What if you were able not only to live longer, but to feel better for longer? Growing old sounds great in theory, but there’s a difference between a 90-year-old who does crossword puzzles and takes daily walks and a 90-year-old who can only watch TV and stare out the window. Which kind of life would you prefer?
“There is a critical distinction between living longer and living healthier and longer,” says Jill Carnahan, MD, a Colorado-based functional medicine expert. “What does longevity mean? It’s about optimal aging, in which your brain, body, mind and spirit are all functioning at their best, well into your later years.” So you not only have a high quantity of life, but a high quality of life.
The good news: Healthy aging is less about genetics and more about your lifestyle. And it’s never too late to make changes that will have a long-lasting impact. Research done by Dan Buettner, National Geographic fellow and author of The Blue Zones and The Blue Zones Kitchen, looked at certain areas of the world with the highest number of centenarians-people living well into their 100s, free of disease, disability, and dementia. Buettner dubbed these five regions the “Blue Zones”:
“In studying the people of these regions, we effectively found the common denominators that are the keys to longevity,” Buettner says. “If you can set up your life so you move more, eat less, socialize more and live out your purpose, you can get the most good years out of your body and mind.” He adds that making these lifestyle changes will not only help you feel better, but will also help you to avoid heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and dementia. Sounds good, right? Read on for what you can do to live a long, healthy life.
While our culture tends to value exercise (and for good reason), research has found that the world’s longest living people don’t hit the gym, but instead, live in environments in which they’re naturally nudged into daily, consistent movement.
“They tend to walk to school or work, have gardens out back and clean their own homes, without all the mechanical conveniences we tend to rely on,” Buettner explains. “We found that centenarians get some sort of movement every 20 minutes or so.”
Make activity part of your daily life, without thinking too much about it. “Take walks, go on hikes, get into nature, work in your yard,” Dr. Carnahan suggests. “You can even do some strength exercises over the course of the day, like squat breaks while walking your dog or calf raises while you brush your teeth, all of which will maintain muscle mass, an essential as we age.”
You may have already heard about the body and brain benefits of following a Mediterranean diet-not surprisingly, it’s similar to how the Blue Zones cultures eat, too. “Those who eat a whole food, plant-based diet, full of grains, tubers, nuts and free of dairy, tend to have six years additional life expectancy than those eating a standard diet,” Buettner says.
One of the main cornerstones to a longevity diet: Beans like fava, black, soy and lentils. “I think of them as the ultimate superfood: a slow-burn food full of fiber and protein, that keeps your immune system finely tuned,” says Buettner. He adds that a bean and grain together-like a lentil and barley stew-are a whole protein, with all of the amino acids of a piece of meat.
Whether you’re living on a rural island in Greece or in a bustling city in the U.S., we can’t really escape daily stresses, which unfortunately lead to chronic inflammation and disease. (Yes, it’s a real bummer.) Still, there are ways to combat those burdens as best you can. “The world’s oldest living people have routines to shed stress, whether it’s having a happy hour or taking a nap,” Buettner says. “In fact, our research found that taking naps lowers heart disease by about one-third.”
Of course, when you’re working full time, it’s tough to doze off for a bit. That’s why Dr. Carnahan recommends daily meditation, which can be done through a guided meditation app, and taking Epsom salt baths, which help you to relax, as well as aid in detoxifying the body.
Forget fad diets and weight-loss gimmicks: If you want to stay healthy, stop eating when you’re about 80% full. This isn’t just to help you maintain a healthy, balanced weight-it will also aid and optimize your digestion, a key player in keeping your body functioning in top form. “The most intuitive way to eat is to have a big breakfast, a medium lunch and a smaller dinner, and to eat all of your calories in a 10-hour window, without snacking in between,” Buettner says.
Whether you’re going to a place of worship every Sunday, volunteering with a local organization, or participating in an interest-based club, having a community-based network that you regularly connect with can add anywhere from four to 14 years to your life. “Religious people, regardless of the denomination, tend to live longer than non-religious people, likely because they have to show up week after week, and are naturally encouraged to unwind and power down for those couple of hours in a place where there’s a built-in network,” explains Buettner. If a religious institution isn’t for you, Dr. Carnahan suggests taking any opportunity for social connectedness, whether it’s a weekly yoga practice, a monthly book club, or just a friends’ lunch every Friday.
Speaking of friends, having the right social circle is beneficial as well. “Studies have found that obesity, smoking, and even loneliness are contagious-but so is happiness,” says Buettner. “If you’re surrounded by people who have healthy lifestyles, you’ll be able to maintain those same habits yourself.”
Those with close-knit families tend to live several years longer as well, with aging parents and grandparents nearby, a committed life partner, and a focus on family life. There is a reciprocal effect, in which adults are taking care of their aging parents, grandparents are taking care of the kids-essentially, everyone in the family unit is being supported and loved.
Several studies have found that those who drink one to two glasses of alcohol a day reduce their risk of heart attack and stroke by 25 to 40%. “Having a drink lowers your cortisol levels and helps ease the stress of the day,” explains Buettner. “In almost all of the Blue Zones, they drank alcohol moderately and regularly, often with friends so they have the social aspect as well.” (Moderately, of course, being the operative word).
The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida,” which according to Buettner translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” As he says, “It’s about knowing what your role is in your family, in your community, in your job, and feeling fulfilled in that. Knowing your sense of purpose can add seven years to your life expectancy.” While easier said than done, having gratitude and perspective, as well as making sure you’re spending some part of your day doing what you enjoy, can do wonders for your mind and body. A life well-lived is one worth prolonging.