The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner
Takeaways to living a long more fulfilled happy life of purpose.
I’ve been leading a series of interactive, educational projects called “Quests,” in which a team of Internet-linked scientists investigated some of Earth’s great puzzles. Our goal was to engage the imaginations and brainpower of tens of thousands of students who followed our daily dispatches on the web. Previous Quests had taken me to Mexico, Russia, and throughout Africa.
One of them is, in fact, to have a sense of social connectedness. Most people enjoy the company of other people, particularly other people who they feel care about them. That seems to give you a sense of well-being, whether that raises your endorphin level or lowers your cortisol level. We don’t know why. People have looked for biological markers, and they haven’t been successful at finding them. But something happens that makes life more worthwhile. The days take on more meaning.
For instance, people talk about workaholics as being at higher risk for stress-related illness. But there is no evidence that workaholics are necessarily at higher risk if they really are enjoying what they’re doing.
For example, you can’t just say family support is good, because some family support is good for some people, and some isn’t for others. There are people who derive great satisfaction from being with their families. And then there are those who become very anxious and upset when they are with their families. It is a complex model, which is also very interactive.
RECORD SETTER Born on February 21, 1875, Jeanne Calment lived for a record-setting 122 years, 164 days. Calment, a Frenchwoman, stayed mentally and physically active for most of her life. She attributed her longevity to port wine, olive oil, and a sense of humor.
When D. H. Lawrence traveled across Sardinia in 1921 in search of a lifestyle of simplicity, he found a Barbagia suited to his imagination. “Here, since endless centuries man has tamed the impossible mountainside into terraces, he has quarried the rock, he has fed his sheep among the thin woods, he has cut his boughs and burnt his charcoal, he has been half domesticated even among the wild fastnesses. This is what is so attractive … Life is so primitive, so pagan, so strangely heathen and half-savage.”
“Good morning,” he boomed, then plunged his hands in again, this time to reel out several yards of glistening intestines. It was 9:45 a.m. on a cool November morning. Tonino had been up since 4 and had already pastured his sheep, cut wood, trimmed olive trees, fed his cows, and eviscerated this 18-month-old cow that was now hanging spread-eagle from the rafters. Members of his family surrounded him.
“In the fields, some peasants drink wine; most of them drink wine only at the evening meal, and no more than a quarter bottle.” The region’s Cannonau grapes endured the harsh Sardinian sun by producing more red pigment to protect from the ultraviolet rays. These grapes traditionally were allowed to macerate longer than in any other part of the island during winemaking. The result was a red wine with two to three times the level of artery-scrubbing flavonoids than other wines.
The road snaked up several hundred feet through forests and around tight curves and many unprotected drop- offs that promised a quick death. In America such a road would be illegal—or at least labeled “dangerous.” Here it was business as usual.
After a pause, he continued. “I love my animals and taking care of them. We don’t really need the cow that I butchered today. Half of the meat will go to my son, and most of the other half we’ll share with our neighbors. But without the animals and the work it takes to raise them, I would be sitting in my house doing nothing; I would have little purpose in life. When I think of them, I think of my children. I like it when my kids come home and they find something here that I have produced.”
In America, seniors tend to live apart from their children and grandchildren, often sent off to retirement homes when they become unable to care for themselves. But that rarely happened here. A combination of family duty, community pressure, and genuine affection for elders kept centenarians with their families until death. This gave people over 80 a huge advantage: They received immediate care when injured or ill, and perhaps most significantly, felt loved and a sense of belonging. A happy by-product was that grandparents stayed involved in children’s lives.
It would be hard to overestimate the importance of family in the Blue Zone. According to Dr. Luca Deiana, who has studied centenarians for more than a decade, some 95 percent of those who live to 100 in Barbagia do so because they have a daughter or granddaughter to care for them. Grandparents provide love, childcare, financial help, wisdom, expectations, and motivation to perpetuate traditions and push children to succeed. This may add up to healthier, better adjusted, and longer-lived children, and it seems to certainly give the population a healthy bump in longevity.
Gianni’s words were poignantly prescient. Sardinians today have already taken on many of the trappings of modern life. Mechanization and technology have replaced long hours and hard work; cars and trucks have eliminated much of the need to walk long distances; a culture disseminated by television is replacing the one that put the emphasis on family and community; and junk foods are replacing the whole-grain breads and fresh vegetables traditionally consumed here. Young people are fatter, less inclined to follow tradition, and more outwardly focused (which also could lead to a dilution of this amazing gene pool). In 1960, almost no one in Sardinia’s Blue Zone was overweight. Now 15 percent of adolescents are. The most important and unique longevity factors have disappeared or are disappearing quickly from residents’ everyday lives.
GOAT’S MILK When compared to cow’s milk, goat’s milk delivers a powerful nutritional punch: One glass contains 13 percent more calcium, 25 percent more vitamin B6, 47 percent more vitamin A, 134 percent more potassium, and 3 times more niacin. Results of a 2007 University of Granada study found that it may also be better at preventing iron deficiencies and mineral losses in bones.
The Sardinian diet was lean and largely plant-based with an emphasis on beans, whole wheat, and garden vegetables, often washed down with flavonoid-rich Cannonau wine. Goat’s milk and mastic oil, common in the diet 30 years ago, may also have provided powerful compounds.
Finally, for me, Sardinia’s most important longevity secret lies in the unique outlook and perspective of its people. Their hardship-tempered sense of humor, which may seem caustic and persnickety to outsiders, helps them shed stress and diffuse feuds before they start. Their fanatic zeal for their families has always protected them from a historically hostile world by providing cooperation in times of difficulty.
Take a walk. Walking five miles a day or more as Sardinian shepherds do provides all the cardiovascular benefits you might expect, and also has a positive effect on muscle and bone metabolism without the joint- pounding of running marathons or triathlons.
Drink a glass or two of red wine daily. Tonino, Sebastiano, and Giovanni all drank wine moderately. Cannonau wine has two to three times the level of artery-scrubbing flavonoids as other wines. Moderate wine consumption may help explain the lower levels of stress among men. Laugh with friends. Men in this Blue Zone are famous for their sardonic sense of humor. They gather in the street each afternoon to laugh with and at each other. Laughter reduces stress, which can lower one’s risk of cardiovascular disease.
During my first trip in 2000, I spent time with 13 centenarians and heard their stories. They seemed to eat lots of vegetables and possessed a strong connection to their ancestors. Many were prodigious gardeners, going into the fields every morning and returning with tasty greens and tubers in the afternoon. But did any of this explain their extraordinary longevity?
“In America we focus on battling diseases once they occur,” says Greg, 46, who completed residencies in both internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, holds a divinity degree from Harvard, and is one of the world’s leading experts on Kampo, Japan’s traditional herbal medicine. “However, in traditional Asian thought, the highest, most honored form of medicine was prevention, and the lowest was treatment.
Over a breakfast of fermented soybeans, pickled cabbage, and raw fish, David, Greg, and I came up with a game plan. Meanwhile, Rico frantically took notes, occasionally stabbing at her breakfast of bacon and eggs.
He told me that the Okinawan culture of longevity was beginning to disappear with the encroaching American food culture. Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s were the last calamity to befall Okinawa; the fast-food invasion has threatened many of the positive behaviors that led to Okinawan longevity. It really rests with women over 70, he told me. “Men under 55 in Okinawa are now among the most obese, and do not live much longer than the Japanese average. So you better work fast.” I asked him if he could help me meet a couple dozen centenarians as soon as possible.
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“My mother eats in the tradition of women her age,” the daughter continued. “They are not used to rich foods, but rather the foods that they ate as young women, before the war. She mostly eats vegetables from her garden— daikon, bitter melon, garlic, onion, peppers, tomatoes—and some fish and tofu. All day long she nurses a pot of hot, green tea. Before each meal she takes a moment to say hara hachi bu, and that keeps her from eating too much.” “Hara hachi bu?” I repeated. “It’s a Confucian-inspired adage,” Craig chimed in. “All of the old folks say it before they eat. It means ‘Eat until you are 80 percent full.’ We write about it in The Okinawa Program.”
“So what’s the secret to living to age 102?” I ask, finally. I knew the question wasn’t scientific, but sometimes it provoked insightful answers. “I used to be very beautiful,” Kamada replied. “I had hair that came down to my waist. It took me a long time to realize that beauty is within. It comes from not worrying so much about your own problems. Sometimes you can best take care of yourself by taking care of others.” “Anything else?”
“Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to people, and smile.” I looked over at Craig, who was sitting next to me, to see what he thought of her response. “Well, Danmeister,” he said looking through his owlish glasses. “It took us almost 500 pages in our book to say what she said in three sentences.”
It occurred to me that I was embracing a century of life, and there was something in that knowledge that inspired profound affection and respect. I asked her if we could return. “Of course you may,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Grandma doesn’t keep stress. Sometimes she is so straightforward it could sound harsh. Like when we offer to take care of her, she’ll say, ‘No, I’ll take care of myself!’ ” Then Kurara paused, realizing that perhaps she was sounding disrespectful. “I love my Grandma’s sense of humor the most,” Kurara added. “Sometimes she farts, and she tells me it was a train going by outside.”
“Is this all about gossip?” I interrupted. “No,” replied 95-year-old Matsse Manna after a long pause. “If someone passes away, the village knows to come here for help. If we hear that someone is depressed we will go visit them.” “But how about you? How does this moai help you?”
“Chatting like this is my ikigai,” said Klazuko Manna after a long pause. At 77, she was the youngest of the group. “In the morning I do the wash, so in the afternoon, I get to come here. Each member knows that her friends count on her as much as she counts on her friends. If you get sick or a spouse dies or if you run out of money, we know someone will step in and help.” Klazuko fanned her arm toward the other women. “It’s much easier to go through life knowing there is a safety net.” “I get lonely on days when the group doesn’t meet,” Kamada added. “I go to the door every day at 3:30, and if my friends don’t come, I’m sad.”
Chronic stress takes its toll on overall health, and these women have a culturally ingrained mechanism that sheds it every afternoon at 3:30 p.m. Books like Bowling Alone chronicle how people in the United States are increasingly alienated from their neighbors. On average, an American has only two close friends he or she can count on, recently down from three, which may contribute to an increasing sense of stress.
These friendly bacteria include immunomodulating and fiber-fermenting lactic acid bacteria,” Greg said.
“Here in Okinawa it is nearly a weed,” Greg said. “It grows everywhere. People eat it all the time and use it for medicine, including the treatment of fevers. Did you notice all the turmeric? Turmeric is one-fifth as powerful as cisplatin, which is one of the most powerful drugs in chemotherapy. Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticancer.
“Okinawans see vegetables. I see powerful anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anticancer drugs,” he said. “You know, you don’t just wake up one day and have cancer. It’s a process, not an event.
I remember a story about a tribe in sub-Saharan Africa that cooked over open fires inside their huts. The huts filled with smoke that the villagers breathed. When a Peace Corps worker saw this he reasoned that the people’s lungs were blackening with smoke. He asked them why they cooked indoors. When no one had an answer for him, he convinced them to move their cooking fires outside. Soon the people started contracting malaria at an alarming rate. It turns out that the smoke kept malaria-carrying mosquitoes out of the huts. This outweighed the negative health effects of the smoke. Similarly, I don’t think the first person who ever chewed a hot pepper thought, “Mmm, good.” Capsaicin, pepper’s active ingredient, is literally caustic to the flesh. But somehow, human taste has evolved to enjoy the taste of pepper. Why? Because capsaicin is a natural disinfectant, and it kills many types of food-borne bacteria. Put hot pepper in slightly rancid meat, and it inhibits bacteria. The person who eats the meal with the pepper lives. The person who eats the meal without the pepper gets sick and could die. Over time, the survivors acquire a taste for it, and a healthy culture evolves. “Can we say Okinawan longevity came with a similar cultural evolution?
“Do you see what’s going on here?” Craig asked me. “This is what we call ancestor veneration. Older Okinawan women have great respect for their deceased ancestors. They believe that if they make the proper offerings in the morning, the ancestors will watch over them for the rest of the day. It’s like if something bad happens, it was meant to happen; if something good happens, it’s because the ancestors were looking out for them. It’s a great stress reducer for these people. They relinquish worries to a higher power.”
soup. The flame cast a feeble light on Gozei’s face. It occurred to me that I was witnessing the happy limits of the human machine. I sensed neither the frailty nor the wistfulness of impeding death but rather serenity—a certain satisfaction with a life now free of the ambition and commitments that dog younger years—a life achieved.
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from 100,000 to 150,000. We tend to lump Okinawans with the Japanese, but they’re actually a distinct race— largely peasants—of the Ryukyu Kingdom subjugated by the Japanese in the late 19th century. They possessed none of the imperial ambitions of their Tokyo-based overlords, who forced them to fight in World War II. Centenarians recount how Japanese soldiers used their Okinawan draftees as human shields, forced to confront GI machine guns though armed only with bamboo spears. American warships rained down some 600,000 shells and fired more than 1.7 million rounds from the ground in the battle known as the “typhoon of steel.” The assault literally changed the island’s topography.
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After several days, American troops landed on western shores of the island. Troops advanced from the beach toward the cave. The villagers made a hasty decision to detonate the bomb. But a split second before the bomb went off, Kamata decided that she wanted to live. She rushed her children to the back of the cave. There was a white flash, an ear-shattering blast, and the cave’s roof collapsed …
wrinkled like a pumpkin after a hard freeze. She was nearly deaf, but she was sharp, quick-witted. Her eyes darted about in a way that showed she was aware of everything going on around her. She smiled when I sat down next to her.
I asked her about the cave. “Yes, I was there. There was a great explosion and I lived, my children and I.” She looked up and saw me taking notes. “This is enough!” she said, chopping the air with her hand. “I’m tired of the past. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m happy now. I have enough to eat. I’m surrounded by my friends. Why relive misery when better times have arrived? I’ve lived those hardships, and now they serve me well because they allow me to enjoy today.”
I spent a morning on a Naha beach working out with Fumiyasu Yamakawa, a one-time banker. Every day at 4:30 a.m., he cycled to the beach, swam a half hour, ran a half hour, did yoga, and then met with a group of other Okinawan seniors who stood in a circle and laughed. “Why is that?” I asked. “It’s vitamin S,” he said. “You smile in the morning and it fortifies you all day long.”
“The only common factor we could find is the heterogeneity of centenarians,” he said. “In other words, they are all different.” Like all credible longevity experts, Hirose avoided definitive conclusions. But as the night wore on, and the sake flowed, he loosened up. Hirose had discovered that the daily intake of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and total calories was lowest among centenarians (mostly because of their lower body weight). The big difference between centenarians and younger populations was the greater appetite for vegetables, and especially for dairy products, among centenarians. They didn’t necessarily eat more or less than others, relative to body weight, but what they did eat was rich in calcium, vitamins, and iron.
You tend to age alone. In Japan we focus on social, environmental aging. We think about aging in the context of a family or community.”
They answered dutifully. Each of them had come from a life of hardship. As children, they nearly starved. During the war, they’d hidden in the mountains and lived on berries. Setzu remembers being caught by an American soldier while she was searching for food. The soldier told her to get into a line with other Okinawans. She thought she would be shot. Instead, the Americans handed out chocolate and biscuits to them. “When I tasted that chocolate,” she’d said, her eyes welling up, “I knew my children would live.” She’d looked down and sobbed silently, then looked up again. “I’ve waited all my life to thank someone for that. So now I thank you.”
Now, seeing her again at Ushi’s house, I remembered feeling a strong sense of embarrassment and pride at hearing Setzu’s story. As an American, I was loosely connected to both the cause of her suffering and her salvation.
What was Ushi’s ikigai, her pervasive sense of purpose? “It’s her longevity itself,” blurted Ushi’s daughter. “She brings pride to our family and this village, and now feels she must keep living even though she is often tired.”
Stay active. Older Okinawans are active walkers and gardeners. The Okinawan household has very little furniture; residents take meals and relax sitting on tatami mats on the floor. The fact that old people get up and down off the floor several dozen times daily builds lower body strength and balance, which help protect against dangerous falls.
Have an attitude. A hardship-tempered attitude has endowed Okinawans with an affable smugness. They’re able to let their difficult early years remain in the past while they enjoy today’s simple pleasures. They’ve learned to be likable and to keep younger people in their company well into their old age.
Born and raised in New Zealand, he started out as a cardiologist, an endeavor he describes as “seeing people who after 40 or 50 years of not taking care of their bodies were reaping the results. It was like trying to close the door to the barn after the horse has bolted—very frustrating. When I discovered I was very good at math,” he continued, “I decided to become an epidemiologist and see if I could help ward off heart disease on the front end, which is much more satisfying.”
A 30-year-old Adventist female lives 4.4 years longer than the average 30-year-old Californian white female. “If you go to Adventists who are vegetarian,” said Fraser, “it becomes 9.5 years longer for men and 6.1 years longer for women. It is not surprising why this is so. About two-thirds of people either die of heart disease or cancer, and the Adventists do a number of things to protect themselves from heart disease and different cancers.”
For example, we found that women who consumed tomatoes at least three or four times a week reduced their chances of getting ovarian cancer by 70 percent over those who ate tomatoes less often. Something like that gives you pretty good evidence that there is protection, but because of our limited sample size, knowing the degree of protection may be more up for grabs. Eating a lot of tomatoes also seemed to have an effect on reducing prostate cancer for men.”
everyone seemed happy. It reminded me of what Marge Jetton had told me about why she volunteered so much: “Because it makes me feel good,” she’d said. “Don’t you like to help people up when they need a hand?”
“Ellen White had this whole-health emphasis that you should use the time to value exercise, get out in nature, and move around. Another way it is healthy—I don’t have any studies or hard numbers for this, just a lifetime of observing it myself—is as a pure stress reliever that allows some peace to occur.”
Roberts said he’d seen studies showing that people with two or three significant ties in their lives, to family and friends and community, tended to be healthier, both emotionally and physically. “The Sabbath gives most
Adventists a time to do that: to shut off the television, not think about your work or business, and just spend time with the people who are important to you.
“But I observed when I was cutting into the thighs of these patients that those who were vegetarians had better arteries.” “When we did the surgery,” he continued, “if it was a nice, smooth artery, I went back later and asked the patient, and it turned out that he or she was a vegetarian. And those who really had a lot of heavy calcium and plaque in the arteries, their diet would not be toward the vegetarian side. Now that wasn’t true 100 percent, and I didn’t keep any statistics or write any papers or anything; it was just something I observed. But I began thinking about it. And I saw people getting their toes cut off or their feet cut off because of vascular disease, and that motivated me. So it was a gradual thing.” In middle age, he decided to become a vegan.
Another thing that helps keep the weight off is drinking water, Wareham noted, as, almost in gentle rebuttal, his wife entered and gave us both a glass of cranberry juice. “I became aware some years ago that water is highly important to health, and I do make an effort to drink a lot of it. I’ll drink maybe three glasses of water when I first get up, because I want to make sure before I get busy and forget to have some. Then when I get home I have some more. And one of my little rituals is to never pass a water fountain without having a drink. It adds up.
If Rosero-Bixby’s numbers were correct, it was an extraordinary find. Costa Rica spends only 15 percent of what America does on health care, yet its people appeared to be living longer, seemingly healthier lives than people in any other country on Earth.
“First, you have to realize that Nicoya, like all of Costa Rica, has the best public health system in Central America,” he said. “We have good sewage systems, immunization programs, and clinics in almost every village. Nevertheless, in Costa Rica we also have one of the highest rates of stomach cancer in the world. Many people die from it. But for some reason, it’s the cancer mortality rate that is much lower in Nicoya. Perhaps they are eating something—or not eating something?” I asked if there was anything else. Luis demurred and threw me a side glance from the driver’s seat. He’s a top-notch scientist, but sometimes he reminded me of a shy schoolboy, like the smartest kid in class who often had the right answers but was afraid of showing off. “You know in Latin America, we take marriage very seriously. If you get married, there’s great pressure to stay married your whole life. But here,” he hesitated. “Well, men here have very liberal attitudes toward sex. They tend to have many sexual partners throughout life.” That theory was a new one for longevity.
As a whole, the people I met in Nicoya seemed sharper and more active than anywhere else. They all believed in God, seemed to have a strong work ethic (like the Okinawans), and possessed a zeal for family second only to
the Sardinians. All of them seemed to be taking advantage of Costa Rica’s excellent public health system, receiving vaccinations, and using local clinics whenever necessary. Their diet consisted largely of corn, beans, pork, garden vegetables, and an abundance of fruit (papaya, mango, chico zapote, oranges), much of it grown in and around their yards. And the majority of the men, and a small percentage of the women, admitted to having lovers besides their spouses. None of them were officially divorced. They just started living with someone else.
Among them, Gianni observed that the more daughters a man has, the longer he lives; that people born in winter seem to live longer than those born in the summer, and that people who think they’re going to live longer actually do. Would these findings also hold true in Nicoya?
We disembarked a block away from the farmers market where Faustino struck off on a serious quest for perfect red peppers and platanos. He touched perhaps a dozen vegetables before he bought six of each, paying with a few tattered bills. Next stop: the butcher. “Why don’t we just buy it here?” I asked Jorge, a portly, middle-aged man with a round, affable face. There were rows of stalls selling meat. “He has his rituals he doesn’t like to break,” Jorge sighed, mopping a sweaty forehead with a dirty rag. The tropical midmorning sun was already hot. “Moreover, the butchers are his friends.” So we walked another half mile, Faustino leading the way, resolutely shuffling down the street 20 feet ahead of us. I was thinking: “This guy is a machine.” Most people Faustino’s age couldn’t get out of a chair.
Down the block, in a general store stocked with canned goods and wilted produce, he bought sweet corn bread. This was not for him. “It’s for my son,” uttered Don Faustino in his soft voice. “It’s his favorite.” (This bit of thoughtfulness conjured images of a little kid receiving a much-awaited treat until Jorge reminded me that Faustino’s son is 79.)
We moved into a dimly lit, rose-colored living room and settled into dusty sofas. Faustino’s great-great- grandson, six-year-old Elias, curled up in his lap. Although Faustino was not part of the room’s chatter, his presence there made the family seem complete now. I asked why Don Faustino made this weekly shopping expedition. “He buys these ingredients for the exact same Sunday soup,” replied Jorge. “After church, the family will all gather for dinner. He’s been doing this for 40 years; it’s the highlight of his week. We all look forward to it too, though we wouldn’t mind a menu change once in a while.”
“We notice that the most highly functioning people over 90 in Nicoya have a few common traits,” she told me. “One of them is that they feel a strong sense of service to others or care for their family. We see that as soon as they lose this, the switch goes off. They die very quickly if they don’t feel needed.” Indeed, in every Blue Zone,
centenarians possess a strong sense of purpose. In Okinawa it was ikigai—the reason to wake up in the morning. Here, said Fernández, the Costa Ricans called it plan de vida.
There, using slash-and-burn agriculture, they grew maize and many kinds of beans. They were mostly subsistence farmers, but they also depended on wild game and fish. Like other Mesoamerican cultures, the Chorotega were religious and apparently lived low-stress lives. And according to him, their influence was still alive.
The countless stories she had researched on health and wellness had galvanized her belief in the subtle, long- term power of eating unprocessed foods. For this trip, she’d done several months’ research into the nutrient values of fruits and vegetables that we’d expect to encounter in Nicoya. So when she heard about Aureliano’s yard, which Jorge had described as “a private Garden of Eden,” Eliza leaped at the opportunity to meet him. Eliza stood up with a stack
It could be something you didn’t even see. In fact, we can associate his longevity more easily to the fact that Aureliano lives with a daughter than what he grows in his garden.” Then Gianni went on to describe a study done in rural Poland showing that every daughter increases a man’s life expectancy by 75 weeks.
“We also believe that vitamin C and beta-carotenes may help prevent stomach cancer or at least subdue the effects of the Hp. You find these nutrients in fruits and vegetables like papaya, carrots, calabazas (squash), oranges, pineapples.” I wasn’t familiar with all the different kinds of fruits and vegetables available to Nicoyans, but all of our team’s research and everything we had observed directly in the field pointed to Nicoyans being big consumers of fresh fruit. Our research also suggested that fruits’ role in preventing stomach cancer seemed to offer a piece in Nicoya’s longevity puzzle.
“What the atlas showed, specifically, was the mineral content of the water,” he replied. “It revealed that the water hardness, the calcium and magnesium content, was higher in Nicoya than anywhere else in Costa Rica.” To confirm this, Gianni used a water-testing kit; in each of the 20 or so households where he conducted interviews, he tested the drinking water. The result: “The water had such high levels of calcium and magnesium that I had to dilute it by 50 percent with distilled water just so that I could test it.”
Populations with hard water, it found, have up to 25 percent fewer deaths from heart disease than populations with soft water. I asked him how he explains this. “The heart is a muscle, and all muscle contractions depend on calcium,” he said. “Inadequate calcium means weak muscles—including the heart. Old people often have too little calcium in their bodies. So having extra-hard water may help keep Nicoyans’ hearts strong for longer.”
“Dan, these people are so incredible,” she answered enthusiastically. “They are so positive and so devoted to their families. All but one of the 33 Nicoyans we have met live with their family.” Elizabeth was looking at me, gesticulating as we walked. “They have a wonderful support network. They also tend to have a large number of visitors that they receive almost every afternoon, which is both a physical and psychological safety net.”
Panchita was yet another example, it seemed, of the power of faith. I asked Elizabeth if faith really has a profound impact on longevity. “Absolutely,” she said. “When Gianni and I were doing our interviews, we noticed that when you ask the most highly functioning seniors how they are, they always say, ‘I feel good … thanks to God.’ Yet they may be blind, deaf, and their bones hurt. Psychologists call this an external locus of control. In other words, they tend to relinquish control of their lives to God.
Have a plan de vida. Successful centenarians have a strong sense of purpose. They feel needed and want to contribute to a greater good. Drink hard water. Nicoyan water has the country’s highest calcium content, perhaps explaining the lower rates of heart disease, as well as stronger bones and fewer hip fractures. Keep a focus on family. Nicoyan centenarians tend to live with their families, and children or grandchildren provide support and sense of purpose and belonging.
Maintain social networks. Nicoyan centenarians get frequent visits from neighbors. They know how to listen, laugh, and appreciate what they have. Keep hard at work. Centenarians seem to have enjoyed physical work all of their lives. They find joy in everyday physical chores.
Sensing the end was near, he decided to reconnect with his religion. On Sunday mornings, he forced himself out of the house and hobbled up the hill to a tiny Greek Orthodox chapel where his grandfather had once served as a priest. When his childhood friends discovered that he had moved back, they started visiting him regularly. They would talk for hours, invariably bringing him the locally produced wine, which he sipped all day long. What the hell, he thought, I might as well die happy.
In the ensuing months, something strange happened. He started to feel stronger. He got out of bed in the afternoon and shuffled around the gardens and vineyards behind the house. One day, feeling ambitious, he planted some potatoes, green onions, garlic, and carrots. He didn’t expect to be alive to harvest them, but he enjoyed feeling the sunshine, breathing the clean ocean air, and getting his hands dirty with the soil of his birth. Elpiniki could enjoy the fresh vegetables after he was gone.
When I first traveled to Okinawa eight years earlier, I was looking for longevity’s silver bullet—a secret micronutrient that inhibited oxidative stress, perhaps, or a time-honored medicinal food like turmeric or mugwort. Could I combine them into a supplement? In Sardinia, I got excited about Cannonau wine because it had the world’s highest levels of artery-scrubbing polyphenols. And in Costa Rica, it was the Mesoamerican “trifecta” diet of beans, squash, and “nixtamal” corn that made me wonder if these foods held the secret to extraordinary longevity on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Here, we don’t. For the many religious and cultural holidays, people pool their money and buy food and wine. If there is money left over, they give it to the poor. It’s not a ‘me’ place. It’s an ‘us’ place.”
Researchers from the University of Illinois found that darker honey had more antioxidants and less water than lighter honey.
Humans have succeeded as a species because we are social creatures with the capacity to cooperate. In the same way that we get pleasure from sex and eating, socializing brings us a fundamental satisfaction. But in today’s hectic society, too many of us let TV or “busyness” push face-to-face time out of our lives. Not here.
As for the herbal teas, she was familiar with the list of Ikarian teas I read off to her, recognizing them as traditional Greek remedies. Wild mint fought gingivitis and ulcers, rosemary reduced the symptoms of gout, and artemisia improved blood circulations. “I tell you what,” she said, “send me Ikaria’s teas and honey and I’ll have them tested. I’ll let you know if there is anything special.”
I learned, for instance, that drinking wine along with a plant-based meal increased flavonoid absorption and doubled the healthful effects of drinking wine alone.
Chrysohoou also suspects that fish eaters have better kidney functions and that more than half of 90-year-old men in Crete are still having sex. (A preliminary study suggested that about 80 percent of Ikarian males between the ages of 65 and 100 were also still having sex, over a quarter of those doing so regularly with “good duration” and “achievement.”)
Socializing is so significant that villagers stroll through the countryside most evenings, stopping by their neighbors to share the latest news.
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All of the herbal teas showed strong antioxidant properties as rich sources of polyphenols.
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But the big finding: Most of these herbs are also mild diuretics; they make you pee. They help flush our bodies of natural waste products. (If you don’t pee enough, toxic nitrogen-based compounds from our cells build up and cause damage over time, which also may induce higher blood pressure.)
More interesting—and more likely to explain Ikaria’s greater life expectancy—diuretics lower and control blood pressure. They work in a way not unlike how letting water out of a water balloon reduces pressure in the balloon.
She planted a huge garden that provided most of their fruits and vegetables. She lost weight without thinking about it. I asked her if she thought this simple diet was going to make her family live longer. “Yes,” she said. “But we don’t think about it that way. It’s bigger than that.”
“When everyone knows everyone else’s business, you get a feeling of connection and security. The lack of privacy is actually good, because it puts a check on people who don’t want to be caught or do something to embarrass their family. If your kids misbehave, your neighbor has no problem disciplining them. There is less crime, not because of good policing, but because of the risk of shaming the family.
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But it’s more about how we eat. Even if it’s your lunch break from work, you relax and enjoy your meal. You enjoy the company of whoever you are with. Food here is always enjoyed in combination with conversation.”
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“Look,” she said, “You can’t just focus on the Mediterranean diet or any other diet. If you live by yourself on the ninth floor of an apartment building and you don’t know your neighbors and you have no friends, you can eat the perfect Mediterranean diet and it may not do you as much good.”
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In Okinawa, there’s none of this artificial punctuation of life. Instead, the notion of ikigai—“the reason for which you wake up in the morning”—imbues people’s entire adult lives. It gets centenarians out of bed and out of the easy chair to teach karate, or to guide the village spiritually, or to pass down cultural traditions to kids. The word “retirement” doesn’t even exist in the Okinawan dialect. The Nicoyans use the term plan de vida to describe a lifelong sense of purpose. Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging, estimated that an ability to define your life meaning adds to your life expectancy.
If you want people to adopt a healthy lifestyle, you need to build an ecosystem around them. As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose, or religion out of the picture, the foundation collapses. There’s no silver bullet. The power lies in the mutually reinforcing relationship between lots of little bullets. The secret is silver buckshot.
Drink some goat’s milk. Adding some goat milk to your diet could provide a great source of calcium, potassium, and the stress-relieving hormone tryptophan. Researchers found that goat milk is very similar to human milk and provides oligosaccharides, which promote healthy intestinal flora. It’s also hypoallergenic and can usually be tolerated by people who are lactose intolerant.
Make family and friends a priority. Ikarians foster social connections, which have been shown to benefit overall health and longevity. In fact, researchers who analyzed 148 different studies found that people who weren’t connected to their communities had a 50 percent greater chance of dying during the follow-up period of seven and a half years (on average) than those who had strong social networks. So get out there and make some plans.
suggests that for indulgent or addictive behaviors—overeating, gambling, drug use—the first three months of the initial change in behavior are crucial. If you make it past those first 12 weeks, your chances of relapse are greatly reduced.) So there’s probably a time frame for behaviors to become habitual that ranges from 5 to 12 weeks.
An ideal routine, which you should discuss with your doctor, would include a combination of aerobic, balancing, and muscle-strengthening activities.
A good place to start is to think, whose company do I enjoy? Who do I like to spend time with? Who has about the same level of physical ability?
LESSON THREE: PLANT SLANT Avoid meat and processed foods Most centenarians in Nicoya, Sardinia, and Okinawa never had the chance to develop the habit of eating processed foods, soda pop, or salty snacks. For much of their lives, they ate small portions of unprocessed foods. They avoided meat—or more accurately, didn’t have access to it—except on rare occasions. Traditional Sardinians, Nicoyans, and Okinawans ate what they produced in their gardens, supplemented by staples: durum wheat (Sardinia), sweet potato (Okinawa), or maize (Nicoya). Strict Adventists avoid meat entirely.
One explanation might be that nuts are rich in monounsaturated fat and soluble fiber, both of which tend to lower LDL cholesterol, he says. They are also relatively good sources of vitamin E and other possibly heart- protective nutrients. The best nuts are almonds, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts, and some pine nuts. Brazil nuts, cashews, and macadamias have a little more saturated fat and are less desirable. But all nuts are good.
Craft a personal mission statement. If you don’t have a sense of purpose, how do you find it? Articulating your personal mission statement can be a good start. Begin by answering this question in a single, memorable sentence: Why do you get up in the morning? Consider what you’re passionate about, how you enjoy using your talents, and what is truly important to you.
Learn something new. Take up a musical instrument or learn a new language. Both activities are among the most powerful things you can do to preserve your mental sharpness.
They gather every evening before supper to socialize. People who’ve made it to 100 seem to exude a sense of sublime serenity. Part of it is that their bodies naturally slow down as they have aged, but they’re also wise enough to know that many of life’s most precious moments pass us by if we’re lurching blindly toward some goal.
Once again, though, we’re confronted by an environmental catch-22. In the Western world, accomplishment, status, and material wealth are highly revered and require most of our time. Americans employed full-time work on average 43 hours a week and take the shortest paid vacations in the industrialized world. Then when they do take time off, according to one source, 20 percent of them stay in touch with the office. We generally hold working and being productive in high regard; being busy often wins us esteem. Few cultural institutions exist to encourage us to slow down, unwind, and de-stress.
Be early. Plan to arrive 15 minutes early to every appointment. This one practice minimizes the stress that arises from traffic, getting lost, or underestimating travel time. It allows you to slow down and focus before a meeting or event.
Unitarian Universalism, for example, is open to anyone who believes in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and in the acceptance and encouragement of each individual’s own spiritual journey. Buddhism is another tradition to consider if you are looking for a religious community.
Similarly, Sardinians finish their day in the local bar where they meet with friends. The annual grape harvest and village festivals require the whole community to pitch in.
Over a nine-year period, she found that those with the most social connectedness lived longer. Higher social connectedness led to greater longevity. Those with the least social connectedness were between two and three times more likely to die during the nine-year period of the study than those with the most social connectedness.
When I left, I asked if I could hug her. She said of course. As I bent down, nearing her face, I could see her veins through parchment-paper-thin skin. I embraced her, feeling the birdlike bones of her back, and felt the universal warmth of life within her embrace. It felt like hugging a delicate child.
A few months into writing this book, I got a call from Margarite. Her mother had died. Lydia had peacefully dozed off and never woke up. She was the first of three centenarian friends I met while writing this book who died before I finished it. None of them wanted to die, but they didn’t fear it either. They’d all mastered the art of life and accepted the inevitability of its end.
To me, they offered a lesson about decline. I know that our bones will soften and our arteries will harden. Our hearing will dull and our vision will fade. We’ll slow down. And, finally, our bodies will fail altogether, and we’ll die. How this decline unfolds is up to us. The calculus of aging offers us two options: We can live a shorter life with more years of disability, or we can live the longest possible life with the fewest bad years. As my centenarian friends showed me, the choice is largely up to us.
Davidson Hang is currently in Sales at Cheetah Digital which is a Marketing technology company located in NYC.
Davidson is an avid networker, personal growth- life and business coach.
He loves spreading the love and regularly helps people create and design the life they want for themselves.