People in long-lived populations often exhibit similar lifestyles in common that may influence their relative longevity. Diet is only one of these factors. A long healthy life is no accident – it starts with a good genetic background but also depends on good heathy habits. Adopting a healthy lifestyle can possibly bring you another decade of life, experts say.
A study funded in part by the U.S. National Institute on Aging, centered on several regions where people live significantly longer.
Residents of these places produce a high rate of centenarians, suffer a fraction of the diseases that commonly kill people in other parts of the developed world and enjoy more healthy years of life.
In a cluster of villages on the sloping fringes of the Gennargentu Mountains in central Sardinia, 91 of the 17,865 people born between 1880 and 1900 have lived to their hundredth birthday – a rate more than twice as high as the average for Italy.
What about their diet? They eat a lot of grass-fed goat and sheep milk and pecorino cheese and follow a Mediterranean-type diet. They also walk a lot, have time for leisure activities with a positive attitude and sense of humor. They drink a lot of red wine as well as eat a thin flatbread called “carta da musica” since it is as thin as a sheet of music. Most families’ diets consist of an abundance of fruits and vegetables (homegrown like eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes). They eat a lot of fish which provides heathy omega-3 fatty acids.
Times in Sardinia are changing, however. Transportation is changing since cars and trucks now replace walking. The young people want more processed foods like pizza and snack foods so now obesity nonexistent before 1940 affects about 10 percent of Sardinians.
In Okinawa you will find the highest prevalence of proven centenarians. Since many countries have no records of births and deaths, studies had to rely on self-reported and often exaggerated ages of the population. Okinawa, however, has a family registry dating back to 1879.
With an average life expectancy of 78 years for men and 86 for women, Okinawans are among the world’s longest living people. They also tend to enjoy years free from chronic illnesses or disabilities. They have a fifth of the heart disease, a fourth of breast and prostate cancers and a third less dementia than Americans, according to authors of the Okinawan Centenarian Study.
They have a strong sense of purpose or reason to live; many belong to a mutual support network called moai that provides financial, emotional and social help all their lives. Many women are respected spiritual leaders in many villages. Studies suggest that seniors who stay social are less prone to heart disease and depression. As so often happens, the young Okinawans have been exposed to fast food and now have one of Japan’s highest rates of obesity.
Portion control has been a corner stone of the Okinawan diet for decades – they still live by the Confucian-inspired adage “hara hachi bu” which means eat until your stomach is 80 percent full. They grow most of their own food including herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables. Purples sweet potatoes are at the core of most meals. They eat very few sweets – grow sugar cane but export most of it. They enjoy dried tuna, white fish, pork, green tea, miso, soba noodles and consume dairy only in childhood.
The heart of the Seventh-Day Adventists is in Loma Linda, California. This church was born during the era of the heath reforms in the 19th century. John Harvey Kellog was an Adventist when he began making wheat flakes and he had always preached and practiced health messages. The religion bans smoking, alcohol consumption and eating pork. It also discourages eating other meats and caffeinated drinks and encourages vegetarianism.
From 1976 to 1988, the National Institutes of Health began a study of 34,000 California Adventists to examine whether their lifestyles influenced their longevity and lower risk of heart disease and cancer. They found that their diets contained beans, soy milk, tomatoes and other fruits that may lower their cancer risks. Their practice of not eating red meat also was thought to be a factor. They ate whole wheat bread, drank five glasses of water a day and had four servings of nuts a week. At the end of the study it was found that the average Adventist lived four to ten years longer than the average Californian.
NICOYA, COSTA RICA
It is not at all unusual for the residents of Nicoya to reach the ages of 90, 100, even 110.
Located on the northwestern part of Costa Rica, just south of the Nicaraguan border, the Nicoya Peninsula (about 80 miles long and 30 miles wide) is a pristine land of beaches, upscale resorts, woody hills, cattle ranches and cow pastures. Most of the 75,000 people who live here work at a leisurely pace as farmers, laborers or cowboys.
One secret to living long lives appears to be related to eating a plant-based diet, maintaining regular, low-intensity activity and keeping close to friends and family. It has been reported that a 60-year-old in Costa Rica has more than a four-fold better chance of making it to 90 than a 60-year-old in America.
Costa Ricans as a whole have the lowest rates of middle-age mortality in the world and the second-highest prevalence of males age 100 or above. Out of a total population of about 4.5 million as of June, 417 Costa Rican centenarians were reported, many of them in Nicoya.
So, what’s their secret?
Nicoya’s local waters are unusually rich in calcium and magnesium, which strengthen bones and muscles. The local folk also have a deep faith in God, sleep eight hours a night and maintain a healthy diet filled with rice, corn, plantain, beans and strange fruits like the vitamin-C-rich orange-like maroñon, the pear-like anona and chayote, a squash-like vegetable. They also do not overeat nor do they consume too much red meat.
GREEK ISLANDS (CRETE AND ILARIA)
Ikaria is a Greek island off the coast of Turkey. Chronic diseases are a rarity in Ikaria. People living in this area have less cancer, half the rate of heart disease and almost no dementia. Residents walk, farm and a fish, eat a lot of wild greens as well as a Mediterranean-type diet, nap and socialize.
Crete in the 1950’s is the birthplace for the well-researched Mediterranean diet which has been reported to have many health benefits leading to enhanced longevity.
There is no one way of eating that comprises the Mediterranean diet, however, there are three main similarities: they consume more olive oil, fish and wine. Populations who follow these generalities are from the 21 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea with the most familiar to Western countries being Spain, Italy, France and Turkey. In the 1950’s the Cretan population ate significant amounts of olive oil, olives, fish, fruits, vegetables (especially wild greens) and nuts. Other factors were at play at that time that produced a high selenium content of the soil, a low saturated fat but high in omega-3 fatty acid content of meats from pasture-fed animals, low intakes of trans fatty acids and a high amount of fish daily.
So when you put all these lifestyle habits together in some meaningful way – what stands out the most?
- Omega-3 content of their diets was relatively high.
- Red wine was consumed except for the Adventists.
- Small portions dominated.
- Small amounts of meat especially red meat was consumed.
- Beans and nuts were part of their diets.
- They were very active every day even in their later years.
- They kept socially engaged and maintained lifelong friends.
- They ate few processed foods (due to the fact that they were largely unavailable)
- Found a purpose in life.
- Primarily followed a plant-based diet.
So, living long appears to be a combination of many factors – genetics, emotions, spirituality and lifestyle choices that include physical activities and diet. We cannot truly emulate these healthy habits that cultures practiced so many decades ago, but we can learn from them and try to incorporate these qualities as much as reasonably possible into the American way of living.