JOHANNESBURG – Over the past decades there has been a growing realisation that lifestyle factors and habits play a much more significant role in the longevity of communities than genes.
But what do those communities where people are living the longest lives have in common?
On a recent visit to South Africa to address the 42nd Annual Convention of the Actuarial Society of South Africa, Nick Buettner of The Blue Zones Project, took the audience on a journey to the places in the world where people have the lowest rates of middle-aged mortality and are reaching ages of 80 to a 100 at higher rates than anywhere else in the world.
Blue Zones partnered with National Geographic to find the five places where these communities are living. The group studied their habits with the help of demographers, doctors and epidemiologists and was able to identify nine common lifestyle traits.
The first Blue Zone: Sardinia, Italy
Buettner said Sardinia off the coast of Italy includes about 14 villages, has a population of roughly 42 000 people and the highest percentage of male centenarians in the world.
“It is a place where at a 102 they are still riding bikes, at 104 they are actively chopping wood and they can beat somebody 65 years their junior at arm wrestling.”
Sardinia is the home of shepherds – people generally move around throughout the day. Since its citizens are often away from home they had to devise a portable food and eat a lot of bread made from durum wheat as a result. Their diets also include a grass-fed cheese called pecorino, which is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, and moderate amounts of a homemade wine called Cannonau, which contains a significant percentage of polyphenols.
Buettner said the Sardinians live off a plant-based diet and eat fruit and vegetables they grow themselves. While they are not vegetarians, they only eat meat roughly four times a month (usually pork). The portion size is also notably smaller than Americans are used to.
“But what I think is more important than their exercise and even more important than the food that they eat, was their attitude towards aging.”
Around the world social equity typically reaches its peak at the age of 26, but in Sardinia, the older you get, the more revered you are. As people get older, they tend to move in with their kids and are surrounded by loved ones. However, they are still expected to participate, to help raise kids and cook for their families.
The expedition also studied the habits of four other Blue Zones around the world including Ikaria in Greece, Loma Linda in California, Okinawa in Japan and Nicoya in Costa Rica. They were able to identify nine lifestyle traits (what they refer to as
Power 9®) that these populations integrated into their lives that helped them live a longer, happier life.
1. Natural movement
People in the Blue Zone communities did not join health clubs or ran marathons. Instead, they led an active lifestyle – walked to a friend’s house, church, restaurants and to the grocery store. Their houses also didn’t have the conveniences modern homes are used to like remote controls.
2. Techniques to reduce stress
Buettner said people all around the world have the same worries – money, their health and their children. The only difference is that in the Blue Zone communities, people had adopted simple techniques to help reduce chronic inflammation that is associated with old age-related diseases. They hike, pray and in Sardinia they celebrate happy hour.
3. A strong sense of purpose
The two most dangerous years in your life is the year you are born and the year you retire, Buettner said.
A person is 30% more likely to die in the year he or she retires than during their last year of work, not because they take up risky activities, but because they have lost their sense of purpose.
In all of these communities people not only had a sense of purpose, but could articulate it. This is tied to up to seven more years of longevity, he said.
4. The 80% rule
Buettner said in Okinawa in Japan, people start their meal with the same three words: “Hara hachi bu”. It means they will only eat until they are 80% full.
When they start their meal, they already focus on not overeating and have techniques set up to reinforce it.
5. Plant-based diet with lots of beans
Buettner said about 90% of their diet was plant-based. It also included a fair amount of carbohydrates and starch, containing grains and sweet potatoes.
The cornerstone of every longevity diet is beans – a great source of protein, he said.
These populations tend to eat meat less than five times a month and eat fish less than three times a week. They drink water, tea, coffee and wine.
6. Moderate wine intake
Buettner said research suggests two glasses of wine per day can help you live a longer life.
These communities had a strong sense of faith. Research suggests people that go to church at least four times a month live four to 14 years longer than people who don’t, he said.
8. Family and loved ones first
Buettner said the foundation that holds everything together is connection. People in these populations put their family first and as people get older they are still surrounded by their loved ones. They also tend to stay married – people who are married generally live longer than people who are not.
9. A healthy social network
Friends were also an important part of the equation.
Buettner said the Framingham study suggests that if your three best friends smoke, drink too much or are depressed, unhappy or obese you are much more likely to engage in these activities or be caught up in unhealthy behaviour as well.
It is not only important to have a network that is reinforcing healthy behaviour, but also to be able to pick up the phone on a bad day and to have a friend that will listen.