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“We can live a shorter life with more years of disability, or we can live the longest life with the fewest bad years….The choice is largely up to us.” Dan Buettner, THE BLUE ZONES: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (National Geographic, 2008)
Secrets of the Blue Zones
Where and Why People Live Long and Well
Dan Sawyer (who told me about the new hip-replacement procedure) told me about the Blue Zones. Who better than Dan to spread the word about Dan Buettner’s quest to locate and study the planet’s longest living people. Sawyer, who has been into exercise and healthy living for at least six decades, refuses to reveal how old he is; he’s afraid people will expect him to act his age. “I can’t help the numbers,” he says, “but I can negotiate the process.” That’s the essence of the Blue Zones--communities of people who are successfully negotiating the aging process.
Dan Buettner, an award-winning author and researcher, consulted demographers and scientists at the National Institute of Aging to identify four distinct areas where people live the longest and healthiest lives: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; and the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. He and his team then spent seven years traveling to each community to learn their secrets. The Blue Zones (National Geographic, 2008) is a concise and inspiring presentation of what was uncovered about how these people manage to live longer and better.
Facts on Aging
Buettner begins with a no-nonsense look at the realities of aging. Among other things, he says that aging can only be influenced in one direction. Aging can’t be stopped; we are all going to die. It can, however, be slowed or managed. “The name of the game is to keep from pushing the accelerator pedal so hard that we speed up the aging process,” Buettner relates. Unfortunately, the average American “pushes that accelerator too hard and too much."
The good news is that we have more control than we think. “Scientific studies suggest that only about 25 percent of how long we live is dictated by genes,” Buettner reports. “The other 75 percent is determined by our lifestyles and the everyday choices we make.” By working with, rather than against, our biology, “we could add at least ten good years and suffer a fraction of the diseases that kill us prematurely.”
Dan Sawyer is correct; we can negotiate the aging process. Legendary health and fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne, who will turn 95 in September (2009), is of like mind. In an interview by Dennis Hughes, Share Guide Publisher, he didn’t mince words: “Everything you do in life, I don’t care, good or bad—don’t blame God, don’t blame the devil, don’t blame me, blame you….The thoughts you think, the words you utter, the food you eat, the exercise you do. Everything is controlled by you.” (Maybe someday he’ll tell us what he really thinks.)
Jack walks his talk and has been far ahead of his time on many health issues. As we will see, lifestyle can have a powerful effect on how well and long we live. Before we look at the details, however, we should mention a few more basic facts, and a few things that have not lived up to their promise.
Buettner tells us that the odds of living to 100 are pretty slim, about one percent. It makes a difference, however, whether we’re talking about someone at birth, or someone who’s already made it to 80 in good health. “Most people who make it to be centenarians when you look back, they were quite healthy at 80,” one expert told Buettner. “The older you get, the healthier you’ve been.”
Dan Sawyer’s chances of making it to 100 are probably pretty good. Jack LaLanne? God only knows. “I can’t afford to die,” LaLanne told the interviewer. “It would be bad for my image.”
Buettner says aging is the gradual loss of physical capacities, losing the ability to do things you used to be able to do. Asked if he had modified his training regimen since he was younger, LaLanne said, “Absolutely not.” He doesn't think about age. “I think about TODAY.” In other words, he does the best he can every day, and lets tomorrow take care of itself. Can you think of a better way to keep aging at bay?
What haven’t worked so far are pills. “There are a lot of nostrums out there,” another expert on aging told Buettner. “None of them has been even close to rigorously tested, everything from human growth hormone to antioxidants. Every time anyone has studied them with any degree of rigor, they do not pan out.”
What does work is a healthy lifestyle.
Buettner’s longevity quest has uncovered nine lessons for living long and well. I’ll give a brief synopsis, and you can decide which ones to investigate in more depth and perhaps incorporate into your own lifestyle.
Nine Lessons from the Blue Zones
Buettner devotes chapters to each of the Blue Zones. Each location presents a different culture with its own unique path to longevity. He introduces captivating “longevity all-stars” in each community and explores the lifestyles, cultures, and traditions of the zones. He elucidates how each unique lifestyle appears to “add good years to the people’s lives.” You’ll enjoy and learn from each fascinating chapter.
The nine lessons outlined here are a distillation of the best practices from the four communities. These practices won’t guarantee a longer life, Buettner counsels, but adopting them “should stack the deck in your favor.” As Jack LaLanne’s wise words suggested earlier, the lessons encompass what you do, eat and think.
LESSON ONE: MOVE NATURALLY: The longevity all-stars make physical activity part of everyday living. They’re not likely to run marathons or lift weights, but they hike, garden, work, and stay active in other ways. They don’t think of it as exercise, they just do it naturally. Regularity is the key; doing it naturally makes it “sustainable.”
I often tell people the only exercise regimen that works is one you are willing and able to do, and keep doing. For Dan Sawyer, Jack LaLanne, and me that includes strength training, aerobic exercise, and balancing. Buettner says that’s ideal—if you can sustain it. For those who aren’t into formal exercise, “moving naturally” is the practical alternative. Find a physical activity you find useful and enjoy—and keep doing it. When you wear out the utility of that activity, find something else that serves and pleases you. “The name of the game here is sustaining the effort,” a longevity expert told Buettner.
LESSON TWO: HARA HACHI BU: Those who have read about life in Okinawa will be familiar with the Confucian-inspired adage hara hachi bu—a reminder to stop eating when your stomach is 80 percent full.
“While most Americans keep eating until their stomachs feel full, Okinawans stop as soon as they no longer feel hungry,” Buettner writes. This, he points out, is consistent with the “Mindless Eating” philosophy espoused by Professor Brian Wansink http://www.cbass.com/MindlessEating.htm . “There’s a significant calorie gap," Wansink observes, "between when an American says, ‘I’m full’ and an Okinawan says, ‘I’m no longer hungry.’”
“None of the centenarians we met were ever on a diet, and none of them were ever obese,” Buettner reports. People living in the Blue Zones seem to know instinctively that diets don’t work. “The trick to maintaining a healthy weight is to eat foods with low calorie density,” says Buettner. “Volume trumps calories,” as Wansink tells us—which brings us to the next lesson.
LESSON THREE: PLANT SLANT: Most of the centenarians studied never had the opportunity to get accustomed to processed foods. It simply wasn’t available for much of their lives. They ate produce from their garden or other unprocessed food; no high-density, junk food. Most avoided meat—except on special occasions. (The strict Adventists in Loma Linda, California avoid meat entirely.)
Long-lived people are not necessarily vegetarian, but they do eat mostly plant foods. If they eat meat, they do so sparingly.
“Beans, whole grains, and garden vegetables are the cornerstone of all these longevity diets,” Buettner relates. “Whole grains deliver fiber, antioxidants, potential anti-cancer agents (insoluble fiber), cholesterol reducers and clot blockers, plus essential minerals…Beans are an excellent nonanimal source of protein.” Nuts are also common in the longevity diets. “Nuts are perhaps the most impressive of all longevity foods,” one expert told Buettner.
Finally, Buettner suggests “a beautiful fruit bowl in the middle of your table…with a note that reads ‘Fill Me.’”
LESSON FOUR: GRAPES OF LIFE: A daily glass of red wine seems to have health benefits. “It does appear to reduce stress and the damaging effects of chronic inflammation,” Buettner reports. “Consistency and moderation are key.”
I often enjoy a small glass of wine, usually Cabernet Sauvignon, with my evening meal. Jack LaLanne does as well—always with food. Dan Sawyer will proudly tell you that he does not drink or smoke.
LESSON FIVE: PURPOSE NOW: Purpose and longevity go hand in hand. Buettner found that people with “a clear goal in life” tend to “live longer and be sharper” than those who don’t. “The strong sense of purpose possessed by older Okinawans may act as a buffer against stress and help reduce their chances of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and stroke,” he reports.
People who cultivate reasons to get up in the morning are likely to keep waking up. The fact that Jack LaLanne’s image--and his message--is bolstered by staying alive likely helps keep him with us.
On a more selfless level, there is the shining example of Henry Allingham, believed to be the world’s oldest man. The last surviving member of Britain’s original Royal Air Force, he found a mission late in life to propel him forward. He devoted his final years to reminding his countrymen of the sacrifice of the nine million soldiers killed in World War I. “I want everyone to know they died for us,” he told the Associated Press in December of last year. “We have to pray it never happens again.” Allingham died last month (July, 2009). He was 113.
LESSON SIX: DOWN SHIFT: “Take time to relieve stress,” Buettner advises. His longevity all-stars take time to smell the roses. “People who’ve made it to 100 seem to exude sublime serenity,” he reports.
Chronic stress engenders chronic inflammation, according to Buettner, which can cause the body to turn on itself. “Slowing life’s pace may help keep chronic inflammation in check, and theoretically, the related diseases [such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes] at bay,” he explains.
“Life is short. Don’t run so fast you miss it,” a wise 107-year-old lady told Buettner.
LESSON SEVEN: BELONG: “Healthy centenarians everywhere have faith,” Buettner reports. “The simple act of worship is one of those subtly powerful habits that seem to improve your chances of having more good years.”
Asked what he thinks about spirituality, Jack LaLanne responded forcefully and, I believe, persuasively: “Do you think that man could ever make a heart that is indestructible? Do you think that man could make a calculator like your brain? Do you think that man could ever make a machine that the only way you could hurt it is don’t use it? Could man make a machine that in every 90 days practically every cell changes? Think about this. You don’t have to call it God or Jesus. That’s religious humbug to a lot of people, but you’ve gotta believe that nature and spiritual things surround us. That’s what put us here! I thank the universe for that every day of my life.”
Buettner relates that “people who pay attention to their spiritual side have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, depression, stress, and suicide, and their immune systems seem to work better.” He offers the following rationale: “To a certain extent, adherence to a religion allows them to relinquish the stresses of everyday life to a higher power.”
LESSON EIGHT: LOVED ONES FIRST: Buettner tells us that most centenarians “make family a priority.” They marry, have children, and build their lives around that core, he says.
Everyone benefits. One of Buettner’s experts explained: “Parents that give you a sense of reality, of how to behave healthwise, offer a sense of goals and purpose, and then if you become ill, or problems emerge, that basic support of family becomes incredibly important.”
America is trending in the opposite direction, Buettner observes. Family members are so busy doing their own thing that we are losing a sense of connectedness. Longevity in the Blue Zones teaches that we should work on reversing that trend.
“Play with your children, nurture your marriage, and honor your parents,” Buettner counsels.
A photo taken by my grandfather of my father as a young boy straddling his bike in front of the family home in northeastern New Mexico hangs on the wall in my study. My grandmother had it on the dresser in her bedroom until she passed away in her sleep at 98. It gave her a sense of family and strength. It now does the same for me. Buettner calls it “we-ness.”
LESSON NINE: RIGHT TRIBE: “Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do to change your lifestyle for the better,” Buettner writes, is surround yourself with people “who share Blue Zone values.” That’s because “it’s much easier to adopt good habits when everyone around you is already practicing them.”
“I think a superior social support network is one of the reasons that women live long than men,” one expert told Buettner. “They have better and stronger systems of support than men, they’re more engaged with and helpful to each other, more willing and able to express feelings, including grief and anger, and other aspects of intimacy.”
You might say that’s what our website is about. It brings fitness- and health-minded people together to share knowledge and inspiration.
Let’s close with a first step you can take toward adopting the lessons from the Blue Zones.
Gauge Your Current Life Expectancy
I went to the Blue Zones website to get an idea of my life expectancy based on my current lifestyle and get personalized suggestions on how to add more healthy years to my life. (There is no charge for this service.) It took about five minutes to answer 35 questions and find out that my life expectancy is 98.6 years. That’s pretty good, because the system tops out at 100. I lost about two years because I don’t attend formal church services.
What I found most interesting is that none of the questions relate to heredity; nothing about how long members of my family lived, diseases they suffered, or their cause of death. Clearly, these scientists are serious when they say how long we live and how many healthy years we have “is largely up to us.”
To check out your own numbers, go to www.bluezones.com and click on “Vitality Compass.” In addition to Life Expectancy, you’ll learn your Biological Age, Disease Free Life Expectancy, and Accrued Years. Biological Age is your body’s age given your current habits. Disease Free Life Expectancy is years free of major disease. The last number is an estimate of the years you’ve gained/lost “due to your life habits.” (Mine was a plus 14.4 years.)
Whether or not you do the questionnaire, read The Blue Zones; it’s a wonderful, inspiring, hope-filled book. Reading it will make you feel empowered.
(You can read more about Dan Sawyer’s philosophy of healthy living in my book Great Expectations: http://www.cbass.com/GreatExpectations.htm . For the full interview with Jack LaLanne, go to: www.shareguide.com/LaLanne.html )
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