9 ways to live a better life for longer

If you caught my Things I’m afraid to tell you post a while back, you’d know that the one thing that sends me into a catatonic frenzy of anxiety is the idea of growing old.... actually; it’s the idea of growing withered in old age that puts a pickle in my soup.


In 2011 this guy entered the guinness book of records for being the older person to complete a marathon... at age 100!

I’m not professing to be alone in this consternation. I don’t know anyone who is chipper with the prospect of walking frames and 7-day pill organisers and forgetting where one put their dentures. The sad truth, my friends, is that there is some real cause to stay alert (but not alarmed). Population data shows that whilst our average life expectancy is now 83.5 years for women and 78.7 for men, our healthy life expectancy, that is the number of years we can expect to live disability or disease free, is only 75.2 years for women and 70.6 for men. What’s more, whilst our average life expectancy has been increasing over the past 120 years, our healthy life expectancy is getting shorter. Between 1996 and 2003, healthy life expectancy fell by 11.6% in men and 3.9% in women. 

In short, we may be living longer, but our final years ain’t that peachy.

The good news is (there is good news) that most of us should be able to reach the age of 90 in decent health and there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting we can play a big role in determining how well, as well as how long, we live into the future.

The Danish Twin Study established than only about 20% of how long the average person lives is determined by genes. And now there’s the Blue Zones...

In 2004, explorer and National Geographic fellow (cool job) Dan Buettner set out on an expedition to find and study pockets of people that could stand as the best examples of longevity around the world. He and his team found five such regions, where people reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than elsewhere AND live longer in good health and vitality: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica and Ikaria, Greece.

There’s Panchita, a 100-year old Nicoyan woman who cooks all her own food, splits her own logs and uses a machete to clear bush from her yard; Seirgyu Toguchi, a 105-year old Okinawan man who still tends to his veggie garden every day and Dr Ellsworth Wareham, who assists in 2 to 3 open heart surgeries a week... at the age of 91!

They’re examples of how illness and frailty are NOT eventualities of old age. Phew!

Buettner and his team of researchers studied the behaviours, habits and characteristics of the longest lived people in each Blue Zone and teased out which behaviours were likely to have something to do with their extraordinary longevity. They came up with nine habits (they call the Power 9) that, if put into practice in everyday life, can add a good 10 years to your life:

Just Move
People in the Blue Zones don’t run marathons or pump iron – they don’t exercise, as such. Instead, physical activity is built into their daily lives, so that they are active all day without even thinking about it. They mix cake batter by hand, they tend to their veggie gardens, they do their own housework, they walk uphill to collect wild greens and teas. They live in environments that “constantly nudge them into moving, everyday”.
Tip: Set up your environment to gently nudge you into moving – park your car further from your destination and walk the rest of the way, cycle to your local shops, start a garden, walk up the stairs instead of using the lift, make a habit of stretching for 10 minutes first thing every morning. It doesn’t matter what you do, the important bit is to just move, everyday.

Know your Ikigai
Blue Zone centenarians know why they wake up each morning, what value they bring to the table... they know their purpose. The exact nature of the purpose doesn’t so much matter – it doesn’t have to make you a Nobel Peace Prize contender (you don’t have to be building orphanages out of mud brick with your own bare hands). This 80- year old Ikarian man finds his purpose in tending to his bees every day.
Tip: If you struggle to find your Ikigai, do this short gratitude exercise. You might find that listing out all the things you’re grateful for helps you find some meaning and purpose in your daily life. 

Chillax
Stress triggers an inflammatory response in our bodies that accelerates the ageing process and feeds disease. Resting - proper resting - for as little as 15 minutes, activates an anti-inflammatory response that helps to reverse the detrimental effects of stress. Sardinians nap, Okinawans meditate... it doesn’t matter what you do, so long as it helps you rest and relax. And the everyday bit is vital, again.
Tip: One of the best resting methods known to man is mantra meditation. I’ve been meditating with a mantra for the past few months and can vouch for the fact that it really does help settle your mind, which is ¾ the struggle when it comes time to resting properly. Pick a random word or sound you don’t know the meaning of (it’s important you don’t know the meaning, but like the sound it makes) sit in a quiet spot and repeat the mantra to yourself gently, effortlessly. Your mind will deviate over and over again, of course, but keep coming back to the mantra. I try to do this twice for 10 minutes each time every day. You do get ‘better’ at it over time. I’ll be sharing more on my experiences with meditation in an up and coming post...

Hara hachi bu
Eat until you’re 80% full”. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon/early evening, then don’t eat for the rest of the day. They also eat smaller portions.
Tip: The Okinawans have developed little tricks to assist the cause – they serve food (on smaller plates) at the bench and then store the rest away. They then sit down to eat, mindfully, away from television or other distractions. They say the adage hara hachi bu before they tuck in to remind them to stop before they get that full stodgy feeling. That 20% gap could be the difference between losing weight and gaining weight.

Plant slant
Eat meat, if you like (which I do), but treat it as acondiment, and only once or twice a week. Centenarians eat meat, but it makes up only a small portion of their diet. Their meat is from grass-fed animals, which contains more omega-3 fatty acids instead of omega-6 fatty acids (as do grain-fed animals). Legumes, including black beans and lentils, are the cornerstone of their diet. Prepare them properly – don’t eat them out of a can, instead buy them dried and soak them overnight to get the most nutrients out of them. Even better, sprout them! The key is to eat lots of vegetables, and a rainbow of colours.
Tip: Read my five food adages to see how I get enough veg in my diet every day. And here’s some tips on how to eat meat more sustainably. 

Wine @ 5
Studies show that moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. One-two glasses of preservative-free red wine daily, at mealtimes, gives an important antioxidant boost to your daily diet.
Tip: Drink good quality, locally produced red wine but always with friends and/or food and never more than 1 – 2 glasses a day. Also try diluting it a little with water first, as do the Ikarians (and me).

Belong
Blue Zone centenarians belong to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t matter. I’d suggest the ‘faith-based’ bit doesn’t matter either. It’s the ‘belonging’ bit that does. It’s the feeling that you are part of a like-minded community that does the trick. People who feel they belong to a community or group feel less lonely and as a result are less stressed. Centenarians happen to get this by following a faith. But you could be part of a chicken appreciation club for all it matters.
Tip: Meetups is a website where you can search for groups of interest in your local area, everything from rock climbing to laughter groups. You could also check your community centre for local groups. Or start a book club or dinner club with your friends.

Loved ones first
Look after your loved ones. It’s not so common in countries like Australia and the US, but traditional families in places like Greece, Germany, Italy etc keep their aging parents and grandparents nearby or in their home. It’s better for the parents because they have more interaction, feel loved and cared for, and it’s better for the children in the home too, to have grandparents around. In fact having more loved ones involved in a child’s upbringing can help in raising a more balanced person.
Tip: For those lucky enough to have their grandparents close by, cherish them. Build in a regular routine activity or visit and involve them in your life as much as you can. (Sadly mine are all passed away but I still remember my short chubby yiayia chuckling and shuffling around her villa in Greece doing all the household chores and cooking for my uncle and his family every day... at the age of 83!)

The right tribe
The old adage “show me your friends and I’ll show you who you are” rings true for health and longevity too. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness and loneliness are contagious. It doesn’t mean you should dump your overweight, smoking, unhappy and lonely friends. It does mean that to enable a lifestyle that fosters healthy behaviours, it helps to have a circle of friends that are in on the same deal.
Tip: Recruit a few friends to go on a wellness journey with you. You’ll support each other and motivate each other to keep on going on. And it’s a great bonding experience.

To these 9 I'd like to add:

Get enough Vitamin D
An increasing evidence base is showing that vitamin D plays a pivotal role in many physiological processes in our bodies. It's vital we get enough vitamin D because its absence worsens the inflammatory response, which is the catalyst for many of the diseases so rampant in Western populations today. All the Blue Zone centenarians investigated by Buettner and his team spent a lot of time outdoors in the sun, soaking up some rays and synthesising vitamin D (which is the only way we can get it naturally). More on this later...
Tip: Spend at least 15 minutes outdoors every day. And be aware that sunscreen blocks our ability to synthesise vitamin D from the sun's rays.

Whichever way you look at it, whether your objective is to prolong your life or not, the lessons learned from centenarians are about how to live a full and fulfilling life. An apt Lincoln quote:

“And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.” 



6 comments:

  1. Very interesting.Loved this post. So I guess us having a goat that makes us get up to milk her in the morning is a kind of setting up the environment to nudge us into moving. I like that .
    Now just have to get cracking on the others. I feel younger already.

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    1. Yep, sounds like it Kim. Goat milk's so good for you too!

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  2. I find the Blue Zones so interesting, thanks for the great round up :)

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  3. Great post! You mention soaking your own legumes, beans etc rather than opening a tin. I have always meant to do this, but have heard there is some kind of toxin involved in some dry beans (esp kidney and cannellini?) and have always worried I will mis-prepare them. How do you normally do it? Once soaked, how long will they keep? Also, do you know if the toxin thing relates to lentils as well? I apologise for so many questions, just none of my family have ever soaked legumes, so really have no idea...

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    1. Never heard of this toxin to be honest... I've been eating soaked legumes since I was a kid... my mum never bought anything canned. I've never had an issue! I just soak in water and a little lemon juice overnight on the counter. Next day I rinse really well and store in fridge (if I'm not sprouting). Keeps in fridge 2 or 3 days. If I'm sprouting, I'll keep the legumes on the bench, rinsing a few times a day for 3 - 4 days until sprouts appear. Have never had a problem with them!

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  4. Better get the best for life. I like taking some ways to live better.

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