In one of my amazing classes through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition® last week, Dan Buettner gave a talk on how to live longer. I snuggled up on the couch with some tea, ready to listen to another expert talk about adding more vegetables, drinking more water, etc. (The lectures are never boring, but draw many of the same conclusions 🙂 . However, this lecture stood out to me because he actually can tell you how long you are supposed to live based on your habits. That really makes you sit up and take notice. Let me back up and give you some background of how he has been able to figure this out.
Buettner was given a grant by National Geographic to identify communities around the world where people live measurably longer (and better). (Life expectancy of an American born today averages 78.2 years.) They targeted areas where people reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the U.S., giving them the name “Blue Zones”:
- Ikaria, Greece – people here live eight years longer than the average American, experience 20% less cancer, half the rate of heart disease, and nearly no dementia.
- Loma Linda, California – the Adventist community here outlives the average American by nearly a decade.
- Sardinia, Italy – more male centenarians than anywhere else in the world.
- Okinawa, Japan – originally referred to as the “land of immortals,” home to the world’s longest-lived woman (115 years).
- Nicoya, Costa Rica – more than twice as likely as the average American to reach a healthy age 90.
After identifying five of the world’s Blue Zones, teams of scientists studied each location to identify lifestyle characteristics that might explain longevity. They found that the lifestyles of all Blue Zones residents shared nine specific characteristics:
1. Move Naturally. The world’s longest-lived people live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They walk outside daily, grow gardens, perform manual labor, and in many cases go without mechanical conveniences for house and yard work. What you can do:
- Walk more when possible. Take the stairs. Park further away from the grocery store. Get those steps in! Get yourself a step counter and go for those 10,000 steps per day!
- Find activity that you like to do. Walk your dog. Do yoga. Hike. Ski. Whatever gets you moving that you don’t consider a chore to fit in your life.
2. Purpose. Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy. What you can do:
- Do a job that makes you feel important. Many older people in the Blue Zones don’t consider themselves retired. Some other cultures don’t even have a word for retirement! Even if they are no longer working for money, their job is to take care of their family, love their grandchildren, etc.
- Volunteer in your community. Giving back is beneficial to you, too!
3. Down Shift. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour. What you can do:
- Find a way to decompress that works for you. Meditate. Go for a walk. Play your favorite sport. Meet up with friends after work. Do something to blow off that steam!
4. 80% Rule. “Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day. What you can do:
- Eat smaller meals more frequently throughout the day. This way you aren’t starving by the time you get to your next meal, which often leads to over-eating.
- Eat when you are hungry, and stop before you are full.
- Set up your food buffet-style on your counter instead of family-style at the table. Go through to take your food once, and leave the rest for left-overs.
- Try eating a larger breakfast, medium lunch, and small dinner. You need more energy throughout your day, rather than in the late evenings. Also including protein and healthy fats in your meals will help you stay full longer.
- After eating a small amount, wait 15 minutes. If you are still hungry, then eat some more.
5. Plant Slant. Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of deck or cards. What you can do:
- Cut back on the amount of meat you eat. Instead of 6-8 oz per day or per meal, try cutting back to the 3-4 oz size.
- Incorporate different types of protein in your diet. There are many other sources of protein (beans, nuts, dairy, grains, some vegetables). Try them out and note how you feel.
- If you eat meat daily, try incorporating Meat-Free Mondays into your regiment.
- For some great vegetarian recipes, try OhMyVeggies.com.
6. Wine. People in all Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all weekend and have 14 drinks on Saturday. What you can do:
- Obviously if alcohol is a problem for you or you don’t like alcohol – skip this suggestion.
- Remember that if you are trying to lose weight, this technique may not help in that venture.
- Try to incorporate the wine into social situations or with dinner. Sitting in front of the TV with a bottle isn’t going to do you much good.
7. Belong. All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy. What to do:
- Find a community that fits with your beliefs.
- Even if you aren’t religious, finding a group to meet with that believes in a similar purpose (volunteering, discussion, class, even a book club) will help.
8. Put Loved Ones First. Keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home actually lowers disease and mortality rates of children. Centenarians also commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (they’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes). What to do:
- Keep your family or beloved friends close by. Invest in your relationships.
9. Right Tribe. Surround yourself by healthy people. Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors. What to do:
- Join a gym, group fitness class, cooking class, hiking group… some group that gets you excited about being healthy. Being around people who are interested in their own health will rub off on you as well! Check out Meetup.com for some groups in your area.
- Have a friend who loves to cook, is always up for a walk, is positive and happy-go-lucky? Maybe make a few more friend dates with that person rather than your friend who smokes, eats fast-food every meal, and complains all the time.
So.. what if these characteristics were applied to cities and/or states in the U.S.? Could it help the citizens live longer? Albert Lea, Minn., was up to the challenge. Buettner and his team worked with the city to develop these traits and observe transformation. After just one year, participants added an estimated 2.9 years to their average lifespan while healthcare claims for city worker dropped 49 percent.
That caught the eye of many media outlets. Soon Beach Cities in Los Angeles, Calif. joined, and in three years they were able to reduce obesity by 14 percent and smoking by 30 percent. Iowa joined in with a goal to become the healthiest state by 2016. Cedar Falls, Iowa has already been recognized as one of the healthiest cities in the U.S. Other cities that have recently joined the initiative include Hawaii, Oregon, Texas, and Naples, Florida.
How can we get Washington signed up?
Anywho, there is some background and exciting projects in the works. The tool that I found most interesting is the survey you can take to find out:
- Biological age.
- Overall life expectancy.
- Healthy life expectancy.
- Years you are gaining or losing because of your habits.
Buettner said that since he and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health developed this survey, it has shown to be accurate within 10 percent of the outcome they calculate. It will give you suggestions to how you can add days/years to your life, and you can choose a couple of those suggestions to implement in a six-week “Vitality Coaching” program. Basically what that means is you will get daily emails asking if you implemented a certain goal, and depending on the answer you give, you may or may not add some time to your clock. By the end of six weeks, it lets you know how many days you’ve added to your life from implementing healthier habits.
My challenge to you is to take the survey, post below what you found out and what changes you will make to add time to your life. Even if you don’t opt into the coaching – at least start implementing changes here and there!
Here is what I got:
I’m feeling OK about it – but definitely have some room for improvement. I’ll be working on making sure to get all my fruits and veggies in daily, and finding ways to be active every day, rather than relying solely on my time at the gym. I want to live past 100!
What did you guys get? How are you going to work on adding to your time?
Dan Buettner. “Understand the Blue Zones.” Institute for Integrative Nutrition®. Recorded class listened to on Nov. 15, 2015.
“About Blue Zones.” Blue Zones. Retrieved Nov. 19, 2015 from https://www.bluezones.com/.