What is it that leads one group of people to live long, healthy lives, and other groups to have life expectancies 30, even 40 years shorter?
The first explanation that leaps to mind might be genetics, but research has shown that only about 20% of life expectancy is determined by our genes. The rest, it turns out, comes down to environment and lifestyle.
To really understand what these differences are, award-winning journalist Dan Buettner worked with National Geographic and a team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers and epidemiologists to discover and study the world’s longest-lived people.
They found five communities in diverse locations across the planet where the highest proportions of people reach 100 years of age, and spent time with them, looking how they lived their lives; what they ate, how they moved, and how connected with one another. The communities were located in:
Okinawa, Japan – The longest-lived population in the world, with the highest concentration of female centenarians.
Barbagia region of Sardinia – The mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
Ikaria, Greece – An Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – Has the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians.
Loma Linda, California - A community of Seventh Day Adventists who live an average of 10 years longer than their North American counterparts.
Despite their geographical and cultural differences, the research team found several common threads throughout, including:
1. Plant-based diet
All the communities living the Blue Zones eat a diet based mostly on plants. Beans, including broad beans, black beans, soy and lentils, are included daily, with animal products only being eaten occasionally, if at all.
2. Natural movement
The world’s longest-lived people live in environments that require them to use their bodies for everyday tasks, like gardening, walking and housework, giving them incidental exercise every day.
3. Letting stress go
Stress leads to chronic inflammation, which is the precursor to every major age-related disease. Those living in the Blue Zones have daily routines to let that stress go. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.
4. Living with purpose
The Okinawans call it 'Ikigai' and the Nicoyans call it 'plan de vida'; for both it translates to 'why I wake up in the morning.' Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
5. Connection & belonging
The world’s longest lived people chose (or were born into) social circles that supported healthy behaviours. Okinawans, for example, created 'moais'– groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Study shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. In the Blue Zones the social networks of long-lived people support & favourably shape their health behaviours.
How can we apply this to enhance our own wellness?
The Blue Zones research shows us that the recipe for longevity is deeply intertwined with community, lifestyle, and purpose. People live longer and healthier lives by embracing a few simple but powerful habits, and by creating the right community around themselves.
So it’s vitally important, when making changes to improve our health, that we consider the whole picture of our lives. Food is important, but so is stress reduction. Movement is essential, but so is connection. A wellness lifestyle is one that embraces all these factors.
The thing that surprised me when I found this sweet spot of balance for myself, was that life became so much easier, so much more enjoyable and so much simpler than it was before. I've since seen this to be true for many of my clients too. Whether we all live until 100 remains to be seen!
If you’d like support finding this place of balance for yourself, you can learn more about Nourish wellness coaching programs here.