To locate the first known seekers of longevity we’d have to travel to ancient Ethiopia, where the Greek historian Herodotus informs us existed a very special kind of water that could prolong life. Even Alexander the Great was said to have journeyed there in search of perpetual youth.
As provocative legends tend to do, this one made it around the world, pausing for a time to inform Middle Eastern fables before moving on to Europe during the Age of Exploration. Finally, it ended up in none other than Florida, where the 16th century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon is said to have ventured in search of healing waters.
Today, the Fountain of Youth National Archaeological Park in St. Augustine, Florida celebrates Spanish heritage and even allows tourists to drink from a fountain on the grounds. So far no one has gotten any younger, but tourists love the gimmick.
And the search goes on as if it were our greatest religion, the quest for longer life. We all want to know how to achieve it.
Toward the same end, some modern researchers seem to be asking much better questions. Among these is former National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner. His book, The Blue Zones, is the culmination of a project that began in 2000 and included a 2005 National Geographic cover story, “The Secrets of Living Longer.”
Buettner seems to have stopped the fantasizing about some perpetual youth “over there” and begun to ask more pragmatic questions.
What if you could add 10 years – 10 good years – to your life?
And better yet: Who already lives longer than expected? What do they do differently than everyone else?
The several years long, institutionally funded research project revealed the blue zones, four areas in the world where people tend to live healthier and longer, with (this is worth pondering) three times the chance of reaching 100 than we have in America at large. The four blue zones are: Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica, and Loma Linda in California (largely Seventh Day Adventist).
Buettner boils down nine principles for longer, healthier, happier living that are shared by blue zone centenarians.
What follows is a brief summary of his Power 9, in no particular order.
Eat 20% less. Okinawan blue zone residents use nine-inch plates when eating (it is proven that when we eat out of smaller containers, we consume less) and make a habit of stopping a little earlier than we do. Americans are trained to eat until we are “full.” Okinawans are trained to eat until they are “no longer hungry.” Consider the impact this shift in perspective might have on your eating habits.
Eat more plants and cut back on processed foods. Beans, whole grains and garden vegetables are the diet that leads to a long, healthy life, according to Buettner. In Okinawa, Sardinia and Nicoya, residents don’t have as much access to processed snacks and animal products, so they naturally eat less. Strict Adventists in Loma Linda are vegetarian and faithfully heed the Biblical decree to consume primarily seed bearing plants and fruit.
Drink moderate amounts of alcohol. Although some Japanese centenarians swear by their daily dose of sake, Buettner recommends Sardinian red wine. This vintage has the highest concentration of antioxidants of all red wines, and many Sardinian centenarians consume it daily. Moderation is the key!
Find your purpose in life and live it. So many people can’t answer the simple question, “What do you want?” We tend to be driven by an ongoing series of demands that distracts us from a larger perspective. The blue zone elders tend to know their purpose or reason for getting out of bed each day. Often it is simple – to see the grandchildren another time, for example. Yet the certainty and fulfillment that comes from satisfying a purpose is believed to prolong life as much as a decade. If you have ever lived a dull, purposeless and stressful life, you may understand how this could be the case.
Have a spiritual practice and belong to a religious community. Across the board, the longest-lived people in the world belong to strong religious communities. The sense of faith and right conduct, the avoidance of harmful substances and the time set aside for community and reflection, if acted upon with sincerity, leads to more years on earth. Impressive scientific studies have established this fact and the blue zoners are no exception.
Slow down, work less, rest more. From afternoon siesta in Costa Rica to the Sabbath Day in Loma Linda, routine rest from the cares of daily living appears critical to longevity. Scientists are studying the link between regular rest and the reduction of chronic inflammation in the body, which may be the underlying cause of many life-threatening diseases.
Move your body naturally. The longest living people on earth are not marathon runners or fitness models. They rather engage in low intensity, natural exercise, such as the Sardinian sheepherders, who walk miles a day as part of their routine. Okinawans love to garden and Loma Linda’s Adventist community enjoys regular nature walks. These simple forms of activity are sustainable for the long haul.
Make family a priority. Close-knit families are a hallmark among the healthiest centenarians. Regular family meals, social time and close living arrangements are a priority. Elderly parents, without exception, live with their adult children and nursing homes are considered a near abomination. In one Costa Rican village, all 99 inhabitants are the descendents of one 85-year-old man. They all meet for regular meals and the patriarch’s grandchildren visit him daily to help around the house or enjoy a game of checkers.
Find the right tribe. Perhaps the most powerful phenomenon of all, the blue zone communities tend to be isolated from surrounding communities that do not share the same values. Individual members find unrivaled support in living according to principle, with less opportunity to diverge from tradition. The geographical isolation allows for deeper and more intimate social connections, which fosters more security, less stress, greater purpose and healthier habits.
The above may involve more and promise less than the dream of drinking from a magical fountain, but The Blue Zones offers evidence that our lifestyle choices have a profound effect on the quality and length of our lives. Buettner informs us that studies of twins in the Netherlands have revealed that lifestyle factors make up 75% of how long we live, leaving the remaining 25% to genetics. The choice is ours.