a drink with friends, and focusing on your purpose in life can help you achieve the next concept, too – downshifting. That’s a way to free your mind of negative thoughts and everyday stress.
Chronic stress is unhealthy as it leads to inflammation in the body. It increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar. It can even change the size of your brain, lower your immune system, and slow down your gastrointestinal system.
That’s just the start of the snowball effect. How well do you sleep when you’re stressed? Do you eat more or have more cravings? These are all normal body reactions.
Imagine over time the impact on your health, especially as you get older. What you do in your younger years can impact you later in life if you do damage that you can’t reverse.
So it would be best if you found ways to manage stress before it controls your life.
Plus, small steps you can take to change your life each month.
Naps, happy hour, praying, and remembering ancestors are ideas from the Blue Zone.
Start downshifting now by coming along on a journey of life.
Friends are some of the best medicine in life. Sociologists from the University of North Carolina found social connections are as meaningful as physical activity and healthy eating throughout our lives.
That social connection is a tremendous stress-busting tool. Also, friendship can improve your happiness and self-confidence. It can help you stay motivated to exercise and eat healthy.
Almost everything circles back to your friends.
In the designated Blue Zone regions, social networks are the fabric of their culture. In Japan, it’s called a “moai” or a group of lifelong friends.
When you’re young, your parents put you into a moai. Several women interviewed by Buettner were in the same social network for 98 years. They’ve committed their lives to each other for nearly a century.
It’s not just an occasional check-in to see how old friends are doing. These friends age together and engage in activities weekly, if not daily.
It prevents loneliness as a big problem as people age.
Buettner found loneliness takes eight years off your life in Okinawa, Japan.
And according to the American Psychological Association and analysis by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, the health risks of social isolation and loneliness are (1) as high as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder and (2) twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.
Belonging and believing in faith
Faith is also essential. In Buettner’s interviews of 263 centenarians, all but five belonged to a faith-based community. Attending a faith-based service four times a month added four to 14 years of life expectancy.
Faith gives you hope, a sense of belonging, a group of like-minded individuals, and purpose in life. It can also relieve stress and comfort you in times of despair. Spirituality can center your thoughts and mind while providing hope.
Loved ones first
Finally, hold your loved ones near and dear to your heart.
If there’s one thing the social isolation of COVID-19 has taught the world, it’s the value of slowing life down and focusing on your family (and friends). For perhaps the first time in a long time, some American families eat dinner together rather than racing from one activity to another.
While life returned to normal for some after the lockdowns ended, the precious family time is one of the blessings that came out of the pandemic.
It’s added a new layer of stress to life with remote work and virtual schooling, but there’s also the extra time you have at home with the ones who matter most rather than in your car commuting to work or driving your child to another practice or event.
Focusing on building strong family connections and moving forward if there’s a disagreement is just as important as finding the right tribe.
Before you pack your bags and move to one of the community-focused healthy cities, there’s a lot of lifestyle habits you can incorporate into your life on your own so you too can experience healthy aging.
Focus on successfully incorporating one new healthy lifestyle at a time into your life. Set a goal that you can accomplish in 30 days, and hold yourself accountable. Perhaps find an accountability partner.
Make small changes in your life, and you’ll be on the path to improving your overall health and well-being!
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