“What’s the key to your 92 years?” I ask my dad. He smiles, and says “Diet and luck, exercise and luck, and a whole lotta luck.” Well it turns out that there’s quite a bit of truth to that. We’re not all going to live to a ripe old age. That’s the luck part. You get what you get, that’s your genetic lottery. Deal with it. That said, there are things you can do to positively influence your longevity – and not just how many years you live, but the quality of life in those years. By this, I include having and maintaining a sharp mind, and maintaining the physical capacity to carry out your daily tasks with vigor and alertness, without undue fatigue, and still having the energy to enjoy your leisure-time interests. So what do you do to stack the deck in your favor? What are some habits promoting longevity you should adopt?
In 2009, a National Geographic writer and explorer named Dan Buettner gave a TED Talk that told of his research into a few places in the world where there’s a much higher than average set of people who live to be 100 years old, or older. That call these folks “centenarians,” or for those older that 100, “super centenarians.”
Dan and his colleagues call these places “Blue Zones.” In one, located in the mountains in Sardinia, Italy, there are 20 times more 100-year-olds then in the USA. Another Blue Zone in Okinawa, Japan, has people with the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. A third is located in Loma Linda, in Southern California, and another in the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, where people live 10 years longer than average and have one sixth the rate of cardiovascular disease and a fifth the rate of major cancers than in the USA.
So what can we learn from looking at the habits consistent in all the Blue Zones? Well, it’s surprisingly simple common-sense habits incorporated into daily routines. Habits you and I can adopt – that is, if we want to stack the deck in our favor, to live the highest quality of life, for the greatest number of years.
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9 Habits Promoting Longevity
1. Move naturally. This isn’t “exercise” in the sense most people think about it. It’s simply maintaining an active lifestyle. That means moving around, walking, gardening, etc. as part of your regular daily habits. The trick is to identify activities you enjoy and make them a part of your day. Walking is a real key: nearly all the centenarians interviewed take a walk every day. And by the way, walking is clinically proven to reduce cognitive decline, so if you walk more, you’re more likely to stay mentally sharp. (1,2,3)
And folks, this isn’t hard to do. Walk around the block, like my dad. Park far away from the store, or walk to it instead. Lose the remote control, and get up off your keister to change the channel. Other activities work too – buy a bike, rake the leaves, mow your own lawn…
One extra note: nearly all the centenarians that Dan interviewed had a garden.
2. Reduce your calories by 20%. Dan discovered that in Okinawa, the have a saying: “Hara hachi bi” that reminds them to stop eating when they are only 80% full. One way to achieve this is to use smaller plates, bowls and glasses. Don’t skimp on water. Eat enough, not too much (4). Eating slowly also helps (5).
3. Eat a plant-based diet. This doesn’t mean you need to become a vegetarian, but you do need to change the proportions of the food you eat. So it’s simple. Eat whole unprocessed foods. Not too much. Mostly plants. Nuts are good for you also, but limit to 2 ounces per day.
4. Drink red wine (in moderation). Not more than 2 servings per day. Numerous studies point to the health benefits of the moderate consumption of red wine (6).
5. Have a reason to get up in the morning. This can be anything from spending time with your kids or grandkids, to planning your next travelling adventure, to volunteering, or learning a new language or instrument. Interesting to note: the 2 years in life where most people die include the year you're born, because of infant mortality, and the year you retire, because of loss of purpose.
Don’t have a purpose? Refer to Number 1: plant a garden.
6. Relieve stress. Relaxation is key. Stress triggers the inflammatory response, which is associated with chronic diseases including Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease. Slowing down each day reverses that inflammatory state. So relax – it literally has life saving effects.
7. Engage in a faith-based community. Faith, or spirituality, is key factor of support, an important resource in late life, and maintains continuity over the course of life for centenarians. Additionally, spirituality is an important part of the everyday lives of centenarians, and provides a framework for making sense of having lived a very long life. This increases your life expectancy by as much as 14 years, when practiced 4+ times per month.
8. Put loved ones first. Make your family or loved ones a priority. Create a place for family pictures and souvenirs that shows how you’re all connected. Lose the laptops that promote isolation, and spend time together!
9. Connect. Surround yourself with the right people. The adage is “you become like the people you spend most of your time with. Choose wisely.” So choose people who are active, drink a little but not too much, are trusting and trustworthy. The people surrounding you influence your health more than almost any other factor.
This may look simple, but it’s not necessarily easy. Adopting any new habit or behavior takes time. Don’t try to change all these behaviors at once. Pick one habit, master it, and move on, till all 9 habits are a part of your life. The good news is, that if you adopt these habits, you’ll have a long time to enjoy them!