Successful Aging: How to live to be 100
I felt light and energetic as I read Dan Buettner’s description of meeting Tomás Castillo in Nicoya, Costa Rica. Tommy, as his friends call him, took Buettner on an early morning bike ride through his village of Hojancha, stopping at the town square and continuing through the hilly countryside. The pair met Tommy’s mother, Panchita, who hugged Buettner and was openly excited about having a “foreign visitor.”
Buettner’s day with Tommy and Panchita is one story in his book, “The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.” I pictured Tommy as a man in his 40s, maybe 50s, with a youthful zest for life. I expected his spry mother to be an example of someone doing quite well in her 70s or 80s. So I gasped a little when I learned that Tommy was an 80-year-old great-grandfather and Panchita had recently celebrated her 100th birthday.
Beginnings and 5 Zones
The Blue Zones idea began in 2000, when Buettner, who had been leading interactive “Quests” into the world’s great questions for over a decade, visited Okinawa to study human longevity.
Population studies reported that Okinawans lived an average of seven years longer – and reached the age of 100 at a rate up to three times higher – than people in the U.S. Their additional years were generally good ones, with much lower rates of heart disease, dementia, and breast and prostate cancer than Americans experienced.
Buettner led a team of photographers and writers that, with the help of an online audience, identified scientists, shamans and Okinawan citizens to interview. The project found health to be a cornerstone of their culture and prevention to be a more honored medical practice than treatment. A majority of residents ate a simple plant-based diet and got plenty of exercise in their daily lives. “But their real secret to longevity,” Buettner wrote, “lies in their dedication to friends and family and in having a strong sense of meaning in life.”
Five years later, in 2005, Buettner published a National Geographic cover story about Okinawa and two other areas that demographers identified as Blue Zones: Sardinia, Italy, and Loma Linda, California.
The same year, he and another team of experts began a project to learn more about the residents in these pockets of longevity. The project included Ikaria, Greece and Nicoya, Costa Rica, and identified lifestyle habits common to all five Blue Zones.
But what about genetics? Sardinia is the only Blue Zone in which it plays a stronger than average role. The M26 marker, associated with longevity, occurs at a higher rate among Sardinians than in other populations, and the trait has remained relatively undiluted because of geographic isolation. Blue Zones researchers, though, learned that most Sardinians are active, devote time and energy to family and friends, laugh a lot and get plenty of antioxidants in their traditional Mediterranean diet. They are convinced that these lifestyle factors are more important than genetic luck.
Hard scientific data is the foundation of Blue Zones research, but the project’s books and website are full of stories about the real people behind the data. These stories can inspire us to apply Blue Zone principles, summarized as the “Power 9,” in our own lives.
A few examples:
1. Move naturally. Most of the world’s longest-lived people do not engage in programmed exercise. Rather, they live in environments that encourage them to be active in their daily lives.
2. Have a purpose. Knowing why we wake up in the morning and looking forward to each day can add seven years to our lives. Nicoyans call this sense of purpose “plan de vida.”
3. Eat a plant-based diet. Blue Zone people, especially those who make it to age 100, eat meat no more than four or five times per month and many are vegetarian or vegan.
4. Belong. Loma Linda, California, where a third of the residents are Seventh-day Adventists, illustrates this principle. Health is a central tenet of the Adventists’ religion and adherents eat little or no meat, avoid alcohol and caffeine, and get plenty of exercise. The community supports healthy habits.
Connecting to something beyond self, whether through traditional religion, meditation or service to others, is important in all the Blue Zones. This focus also helps relieve stress, which can lead to chronic inflammation, a factor in every age-related disease.
See the Blue Zones website for the complete Power 9 and more.
Can other communities become Blue Zones? In 2008, Blue Zones teams joined with AARP and the United Health Foundation to take the Power 9 principles to Albert Lea, Minnesota, a statistically average American city. After one year, participants “added an estimated 2.9 years to their average lifespan while health-care claims for city workers dropped 49 percent.”
Since that pilot project, the Blue Zones mission to help people live longer, healthier, happier lives has extended to communities and businesses across the United States.
Can our valleys, Parachute to Aspen, be next?
Angelyn Frankenberg is a wellness coach and writer living in Carbondale. She has a master’s in physical education and an undergraduate degree in music. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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