First of all, is there a secret? As a Naturopathic doctor, I sometimes get asked: what is the secret to living to 100 years old? Is there a vitamin I should take, or some kind of trick? Or are some people just genetically lucky?
Today I had the amazing privilege of attending my great-aunt and uncle's 75th wedding anniversary. He is 95 and she is 93, and they have enjoyed an amazing life together with 7 wonderful children. It got me thinking about longevity.
It’s true that genetics do play an important factor in longevity, but your lifestyle choices probably carry much more weight. Scientists have recently been studying a phenomenon dubbed “Blue Zones”, which fascinates me. These so-called “Blue Zones” are small communities of people who have an abnormally large number of people living over 100 years, also known as centenarians. We’ve now got some great evidence about how and why people live a long time.
Interesting Statistics About Longevity
Living 100 years is quite an impressive accomplishment. To give myself a mental frame of reference, I looked up some interesting statistics about longevity:
- The average life expectancy in the United States is 78 years.
- The world’s oldest verified person was a French woman named Jeanne Calment (1875–1997), who lived to the age of 122 years, 164 days.
- The world’s oldest man (who has been verified) was Jiroemon Kimura (1897–2013) of Japan, who lived to the age of 116 years, 54 days.
- Nobody born in the 1800’s is still alive. The last living person from the 1800’s died in 2017. She was an Italian woman named Emma Morano and she lived to be 117 years, 137 days.
There are no living veterans of World War I. The last living veteran of World War I, a British woman named Florence Green, died 4 February 2012, aged 110 years old.
The Blue Zones
If you live to be 100, there is a good chance you may be residing in a "Blue Zone". The term “Blue Zones” was first used by author Dan Buettner, and I highly recommend you check out his book The Blue Zones. While working for National Geographic, Buettner began studying these small and concentrated pockets of centenarians (the official name for people who live over 100), and while we don’t know one specific thing that will guarantee a long life, his book gives us some great evidence so we can take steps in the right direction. It’s a really great read for examining your values and lifestyle choices if you want to live a long, healthy, and meaningful life.
In Buettner’s book, The Blue Zones, he details five of the known Blue Zones:
- Ikaria: Ikaria is a tiny Greek island in the Aegean Sea where people enjoy an enviable Mediterranean diet of vegetables, olive oil, and red wine. After being invaded for centuries, Ikarians have developed a strong insulated culture big on family values and tradition. Exercise is built into their lifestyle with simple tasks such as growing food, walking about town to visit friends and neighbors.
- Ogliastra, Sardinia (Italy): The Italian Ogliastra region of Sardinia has an unusually large population of the oldest men on earth. Statistically there tend to be more centenarian women than men. The super-aged Ogliastrans live in mountainous topography where a typical day is spent working on a farm and drinking plenty of red wine. Sounds kinda fun to me!
- Okinawa, Japan: The island of Okinawa in Japan is home to some of the world’s oldest women. These ladies get together regularly in small neighborhood groups to socialize. This development of a tight-knit, caring community is thought to add years to their lives. They also eat a lot of healthy, homegrown foods and practice a form of meditation known as tai chi, which keeps their bodies active and limber.
- Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica): These people really impressed me. Doing chores and physical tasks at age 100? I hope I can get there! Their diet is simple, mostly home grown beans and corn tortillas. A sense of life known as “plan de vida” keeps them going, which shows me having a purpose in life in old age is essential.
- Seventh-day Adventist Community in Loma Linda, California: The secret to living to 100 may be rooted in a wholesome and healthy lifestyle. No alcohol and a strictly vegetarian diet are part of the secret of the Seventh-day Adventist’s success to a long and happy life. A strong sense of community is also prevalent. I’m seeing a pattern with all of these communities!
There may be other pockets of super-aged people in the world, but these were the one’s chosen for Buettner’s book. It was one of the most fascinating books I’ve come across in years, and easy to read and understand for just about anybody.
How to Live Past 100: 4 Important Priorities
As a doctor, what did I take away from it? At first I really wanted to move to one of these places! These lifestyles seem so pure and healthy it tempted me to pack up and head for the mountains of Sardinia. Of course, that’s not really feasible, and neither is trying to parachute-drop yourself into a culture that’s totally unfamiliar with the singular goal of longer life. Instead of packing my bags, I tried to take what I could from each of these wonderful communities and apply them to my own life back home. The book reminded me to continue to keep these things as a priority in my life:
- Eat healthy, natural, organic, and mostly plant-based foods. As the old saying goes, “You are what you eat.” Make sure what you put into your body is the high octane stuff!
- Surround myself with family and friends and foster a tight-knit community of loving people. This is increasingly tough to do in our 21st century world of cell phones and social media. I try to dine with friends and family whenever possible, asking everybody to put their cell phones down and enjoy each other in the present.
- Make exercise an integrated part of my life. Yes, I go to the gym, but remembering to integrate those little physical activities whenever possible is critical. Walk to the store, a friend’s house, or a restaurant if you can. Relish shoveling snow and all that yard work we usually think of as merely a chore. If you have to drive, park in the farthest spot from the door, and don’t look at it as an inconvenience, but a chance to get free exercise.
- Lead a purpose-driven life. This one came a little easier to me since I love what I do and being a doctor is very rewarding. But it was a great reminder to me that as I age, retire, and enter new phases of life, finding new and meaningful purposes is going to be essential to keeping me going.