Culture and Longevity – by Julian Kaufman

A few years ago I read Dan Buettner’s book, Blue Zones. He has written a follow up and has continued to research.  I want to share with you what he calls the Power of 9.  According to Buettner’s, Reverse Engineering Longevity, Life expectancy of an American born today averages 78.2 years. But this year, more than 70,000 Americans reached their 100th birthday. What are they doing that the average American isn’t (or won’t)?

Buettner teamed up with National Geographic to find the world’s longest-lived people and study their lifestyle & environment. (A Danish study of twins found that only about 20% of our lifespan is determined by genes.) A team of demographers helped find these cultural groups with the highest life expectancy:

  • Barbagia region of Sardinia – Mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
  • Ikaria, Greece – Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – World’s lowest rates of middle age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians. Seventh Day Adventists – Highest concentration is around Loma Linda, California. They live 10 years longer than their North American counterparts.
  • Okinawa,Japan – Females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.

A team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and epidemiologists explored the common elements among the diverse cultures and found nine:

  1. Move Naturally – The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
  2. Purpose – The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose adds years to life expectancy.
  3. Down Shift – Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.
  4. 80% Rule – “Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 % full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest and last meal of the day in the late afternoon or early evening.
  5. Plant Slant –  Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat, mostly pork, is eaten sparingly, about five times per month with modest serving sizes of 3-4 oz.(the size of a deck of cards).
  6. Wine – People in all Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately & regularly.  Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers which means 1-2 glasses per day.
  7. Belong – All but five of the 263 centenarians who were interviewed belonged to a faith-based community.  (Try attending faith-based services 4 times per month to add 4 or more years to your life expectancy.)
  8. Loved Ones First –  Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home. They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and are devoted to their children.
  9. Right Tribe – The world’s longest lived people chose-or were born into-social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created “moais”-groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.

To make it to age 100, you need to have won the genetic lottery. But most of us have the capacity to get close. As the Adventists demonstrate, the average person’s life expectancy could increase by 10-12 years by adopting the Blue Zones strategies of these diverse cultures.

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