How long will you live? Current life expectancy in the United States is 79 years. If that doesn’t sound long enough, you may want to check out the lifestyles of people who live in Blue Zones – or the five places in the world where a disproportionately high number of residents live to 100.
Bestselling author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner has studied the habits of people who live in Blue Zones for years. Those places include: Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan and Nicoya, Costa Rica.
As a result of his research, Buettner has found that “only about 20 percent of our genes determine how long the average person lives. This means that our lifestyle and environment will greatly shape our health and happiness in later years.”
“Genetic predisposition is certainly a part of longevity, but, yes, by itself, it may not be enough,” says Dr. Beata Styka, a geriatric medicine physician at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill. She explains that while we cannot control or alter our genes, we are in control of our habits and certain environmental factors.
“A healthy lifestyle may increase the lifespan of an individual by decades,” Dr. Styka says. She recommends we make certain daily lifestyle changes that will pay off in our later days and follow seven lessons shared by residents of the Blue Zones.
- Make exercise a natural part of daily life, not just a gym activity
“Although some people find daily gym workouts or training for an organized run to be their preferred way to stay fit and decrease stress, you can incorporate an active lifestyle into your everyday life in lieu of formal workouts,” says Brandon Nemeth, a fitness specialist with Christ Medical Center.
Riding your bicycle, walking instead of driving, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, playing with your children/grandchildren and doing yard work are just some of the ways you can stay active outside of the gym, which Dr. Sytka and Nemeth suggest those living in the Blue Zones embrace.
- Find your meaning, even in retirement
It’s important for everyone to have meaningful work and positive relationships with family and friends. “However, when you decide to retire, it’s important that you have a way to replace the bulk of your now free time with something that is significant to you and gives you a sense of purpose,” says Dr. Styka. “This could be volunteer work, a part time job in another field of interest, a passion project or caring for an aging relative or a young grandchild,” Dr. Styka explains.
According to Buettner, “knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.”
- Reduce your meat consumption and overall food intake
A high percentage of those living in the Blue Zones eat a primarily plant-based, or vegetarian, diet, and for good reason. “A diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in animal-based fats is good for your heart and can help to prevent numerous health issues, including Type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke and certain types of non-genetic cancers,” says Dr. Marc Silver, a cardiologist with the Advocate Heart Institute at Christ Medical Center. He recommends eating fish as your primary source of animal protein and limiting red meat to once or twice a month.
But remember, even with healthy food, you can still eat too much for your body to use. “While maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle is important in the quest to live to old age, calorie reduction is perhaps the only proven method to increase longevity,” says Dr. Silver, referencing a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“Hara hachi bu” means “eat until you’re 80% full,” and according to Buettner, Okinawans repeat this mantra before each meal.
- Have a solid social circle and believe in a Higher Power
A study from Brigham Young University suggests social relationships lead to longer and more fulfilled lives. Part of that socialization often includes religion, and Buettner found that regardless of denomination, people who attend faith-based services four times a month add up to 14 years to their life expectancy.
“Diverse faith traditions support the importance of community and of seeking meaning beyond oneself,” says Chaplain Corky DeBoer, manager of Spiritual Services at Christ Medical Center.
“Spirituality embraces supportive relationships, which in turn helps to reduce the sense of pain and anxiety often experienced when isolated or cut off from such support,” says Chaplain DeBoer, who cited Ecclesiastes 4: verse 9-10, “Two are better than one… If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.”
Chaplain DeBoer says that believing in a Higher Power often shifts the focus off of oneself and can result in living more out of a sense of gratitude. “As people reach out to others or join others to make a difference in their communities or in our world, they experience more fulfillment and meaning in their lives, which also seems to increase longevity.”
- Drink with your friends (in moderation)!
In Sardinia, Buettner found, moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers, and noted that alcohol was usually part of social gatherings, common in daily life in Sardinia.
“A glass or two of red wine or a favorite pint of beer is fine for those who don’t struggle with alcoholism, and it may even have some health benefits,” Dr. Silver says. “Alcohol can be enjoyed by most as part of a healthy lifestyle, but it requires drinking in moderation only.”
Dr. Silver says that alcohol should be enjoyed in the company of friends and when drinking outside the home, there should always be a designated driver.
- Know that who you hang out with matters
If you want to make good, healthy choices, hang out with others who share your desires.
“Who you choose to hang out with has a major influence on your behaviors,” says Christ Medical Center affiliated psychiatrist Dr. Rian Rowles. “Social pressure is hard to resist, so if you want to pursue a healthy lifestyle, it’s important to surround yourselves with those who have the same goals.”
- Keep your stress levels down
“Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease,” says Buettner. Those living in the Blue Zones have methods for dealing with stress. The previous six tips, when incorporated together, should help to lead a full life where stress can be kept in check.
“Exercising, staying engaged, eating a healthy diet and spending time with friends and family are all ways that people can relieve stress,” says Dr. Styka, who agrees that stress can exacerbate health issues.
She offers these additional four tips for keeping stress in check:
- Learn to accept that life brings constant change and that there are many things that you cannot change or control.
- Don’t let fear take over and control your life.
- Be aware of your limitations. Don’t overextend yourself.
- Know what you cherish in life and make those things a priority.