Would you like to live until you’re 100 years old? I rather expect that, like me, you would hedge your answer to that with some conditions. “Well”, you might say, “that depends on what shape I am in mentally and physically. It depends on where I am living and who is looking after me and how much I am enjoying still being alive”. And yet if I framed the question somewhat differently as ‘when precisely would you be happy to die?’ I suspect that we’d find that question almost impossible to answer. Given a choice between staying alive and shuffling off our mortal coil, I think most of us would opt to keep our mortal coil very firmly attached, even if the body it was attached to had lost most of its spring!
Three things have sparked these thoughts. Firstly I read a short news item which said that, thanks to a post First World War baby boom in 1919 and 1920, the number of adults aged over 100 has risen by 52% in a year, so that there are more people aged over 100 living in Britain than ever before. Then I read a much longer article entitled ‘A life that lasts 150 years is no longer just a madman’s quest’ and finally I have been reading a book about the Blue Zones which are five pockets in the world in which there are a disproportionate number of centenarians, apparently thriving in a way that defies all expectations.
All of which has got me thinking about increasing longevity and what it means for you and me.
I rarely thought about longevity until I was in my late 60s. At that point my life wasn’t very different from how it had always been. I’d eschewed the possibility of retirement by starting Look Fabulous Forever at 65 and I felt energetic and healthy. But turning 70 was a psychological watershed, probably because the belief that we can expect no more than our allotted ‘three score years and ten’ had been an oft repeated mantra of my parents, one of whom, my mother, only made it to 67. I felt as though any years that I might have after reaching 70 meant that I was living on borrowed time. Since then I have completely reframed my attitude to my own ageing in order to properly understand how this process might be affected by the choices I make. Everything I have learnt has helped me to be less fatalistic and more optimistic, mostly because there is considerable consensus about how to increase your chances not just of living longer, but of living for longer in better shape.
Which brings me to the book I’ve been reading called The Blue Zones. This seeks to answer the question ‘why would certain communities have many more centenarians than others?’ The five places that contain such long-lived groups of people are in Sardinia, on Ikaria, a Greek island, in Okinawa in Japan, in Costa Rica and finally amongst a community of Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. Certain peculiarities are stressed, especially in relation to diet, but themes start to emerge as you read the stories of the people who are living these exceptionally long lives. The most significant fact is that they not only live longer but they tend to live better. None of the groups is living in a retirement community and all have strong connections with their families, friends and wider community. They’re still active and wake every morning with a sense of purpose and enjoyment. They are respected for their age and wisdom, so they feel valued and important in that society, rather than sidelined and neglected. The result is that they most often feel positive and optimistic about life which, in turn, seems to ensure their longevity.
Lessons from the Blue Zones
In all longevity cultures, activity is part of everyday life. It’s not about going to the gym but building as much natural movement into your life as you possibly can. In Sardinia the centenarian men, who had mostly been shepherds herding their animals across rugged terrain, have outlived their womenfolk who stayed home. In many ways these shepherds have been leading lives unchanged since biblical times with few modern conveniences. The key message for all of us is to find as many ways as possible to shift our bodies. One of the best is to have an animal which needs exercise (a dog rather than a goat or sheep!) and a garden which needs year round attention because it provides frequent, low intensity, full-range-of-motion activity. Bodies need movement, so, in order to most closely emulate the fitness levels of those living in the Blue Zones, aim for at least 150 minutes a week of activity which raises your heart rate and makes you slightly out of breath.
This is about how much and what you are eating. Okinawans believe that you should stop eating when you are 80% full, so on average they take in about 1900 calories a day. The Sardinian diet was similar at 2000 calories. Thanks to this, none of the centenarians studied was overweight. Western diets tend to be calorie dense (cake, biscuits, crisps, chips) , so if you choose foods which are low in calorie density (vegetables, fruit, salad stuffs) and fill your (smaller) plate with those then you’ll be more satisfied whilst eating fewer calories. It also helps to focus on your food, eat it more slowly and take the bulk of your daily food earlier rather than later in the day. All Blue Zone residents eat their lightest meal in the evening. Some Adventists believe that if you eat a hearty breakfast of whole grains, fruits, nuts and milk that you’ll fuel your body for most of the day without a need for snacking on sugary or fatty foods.
Plant Based Foods and Red Wine
The centenarians studied in all the Blue Zones ate many more plant based foods than meat, which was limited to twice weekly at most. Beans played a big role as did soy based products like tofu and miso in the Okanawan cuisine. The Adventist Health Study also showed that eating nuts every day conferred many health benefits, regardless of the type of nut, so snacking on nuts is preferable to reaching for the biscuits, despite their relatively high calorie and fat content. And the good news continues with the proven benefits of a couple of glasses of red wine daily which appears to promote heart health. As in all things, consistency and moderation is key. The centenarians on Sardinia and Ikaria tended to drink a daily glass of local red wine with their meals, whilst for the Okinawans the favoured tipple was Saki.
Purpose, De-Stressing and Slowing Down
All of which explains why these centenarians were faring so well physically, but what of their minds? The studies of each community showed that they also had a strong sense of purpose, expressed in Japanese as ‘Ikigai’. This meant that they had a better reason to get up each day than a full bladder! It seems that it really does help to have a sense of achievement, perhaps by learning a new skill or setting yourself a goal for something you’d still like to achieve or master. When I’m 90, my daughter Suzy will be 60 and my grandson Patrick will have just turned 30. I have told Patrick that I intend to dance with him at Suzy’s 60th birthday celebration. Not sure how he feels about that, but I’m really excited! The centenarians in the blue zones also exuded a kind of sublime serenity, allowing themselves to truly appreciate what was around them without rushing onto the next thing. Asked what advice she’d give to her younger self, 107 year old Raffaella Monne from the Sardinian village of Arzana said “Life is short. Don’t run so fast that you miss it.”
Family First, Then Your Tribe
And finally it will come as no surprise that familial love and a sense of belonging to a wider social group, sometimes connected via a strong religious belief, all supply the perfect conditions for a long life. In all of the five Blue Zones it was axiomatic that as people became more frail, they would be looked after within the family. In the Sardinian and Greek cultures such care of their elderly kin is seen as a matter of family honour, so they were scandalized by the notion of ‘putting their parents and grandparents away in a home’. That strong sense of family would appear to supply many centenarians in the Blue Zones with their purpose in life: to live long enough to meet as many of their grandchildren and great and even great-great grandchildren as possible.
My impression of the centenarians of the Blue Zones is that in many ways their longevity is down to being insulated from modern life. Even the Adventists who live in ‘the smoggy orbit of greater Los Angeles’ have managed through their religious belief to create an island in a sea of normal modern American life. They follow a faith that expressly discourages smoking, alcohol consumption or eating meat in general, as well as rich foods, caffeinated drinks and even ‘stimulating’ condiments and spices. From these studies, my overriding impression is that physical fitness is more about daily activity than being a gym bunny. It’s also clear that a largely plant based diet with occasional consumption of meat combined with a glass or two of red wine, places less stress on ageing bodies than the calorie dense foods supplied by our modern Western diet. And finally feeling loved, and even treasured, as part of a wider community consisting of family and friends, is essential to nurture our sense of value and to give us a powerful reason to stay alive.
I mentioned earlier an article I have also just read about the possibility of extending life to 150 years. If I tell you that multi-billionaires Larry Page (Google), Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Peter Thiel (Paypal) are all investing in ‘anti-ageing technologies’ and “chasing immortality and eternal youth” then you may be unsurprised to learn that we’re in the realm of the hubristic 5000 year old quest for an elixir of life. Money is piling into research and there have been some successes in extending the lives of nematode worms and rats. I’ve decided not to hold my breath, however. Will I live to December 2047 and receive my telegram from the Queen (who would herself be 121)? Who knows? My longevity objective is simply to live as well as I can for as long as I can. Better start practising, young Patrick, Granny has donned her dancing shoes!
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