Editor’s note: This article was written by students in Andrew B from New Technology High School in Napa.
There are five places in the world with unusually high concentrations of people who live past the age of 100, places where Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia are far rarer and where aging doesn’t seem to adversely affect peoples’ ability to build their own fences or herd sheep.
An organization, known as Blue Zones, was founded to test a question: Can we learn how to live longer by analyzing the lifestyle traits common to these areas?
Blue Zones and National Geographic conducted a study on the world’s densely clustered, longest-living people, found in Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece and Okinawa, Japan, to see what habits influenced how long they lived.
The habits that formed the backbone of social or physical life in these areas are referred to as the Power 9 habits. Researchers grouped these habits into four categories: exercise, diet, social life and outlook.
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Move naturally is the exercise category that fits into Power 9. The longest-lived people live in environments that allow them to move without thinking — activities like growing gardens or taking lots of stairs when they go somewhere.
This set of Power 9 habits all correspond with the social life of the world’s longest-lived people.
There also seems to be some connection with living long an belonging to faith-based communities. According to Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow and author of books on Blue Zones, attending faith services a few times a month could add a couple of years to your life.
Research shows it is important to care for those you care about — keeping aging parents in the home increases their life expectancy. By staying close to family and caring for them on a grand scale, they experience a decrease in disease and an increase in longevity.
Your friends are a good indicator of your own health. It was shown that the longest-lived people had friends who promoted healthy lifestyles as well. Therefore it is important to have the right people around you in your life.
It is no real surprise that eating lots of vegetables and plants can help you live longer. Having a plant-heavy diet does not mean you have to go vegan or vegetarian and give up all meat; It means using plants as your source of protein at least some of the time.
In Okinawa, an adage reminds people to stop eating when they are 80% full. It may also be important to note that the longest-lived people tend to eat their smallest meal in the early evening or late afternoon. Drinking wine moderately and regularly may also be a key to staying healthy, if the regular drinking common to Sardinians is any indication.
The last two habits focus on promoting the right outlook. Residents of Blue Zones have extended periods of prayer, rest or meditation.
Another thing that keeps people alive is a sense of why they wake up in the morning. People who expressed a clear goal or purpose — a sentiment known as ikigai in Okinawa and in Nicoya as a plan de vida — lived longer than those who did not. Finding purpose doesn’t necessarily have to be big; it can just be watching your children or grandchildren grow up or cooking a meal for your loved ones.
People in Blue Zones focus on family and friends. They spend time with close people having a meal together or doing fun activities. People socialize more by doing volunteer work and meeting new people. Through volunteer programmes, making friends with similar interests increases the chance of positive interactions, improves the emotional stability of the relationship and increases the likelihood of joint extracurricular activities.
Therefore, being part of a social community will improve peoples’ mental health and increase longevity.
Another Blue Zone habit is regular exercise. The Seventh-Day Adventists who live in Loma Linda go on a large number of nature walks, gentle exercise with significant effects over a lifetime.
Through taking now of the similarities in the characteristics of these demographics to witness in the Blue Zones, we can learn a lot. These diverse groups of people have lifestyle traits in common that center around the mental and physical health of individuals. This shows that through maintaining a plant-based diet, exercising, connecting with those around us, and having a positive outlook on life, we can quite literally extend our lifetime.