Aging Gracefully: Secrets from the Blue Zones

Dan Buettner is the author of the book, Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. After spending several years researching alongside some of the world’s best longevity experts, he says that when it comes to longevity, human beings are fully capable of controlling their life spans.

blue zones

In fact, Buettner’s research concludes that genetic makeup constitutes for only 10 percent of how long people live; the remaining 90 percent is directly credited to lifestyle choices.

How It All Started

According to the National Geographic writer, Americans are not optimizing on the extra 12 years of life which are available to them. “The best science tells us that the capacity of the human body is about 90 years, a little bit more for women,” announced Buettner at a TED Conference last year. “But,” he added, “life expectancy in this country is only 78. So somewhere along the line, we’re leaving about 12 good years on the table… years that we could get.”

Determined to find out what Americans were doing differently to throw away these additional years of life, Buettner and a team of experts traveled around the world to investigate how people were living healthier, fuller lives in other continents. What were Americans still waiting to realize that these other nations already knew? This question led the team on a journey to the Blue Zones of the world.

Blue Zones and Centenarians

A “Blue Zone” is defined to be a region of the world where people are living active lives past the age of 100 years, and at rates that are 10 times greater than in America. These are parts of the world where life expectancy amounts to an extra dozen years, and the rate of middle age mortality is a fraction of what it is in America. Additionally, with people suffering a fraction of the rate of heart disease and cancer that Americans get diagnosed with every year, the Blue Zones of the world are home to some of the rarest species on the planet: centenarians.

“The key to getting the extra years we're missing,” says Buettner, “is to follow the lessons from world's longest-lived people.” In places like Nicoya, Sardinia, Okinawa, and even California, there are communities of people living to 100. “But it’s not only about longevity,” says Buettner, “they live with strength, vitality and happiness.” Fully independent, physically in shape, and mentally alert, centenarians are active members of their society and are far from the stereotypical senior citizen.

Keep Moving Everyday

Centenarians do not rely on gym memberships or personal trainers to get into shape. In fact, none of them exercise the way Americans have come to define the word. Rather, they do what our ancestors have always done: they align their daily lives so that they are constantly nudged into physical activity.
Many still ride bikes or travel by foot for miles on end to get from one place to another. Chopping wood and tending to their gardens, centenarians optimize the endless exercise opportunities available to them outside the gym. As Buettner translates, "when they do do intentional physical activity, it’s the things they enjoy.” This message speaks volumes. In a world where machines are created to stimulate movement, it is self-explanatory why many people lack the enthusiasm to gear up and head to the gym for a workout; the motivation must come from within.

Technology advancements like the automobile and computer have redesigned human lifestyles, putting the brakes on human mobility and health. But for centenarians, the Technological Age is, for the most part, a confusing revelation. Accustomed to doing daily chores the old-fashioned way, they are now teaching modern health enthusiasts the age-old “secret” to longevity.

Choose Your Friends Wisely

While solitude may sometimes be preferred, loneliness is never a pleasant companion. “Isolation kills,” says Buettner, adding that compared to fifteen years ago when the average American had three good friends, now that number is “down to one and half.” Social networking sites and mobile phones are replacing face-to-face human contact.

That is why Buettner stresses the importance of being present and investing time into sustaining personal relationships. He encourages everyone to follow what centenarians have unknowingly adopted as a way of life long before research was able to prove it. “Your friends are long-term adventures,” he declares, “and therefore, perhaps the most significant thing you can to add more years to your life, and life to your years.”

Numerous research have concluded the health benefits of surrounding ourselves with positive, nurturing friends. The Framingham studies in particular, suggested a direct correlation between unhealthy friends and obesity. Specifically, the study concluded that if three of your best friends were obese, then there would be a 50 percent chance that you would also be overweight. Just as negative people leave us feeling drained and depressed, surrounding ourselves with unhealthy people for a lengthy period of time can negatively influence our long-term health habits as well.

So Buettner offers a simple centenarian approach to selecting healthy, lifelong social relationships: "If your friends drink a little, but not too much, and they eat right, and they're engaged, and they're trusting and trustworthy, that is going to have the biggest impact over time."

Discover Your Ikigai

If you wake up every morning determined to get on with your day, then your life has purpose, meaning, and direction. Essentially, it is this “reason for which you wake up in the morning” that Okinawans call “ikigai.” The Okinawan language has no word for retirement; instead, the people of this island dedicate their entire lives to this idea of “ikigai.”

In a questionnaire issued by National Geographic and The National Institute on Aging, when asked “What is your ikigai?” centenarians knew exactly why they woke up in the morning. For one 102-year-old karate master, his ikigai was carrying forth his martial art. For another 100-year-old fisherman, it was continuing to catch fish for his family three times a week. Meanwhile, another 102-year-old woman claimed hers was simply to spend time with her great-great-great-granddaughter.

Simple or ambitious, having a defined purpose everyday enriches our daily lives and extends our life spans. Steering away from depression, centenarians live lives full of vigor, and often die in their sleep. “These people know their sense of purpose,” says Buettner, “and that’s worth about seven years of extra life expectancy.”

Some Final Food for Thought

Diets don’t work. In fact, Dan Buettner’s extensive research has concluded that “no diet in the history of the world has ever worked for more than two percent of the population.” But, what has worked is evident in the Blue Zones of the world. A growing number of centenarians residing outside of obesity-epicenter America are forever changing the way people view healthy living. Enjoyable exercise, camaraderie, and a sense of purpose are the secrets to longevity which have been helping the world’s longest-lived people create environments of health for decades.

Although Buettner suggests there is “no short term fix in a pill or anything else” to cure aging, a long term commitment to one’s health can make longevity attainable for all. "I think the average American, by adopting an optimal lifestyle,” says Buettner, “could get an extra decade out of their life [by making] small, subtle behavioral changes and setting up your environment so it's easy to do that."
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