As more people live well into their 90s and even surpass their 100th birthdays, scientists and researchers are studying just what they’re doing (and not doing) to live long lives.
Research shows that during the 30-year period from 1980 to 2010, the number of centenarians (people age 100 or older) grew by almost 66%, while the most recent U.S. Census report estimates that as of July 2015 there were 76,943 centenarians. The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, reports that people born in the U.S. today can expect to live to about the age of 79, a full 25 years longer than those born 100 years ago.
If you’re wondering what you can do to extend your life, but don’t like the idea of drastically changing your lifestyle and diet, you’re in luck. You can ease yourself into many of the lifestyle, diet and exercise habits of the world’s longest-living people—that is, if you aren’t already making these easy-to-live-with choices.
Take a look at these seven habits of people who enjoy long lives, and learn how to incorporate them into your daily life to boost the chances of increasing your longevity.
1. Drink (a Little) and Take Your Time With Meals.
National Geographic fellow and journalist Dan Buettner has carried out extensive research on the dietary and lifestyle choices in so-called “Blue Zones,”1 parts of the world identified by scientists as having unusually long-living inhabitants. The five Blue Zones currently include:
- Sardinia, Italy
- Okinawa, Japan
- Icaria (Ikaria), Greece
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- Loma Linda, California
Buettner’s research uncovered the fact that one of the noticeable traits of some Blue Zone inhabitants is that they enjoy life, including drinking wine—in moderation—and relaxing over long meals.
For example, the long-living residents of Sardinia and Ikaria enjoy small glasses of wine on a daily basis. They also take a long time to eat their main meal of the day, enjoying it with family and friends.
And, earlier this year, researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine found evidence that the caffeine present in coffee or tea correlates to reduced inflammation as we age, contributing to the drinker’s longevity. So enjoying a small glass of wine with a leisurely family meal and following it up with a small cup of coffee on a regular basis could help you live longer.
2. Eat Bread, Meat, and Desserts…Sometimes.
While it should come as no surprise that people with longer-than-average lifespans eat lots of fruits and vegetables, you may not know that many of them also don’t shy away from eating bread, meat, and desserts.
Religious occasions, birthdays, and anniversaries—along with their associated special meat and dessert dishes—are common in the countries where people live the longest. Yet researchers have discovered that Blue Zone inhabitants enjoy small portions of these dishes and don’t focus on them as the main part of the meal.
In Okinawa, the diet is heavy on vegetables and rice but includes small amounts of meat stir-fried into the main dish, providing protein but low calories. In Loma Linda, California, the home of the long-living Seventh-Day Adventist community, where inhabitants live about 10 years longer than the average American, most of the population avoids meat. However, they do enjoy whole grains—a common food among the five Blue Zone communities.
3. Prioritize Being Active Over Going to the Gym.
Living longer in good health requires regular physical activity but don’t worry—you don’t have to start training to run a marathon.
Dr. Luigi Ferrucci, an NIH geriatrician, believes that if you want to live longer, you should prioritize staying active: “Exercise is especially important for lengthening active life expectancy, which is life without disease and without physical and mental/thinking disability.”
However, that doesn’t mean hitting the gym. Indeed, interviews with individuals who have lived to age 100 or older reveal that a gym membership wasn’t even on their radar. Instead, their daily routines include lots of walking, gardening, or swimming.
Doesn’t that sound doable? If you want to live longer, hang up your weight belt and replace strenuous weight lifting and cardio routines with walking, working in the garden, swimming, and other gentle physical activities. Try to get in at least a 30 minute brisk walk daily.
4. Don’t Retire.
Everywhere you look you’ll see advice about saving for retirement, preparing for retirement, and how to enjoy retirement. However, as reported in the Harvard Business Review, researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) found a surprising tidbit when studying data from the Health and Retirement Study. This longitudinal study began in 1992 and includes participants who retired in 2010. The OSU researchers found that, although most of the participants retired at age 65, those who retired at age 66 actually had an 11% lower mortality rate, so working longer may contribute to longevity.
There is still much work to be done in the study of retirement age and longevity. However, many studies show that feeling like you’re contributing to society and keeping active in your community all contribute to a longer life.
So if working makes you feel good, don’t retire! Consider your specific situation—perhaps you could work part-time, or work from home. Or you could leave your primary job and work as a consultant where you set your own hours or work on short projects. If your work brings you joy, stick with it.
5. Grow Your Own Foods.
One common trait of Blue Zone inhabitants is that their heavily-plant-based diets depend on food they grew themselves. In addition to the beneficial daily physical activity required to plant, weed, and maintain a garden, growing their own food lets people enjoy a “less-processed” diet, including raw or lightly stir-fried fruits and veggies.
Including more fruits and vegetables in your diet can improve your health and help you live longer, but do ensure that the greens you eat are fresh and free from chemicals. And instead of buying them from a grocery store where you don’t know if they’ve been exposed to harmful pesticides or other chemicals, enjoy foods from your own garden.
Begin “growing your own” vegetables and herbs in a small garden plot. If you’re unfamiliar with gardening, start small by planting some herb seeds (try basil) in a pot to set on your windowsill. Some vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers, are also good “starter” vegetables as they’re easy to grow indoors in pots.
6. Enjoy Daily Spiritual Practice and Reading.
If you feel better after your daily meditation or prayers, it shouldn’t surprise you to find out that statistics show that the majority of people who live to ages over 100 have a strong faith. In addition to quiet individual spiritual practice they often enjoy participating in their own religious community and attending regular church services.
But if pursuing a daily spiritual practice doesn’t interest you, start a daily reading practice to boost longevity instead.
A recent study found that book lovers live longer. According to the study carried out by Yale University researchers, people who read reduced their mortality rate by an astounding 20% more than non-readers during the 12 years following the study!
7. Maintain Strong Ties to Family, Friends, and Community.
As both studies and interviews show, healthy, loving relationships and a strong social network has emerged as another key to a long and healthy life.
In the Harvard longitudinal study, study director Robert Waldinger said, “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health.” Over the 80-year course of the study, researchers conclude that close relationships were an important part of happiness, which has been found to help protect against and delay the mental and physical decline that leads to death.
And, as it turns out, a strong social network can include your online and social media network. In a recent study carried out by University of California San Diego and Yale University in collaboration with Facebook, using the social media platform Facebook correlates to longer life—so long as you’re using it to keep up with your real-life social relationships.
To maintain and improve your social relationships, make a point of staying connected to your friends and family members near and far. Look for opportunities to volunteer in your community, join a club, or take a class where you’ll meet new people who could become friends. Think of maintaining relationships as a form of self-care that may add years to your life.
Go Forth and Conquer.
Making lifestyle changes and introducing new habits can be easier if you introduce them gradually.
- Tackle one or two habits at a time.
- Enjoy smaller portions at meal times, and start taking a 30-minute walk with your spouse or a friend each evening.
- Invite friends, neighbors, or family members over for a potluck meal with a glass of wine once in a while.
- Check out a few new books from the library, and plant a few tomato plants.
- And look for regular opportunities to participate in a gentle physical activity that you enjoy with family or friends whom you like.
After all, if you’re going to live longer, you want to have some fun!
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1 Sources for the Blue Zone material discussed here include:
What The ‘Blue Zones’ Can Teach Us About Living Longer, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/wm-scott-page/blue-zones_b_7162748.html
Can Brevard become a healthy living Blue Zone?, http://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/2017/04/11/can-brevard-become-healthy-living-blue-zone/100333084/
The diets from certain countries could help you live longer, http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/28/health/cuisines-that-help-you-live-longer/
Dan Buettner’s TED talk, How to live to be 100+, https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_buettner_how_to_live_to_be_100/transcript?language=en
The Blue Zones Project®, https://www.bluezonesproject.com/