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Healthy Aging & Lifestyle

Centenarian Secrets: What We Can Learn About Living Longer

By Dr. Martica Heaner, PhD
You can thrive into your 100s. Researchers identified clusters of healthy, vibrant centenarians around the world. They not only have low rates of common age-related diseases, they live life to the fullest till the end. This is how they do it.

Move over Jane Fonda. California native Marge Jetton became a fitness celebrity of sorts when blogs and news outlets like CNN featured her workout. Oprah and Dr. Oz oohed and aahed over the size of her biceps as she demonstrated her weight-lifting routine. She even nabbed a coveted listing on IMDb, a Who’s Who database of everyone important in Hollywood when she was featured in the documentary, “How to Live Forever.”

So, what was so special about Marge?

She was pumping iron, riding her stationary bike eight miles per day, driving her Cadillac, and volunteering at seven different organizations — at 104 years old. (Jane Fonda, now in her early 80s, has another two decades before she can even come close to beating Marge’s personal best.)

Marge died at 106. But she was a part of one of only five rare cohorts across the world: centenarians who are active, healthy, and mentally sharp. These people live in areas dubbed, the Blue Zones. She told a member of the expedition team who interviewed her, “I feel sexier at 104 than I did at 103.”

There are centenarians in the United States, and their numbers are growing. In 2014, there were over 72,000 compared to just over 50,000 in 2000, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 1 But, in most of the US, being older isn’t always better. American centenarian death rates increased 119% during the same period that prevalence was rising. Top causes of death included heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and stroke, suggesting that, for many, reaching 100 didn’t mean they were thriving. 2

The old folks in these communities were anything but old. Not only did they have low rates of disease, they had the fitness, social life, and even, work experience, of someone much younger.”

LIVE LONGER HEALTHIER

But the Marges of the world reveal what is possible. Author Dan Buettner discovered Marge — and many others just like her — when he was commissioned to write a feature for National Geographic magazine exploring which populations live the longest while still staying healthy. His research extended into all reaches of the planet: With a team of demographers, he gathered census data and official birth records, then tracked those who were still alive 100 or more years later. When they discovered clusters of centenarians in one place, they travelled to investigate.3 Buettner noted, in an interview at The Aspen Institute, that there were 10 times the number of male centenarians in Sardinia, an island off Italy, compared to an equivalent American population. The longest-lived women live in Okinawa, Japan, and among those over 60, there are 30 times more female centenarians compared to in similar American communities. 4 In addition to assessing the age of those in these areas, they evaluated health.

Five centenarian hotspots around the planet were identified. Here, people lived, on average, 10 to 12 more healthier years than the typical American. These Blue Zones, so called because a blue pen was used when they began tracking them on a map, are: Sardinia, near Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece, Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and Loma Linda in California.

The old folks in these communities were anything but old. Not only did they have low rates of disease, they had the fitness, social life, and even, work experience, of someone much younger. They seem to have found the fountain of youth as, well into their 90s and 100s, they were living active, vibrant, fulfilling lives. Dementia and other chronic diseases of aging were uncommon.

Was it their genes?

Buettner has noted that populations were diverse, despite many of the zones being in somewhat isolated areas. This suggests that there was genetic diversity. Even so, studies on longevity using twins, comparing the influences of similar genetics to their environments have found that only about 20 to 25% of the differences in lifespans appear to be determined by genetics; lifestyle behaviors seemed to be the major determinant for how well they aged.5,6

Despite different environments across the different Blue Zones, Buettner’s team found a slew of commonalities in eating patterns, physical activity and social behaviors, even when they were at opposite ends of the world. Buettner’s team dubbed these common denominators that seem to play a key role in keeping these populations healthy well into their 100s, the Blue Zones Power 9.7

In many ways, doing the right things in the Blue Zones is easier. In our frenzied, urban world, living healthy is a choice you have to make — and one that’s not always easy to stick to. The modern world’s obesogenic environment allows for junk food at every stop and every turn. Modern conveniences, driving and desk-bound occupations factor activity out of daily living. So, it takes some will power and discipline to move more, eat healthier and de-stress. In the Blue Zones, the environment supports, even necessitates, healthy behaviors. While you might only ever take a short vacation to Sardinia, you can still create your own blue zone at home to get a taste of the good life. Here are the key elements to growing young.

THE BLUE ZONES POWER 9
  1. MOVE NATURALLY

Folks in Western and modern societies tend to be all-or-nothing. We either beat records achieving the least-amount of pedometer steps possible with our sedentary lifestyles. Or we workout like fiends: running triathlons, maxing out with weight lifting, pushing limits with Cross-fit®, or diving in not just to do yoga, but to become a yogi master.

They’re chill in the Blue Zones, skipping health clubs or treadmills, for the most part. But physical activity is so ingrained into daily life that they move every 20 minutes or so, according to Buettner. They do chores, and spend time outside — not just gardening, but planting their own food. They cook, clean and canoe. Some herd sheep. And they walk — a lot. In most of the Blue Zones they tend to walk for recreation and for function – using their feet to get to social and family gatherings.

BLUE-ZONIFY YOUR LIFE: You don’t need to quit the gym, return your Peloton or stop going to Zumba classes. But move more when you’re not exercising, too. A one-hour workout won’t compensate for 23 hours of sluggishness.8 So, make regular physical activity an unavoidable part of your day. Mow the lawn, pull the weeds. Scrub your bathtub. Walk more — and use an app or pedometer to track steps. Aim for at least 10,000 — if not 20K. Take standing breaks at your desk — get a treadmill desk and walk as you work (slowly at 1.0 to 2.0 mph.)

  1. PURPOSE

The elderly in the Blue Zones don’t just get old, lazy and languish. When these folks wake up in the morning, they have stuff to do. There is no word for retirement in the Blue Zones. Instead, the various cultures use vocabulary to express having a purpose and ‘plan de vida’ — a reason to live. A study in the Journals of Gerontology  found that study participants who were 60 and over experienced greater increases in life satisfaction over time if they volunteered. 9

BLUE-ZONIFY YOUR LIFE: Figure out your purpose and live it. Give back every day. If you are unsure, reflect on your talents and gifts. Figure out how you can use them for good. Volunteer. Mentor. Babysit the grandkids.

  1. DOWN SHIFT

The modern work culture, especially in the US, scrimps on vacation time. And a large chunk of people don’t even use it all. In an unstable economy with job insecurity, there can be added pressure to stay on the clock all the time. While some savvy companies are recognizing the productivity benefits of urging, or even requiring, workers to take down-time, it’s often easier said than done.

BLUE-ZONIFY YOUR LIFE: Decompress: meditate, pray, practice deep breathing. But make it a regular part of your days, several times a day, instead of a sometime stress-relief moment. Walk, and walk in nature. Slow down. Take vacations. Take naps. Go off the grid for some periods during your day and week. A study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that more time spent using social media was associated with greater symptoms of anxiety. 10 So, if staying on social media causes more stress, opt out.

  1. 80 PERCENT RULE
The benefits of slight caloric restriction —as opposed to either eating till stuffed or full-on fasting — on health and aging have been well-documented in the scientific literature. 11,12 The Okinawans make a point to stop eating sooner rather than later, aiming to eat until around 80% full.

How much you eat can be quantified by either by counting calories or by considering the volume and bulk of your meals. Processed foods are more condensed, as much of the fiber and water are stripped away. So, a small serving of something processed can pack a big caloric wallop. This makes it easy to rack up excess calories in your meals, even though portion sizes may not seem excessive. And when energy-dense oils or fats are used, it’s even easier to pack in even more calories, but without always triggering feelings of satiety.

BLUE-ZONIFY YOUR LIFE: Starting with smaller portions and using smaller plates can help one eat less. But if you are used to that full feeling, you can get the same sensations of satiety, but with fewer calories, by eating more whole, unprocessed foods, especially whole plant foods which are high in water and fiber and naturally low in high-calorie fat.

  1. WINE AT 5
All the Blue Zoners, except for the tee-totaling 7th Day Adventists in Loma Linda, drink some alcohol regularly — mostly red wine. Their local Sardinian wine turns out to be exceptionally high in health-boosting polyphenols. But they drink small amounts — no binge drinking on a Saturday night. Is it the wine or the alcohol that might be contributing to their good health? Research does show that one glass of red wine per day can improve heart disease risk in women, but the same amount can also raise breast cancer risk. 13 It could be that their highly nutritious diet mitigates potential negative effects of the wine. It’s unclear, but these centenarians seem to be able to enjoy a glass or two and still live to be the longest -living and the healthiest people in the world.

BLUE-ZONIFY YOUR LIFE: Have your wine and drink it, too. Just keep it moderate and make sure the foods you eat are highly nutritious. If you’re motivated to seek it out, try some Sardinian Cannonau wine for its powerful antioxidants.

  1. BELONG
Almost all the centenarians were a part of a faith-based community — of varying denominations and this was thought to contribute to their health and lifespan. Other research has also suggested a link between faith and longevity. A large study in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine found that in nearly 75,000 women observed, those who attended a religious service more than once a week had a 33 percent lower risk of death from heart disease, cancer and all causes compared to women who had never attended services. 14

BLUE-ZONIFY YOUR LIFE: Ramp up your church-, temple- or mosque-going if you’ve been slack. And if you are a lapsed practitioner or never participated, consider reaching out to friends or family to check out their congregations. If organized religions aren’t your thing, non-denominational services may also provide a way to meet like-minded people, give back to the community through church- or temple-based volunteerism, and to reconnect with your spirituality.

  1. LOVED ONES FIRST
Blue-zoners forged strong family ties and lived with or near relatives. Aging parents or grandparents were included in the lives of the younger clan, and revered for their wisdom. As a result, their standing in the family remained strong as they continued to contribute and play a role in the family.

BLUE-ZONIFY YOUR LIFE: With immediate family, it’s usually easy to feel like you are making them a priority. But are you fully present? Or, when you’re with them, do you spend much of the time on your phone zoning out? One academic review found that parents could be distracted by their phones, affecting the quality of their parenting 15 The solution? Love the ones you’re with — and focus on them, too.

  1. RIGHT TRIBE
People in the Blue Zones don’t just stay close to family, they stay close to a strong network of friends. For their entire life they stay part of a healthy tribe—selecting friends and social groups that value friends and social groups.

BLUE-ZONIFY YOUR LIFE: Research has shown positive links between social relationships and longevity. One study tried to tease out the mechanisms that might explain the association. They looked at large numbers of adolescents and adults over time and found that those who had higher degrees of social connectedness had healthier levels of biomarkers that predicted inflammation or poor health, such as C-reactive protein, hypertension and abdominal obesity. The authors concluded that being embedded in social networks appears to be critical for health during early formative years and in later adult years when maintaining social ties contributes to well-being. 16 So, take the time to cultivate new friendships, and spend time nurturing those you have.

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  1. Xu J. Mortality Among Centenarians in the United States, 2000-2014. NCHS Data Brief. 2016;(233):1-8.
  2. Xu JQ. Mortality among centenarians in the United States, 2000–2014. NCHS data brief, no 233. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2016https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db233.pdf
  3. Buettner, D. National Geographic. The Secrets of Longevity. November 2004: 2-26.
  4. The Aspen Institute. Interview with Ezekiel Emanuel MD. June 25, 2017. Accessed August 30, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxy5gumw9IA.
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