Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lessons From Centenarians: Ingredients For Living Beyond 100

I recently finished reading The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner.

This book documents the author's around-the-world search for the longest living people, which brought him to four longevity hot spots, places with a higher concentration of people living over the age of 100 then can be found anywhere else in the world.

These four longevity hot spots are:

1. Sardinia, Italy. The mountainous bargagia dwelling people on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, Italy.
2. Okinawa, Japan. The indigenous island dwellers of Okinawa, Japan.
3. Loma Linda, California. The Christian Seven Day Adventists community in Loma Linda, California.
4. Costa Rica. The indigenous Nicoya of Costa Rica in Central America.

What did all of these centenarians have in common? What common ingredients did they share that may have contributed to their long and healthy life?

In a nutshell, the most common ingredients for longevity shared by all the centenarians profiled were:

  • A lifetime of regular low impact physical activity
  • low calorie, nutrient dense, unprocessed meals, with minimal meat
  • simple back to the land, low stress, slow paced lifestyle
  • relatively clean environment, with minimal exposure to industrial pollution, or other man-made environmental toxins
  • mild weather climate, with an abundance of fresh air and sunshine
  • a close network of family, friends, and community
  • a community based on shared spiritual values
  • happiness and contentedness, frequent smiles and laughter
  • a strong sense of meaning and purpose to their lives

All but the most modern city dwellers of Loma Linda California, lived what you could call rural peasant lifestyles, living somewhat primitively, close to the land, with minimal modern technological conveniences or distractions.

All lived simple relaxed paced low stress lifestyles, were close with their families, had many friends, had a strong sense of cultural cohesion, and shared community values based on a common spirituality and culture.

All were happy, content, had a good sense of humor, smiling and laughing often, having a sense of purpose to their lives, and a reason to get out of bed in the morning and continue living.

The physical activity favored by all, were low impact exercises having utilitarian value, especially walking for transportation, housework, gardening, landscaping, chopping wood, tending to animals, carrying groceries, etc. In other words, exercise was not something that was done just for the sake of exercising, it was not seen as being something separate from the daily activities of their lives, but was integrated into their daily patterns of work, transportation, and play.

All were fit, had strength and endurance, but none were super athletes, none were big muscle men, or marathon runners. They looked like average people, more like a slim tai chi practitioner, than a triathlete, or a body builder.

The idea was that low impact exercises, like walking, gardening, and carrying groceries, were more beneficial and more likely to promote longevity then high impact workouts, that wear your body down over time. Light weight lifting is okay, but huge muscleman body building work-outs may actually be self-defeating in the long run. Perhaps the same could be said about marathon running, which may be a great cardiovascular exercise, but its hard on your joints, and over time can ruin them. So regular walking may actually be more conducive to promoting longevity than running.

Most were primarily vegetarian, or if they did eat meat, if was lean cut, eaten minimally, perhaps only once or twice a weak, or reserved for special occasions. All ate low calorie nutrient dense meals containing whole grains, legumes, or tofu, fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, and except for the seven day Adventists in Loma Linda California, most drank some alcohol with meals. The heaviest drinkers were the Sardinians, who primarily drank red wine, in copious amounts.

And no processed foods at all were consumed. Everything was fresh and in its whole unprocessed state, organically grown, often grown themselves in their own gardens, with no artificial additives or preservatives.

Another thing these centenarians had in common, beyond their longevity, was that they were all in pretty good health, many appearing to be 20 to 30 years younger than there actual age.

All stayed active, and many continued working well into their nineties, and in some cases even into their hundreds. And those who continued working well into old age, enjoyed what they did, they enjoyed their lives, and their livelihood, and it was perhaps their work that imbued their lives with its greatest meaning and pleasure.

So diet, environment, genetics, and frame of mind, certainly played a large role in contributing to their longevity, but the most noteworthy factor, in my opinion, that all shared without fail, seemed to be a lifetime of regular low impact exercise.

You've got to keep moving, keep your blood flowing, your bones strong, your body strong, flexible, and on the move. You can either use it or lose it, but just don't overuse it. Pace yourself, go slow and steady. What do you think you're in a race? Are you in a hurry or something? Eager to die? Because the faster you run, the faster you move through life, might just bring you closer to that final finish line then you think.

So slow down a bit and enjoy the view, because the slower you cruise, the better the view, and the longer it will last.

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