Living longer: How the world’s longest lived people get that way

Do you ever wonder what people who live extraordinarily long lives do differently from everyone else? The good news is, the answers are actually quite simple, and are the same for people in Europe, Asia, or North America.

For over a decade, Dan Buettner has been studying the habits of the world’s longest-lived people. He collaborated with top longevity experts and National Geographic to identify places in the world where people lived the longest, and what their lifestyles had in common.

His research led him to five specific locations, which he calls “blue zones”, where people lived significantly longer lives than average: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. His studies resulted in a 2010 bestseller, The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.

In April 2015, Buettner published a followup book, The Blue Zone Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, which focused on the dietary habits of people who had the longest life spans. Here are eating and lifestyle practices of some of the longest-lived people in the world.

1. Eat more vegetables and less meat. People in these blue zones ate 90 percent plant and plant-based products, and only ate meat about five times per month. The plant diet included green vegetables, such as spinach and kale. Buettner’s work found that “one cup of greens per day can add four years to your life.”

Their diets also were heavy on beans (about one cup per day per person), especially black beans, but also other kinds. Black beans are high in antioxidants and fiber, and contain as much protein per ounce as meat. They also promoted growth of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system. The people in the blue zones also ate lots of whole grains, including oatmeal, sourdough bread, and sweet potatoes.

Buettner suggests snacking on nuts throughout the day. “Nut eaters live about two to three years longer than those who don’t eat them,” he says. It doesn’t matter what kind, so he suggests eating a variety.

2. Arrange your life to support healthy eating habits. Buettner says, “The big insight from my new book is that eating for longevity is not a function of discipline; it’s a function of environment. The longest-living populations set up their houses, kitchens, and lifestyles so that eating right becomes easy and mindless.”

Instead of salty and sweet snacks, consider keeping more healthy choices around the house such as fruits and fresh vegetables. Says Buettner, “If it’s not in your house, you will cut 60% of your intake.” Putting candy bars, potato chips, and soft drinks out of reach at home and at work will make you less inclined to consume a lot of these less healthy items.

Buettner also points out that it’s much easier to eat healthy foods when others around us are doing likewise. Studies show that people whose friends are obese are three times as likely to become obese themselves. If your friends and family are fast-food-eating couch potatoes, it’s that much harder not to become one yourself.

Buettner writes: “People in blue zones are active, and their social lives generally revolve around healthy activities, like hiking and biking and farming.” So associate more with healthy, active people, and they will influence you to become more active.

3. Be more physically active. People in blue zones also incorporate physical activity naturally into their lives. Costa Ricans are accustomed to walking most everywhere. “Every time they go to a friend’s house or out to eat, they walk. Their lives are constantly nudged in physical activity by living in a place where walking is easy,” says Buettner.

This lifestyle is not so easy to replicate for many Americans, but most people can consciously make more active choices. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, taking a walk at lunchtime, and parking a little further away from the door and walking, instead of circling around for a closer space are examples.

4. Cultivate the right mindset. Although diet is a huge part of living a longer life, another crucial aspect is mental and emotional outlook. Having a sense of purpose in life has been found to provide significant longevity benefits.

A well-known study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that people with a strong sense of purpose live eight years longer than people who don’t. Additionally, a Canadian study found a 50% lower chance of dementia among people who reported a strong sense of purpose in their lives. People can gain a sense of purpose from a variety of sources, such as work, volunteerism, or family role as a parent or sibling.

5. Promote relationships. Having a sense of connectedness to others is a common trait among residents of the blue zones. In Japan and Sardinia, Italy, unlike the U.S., it’s common for parents to live together with their children. The younger generation benefits from the wisdom of the older on living and raising children, and this adds up to six years of life.

Likewise, life in Greece revolves around the family, which promotes a sense of community. People get together with relatives at the dinner table and family events, which reminds each person that they are part of a larger group.

Among the Seventh-Day Adventists in California, church plays a gigantic part in people’s lives, and that provides the crucial social connections. Active church members encourage one another to follow healthy lifestyles and to respect their bodies. “Adventists have a very strong social network, and that sense of belonging may help people eat and behave in a more healthy way overall,” according to Buettner. Even if you’re not religious, you can get the same connections from a volunteer organization, or social or athletic club.

Although people in the blue zones may have lifestyles that recall an earlier, simpler time, they also tend to be free of the health afflictions of modern society such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. So it’s worth a look to see what we could learn from their example.

For more information

For more information about Buettner’s research and the blue zones, visit his website.