I put love into my food. I care for my husband and my children, the husband comes home, and I have a good family. Also, I try to mentally check to make sure that I haven’t hurt anyone, that the people around me are okay. I take time each night to think about the people around me, and think about what I eat, and what is important to me. I also do this during dinner. I take time to reflect. I’m not chasing the carrot any more.
Scientific studies suggest that only about 25 percent of how long we live is dictated by genes, according to famous studies of Danish twins. The other 75 percent is determined by our lifestyles and the everyday choices we make. It follows that if we optimize our lifestyles, we can maximize our life expectancies within our biological limits.
The question is—and here’s where I think the best health practices are really important—if you live to be 100 years old, what sort of 100-year-old are you going to be? Are you going to be bedridden and unable to take care of yourself? Or are you going to be reasonably independent and alert? To me, that’s what the best health practices can really have an impact on.
Rather than exercising for the sake of exercising, try to make changes to your lifestyle. Ride a bicycle instead of driving. Walk to the store instead of driving. Use the stairs instead of the elevator. Build that into your lifestyle. The chances are that you will sustain that behavior for a much longer time. And the name of the game here is sustaining. These things that we try—usually after some cataclysmic event has occurred, and we now want to ward off what seems to be the more perceptible threat of dying—don’t hold up over the long haul. We find all sorts of reasons not to do it.
There are some things I’d certainly recommend for what people would call successful aging. One of them is, in fact, to have a sense of social connectedness. Most people enjoy the company of other people, particularly other people who they feel care about them. That seems to give you a sense of well-being, whether that raises your endorphin level or lowers your cortisol level. We don’t know why. People have looked for biological markers, and they haven’t been successful at finding them. But something happens that makes life more worthwhile. The days take on more meaning.
Zone data to demographers, also told us that environment and lifestyle might be more important factors than genetics to explain the longevity of Sardinians. “Consider, for instance, the genes of inflammation. We expected to find something interesting in Sardinian DNA. We studied several tens of gene variants related to inflammation but we didn’t find any evidence of their role in survival of Sardinians. The same for genes related to cancer, and those related to cardiovascular disease. I suspect that the characteristics of the environment, the lifestyle, and the food are by far more important for a healthy life.”
I could see why residents here might be physically fit. A trip to a friend’s house or the local market meant a workout more rigorous than a half hour on a StairMaster. But the ominous creep of modernization was easy to see. Cars and trucks were parked in front of most houses, satellite dishes faced out from rooftops, and pizza, hamburger, and ice cream shops dotted the main street. To unlock Sardinia’s longevity secrets, we needed to focus on Barbagia’s traditional lifestyle—the one that existed before prosperity arrived in the 1950s.
Their diet was fairly typical of families in the region before the American-style food culture arrived, as surveys from before the 1940s revealed. “Shepherds and peasants in Sardinia have an exceptionally simple diet, which is extraordinarily lean even by Mediterranean standards,” a 1941 survey reported. “Bread is by far the main food. Peasants leave early in the morning to the fields with a kilogram of bread in their saddlebag … At noon their meal consists only of bread, with some cheese among wealthier families, while the majority of the workers are satisfied with an onion, a little fennel, or a bunch of ravanelli. At dinner, the reunited family eats a single meal consisting of a vegetable soup (minestrone) to which the richest add some pasta. In most areas, families ate meat only once a week, on Sunday. In 26 of 71 municipalities surveyed, meat is a luxury eaten only during festivals, not more than twice a month. Interestingly for a Mediterranean culture, fish did not figure prominently into the diet.”
I asked Pietrina how her mother had managed to live so long, and she gave me a one-word answer: grandchildren. “It’s about loving and being loved,” she said. “Not only has Nona helped raise the children, but she has also always told them they must get educated. Sometimes she gives them money, and she always prays for them. In return the children have felt this love and have returned it. They know that Nona expects them to succeed, so they try harder.” Two years ago, when she was at age 100, Nona got very sick. “She was in bed for days,” said Pietrina. “I thought she was going to die, so I called the family. Everyone came—4 daughters and 13 grandchildren—many of whom traveled back from the mainland. On the day we thought she was going to die, everyone had gathered around the bed to say goodbye. We didn’t actually think she could hear us. But when my nephew, who was a failing student, leaned over to say how much he was going to miss her, Nona opened her eyes and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere until you’re done with the university.’ Nona got better and my nephew went back and graduated.”
Sardinians today have already taken on many of the trappings of modern life. Mechanization and technology have replaced long hours and hard work; cars and trucks have eliminated much of the need to walk long distances; a culture disseminated by television is replacing the one that put the emphasis on family and community; and junk foods are replacing the whole-grain breads and fresh vegetables traditionally consumed here. Young people are fatter, less inclined to follow tradition, and more outwardly focused (which also could lead to a dilution of this amazing gene pool). In 1960, almost no one in Sardinia’s Blue Zone was overweight. Now 15 percent of adolescents are. The most important and unique longevity factors have disappeared or are disappearing quickly from residents’ everyday lives.
Is there a connection between respecting elders and longevity? Absolutely. Seniors who live at home are more likely to get better care and remain engaged. In Sardinia, they are expected to help with childcare and contribute to the functioning of the household. They have strong self-esteem and a clear purpose. They love, and they are loved. And as we shall see in forthcoming chapters, purpose and love are essential ingredients in all Blue Zone recipes for longevity.
Since lifestyle, not genes, is the chief determinant of how long we live, I argued that the Okinawan Blue Zone offered the world’s best practices in health and longevity. During my first trip in 2000, I spent time with 13 centenarians and heard their stories.
“In America we focus on battling diseases once they occur,” says Greg, 46, who completed residencies in both internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, holds a divinity degree from Harvard, and is one of the world’s leading experts on Kampo, Japan’s traditional herbal medicine. “However, in traditional Asian thought, the highest, most honored form of medicine was prevention, and the lowest was treatment. Today in Japan, the focus is on avoiding disease in the first place. There are massive national and local efforts underway to prevent diabetes and heart disease. Japan’s priorities represent a profoundly different way of understanding medicine.”
Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s were the last calamity to befall Okinawa; the fast-food invasion has threatened many of the positive behaviors that led to Okinawan longevity. It really rests with women over 70, he told me. “Men under 55 in Okinawa are now among the most obese, and do not live much longer than the Japanese average. So you better work fast.”
“I had hair that came down to my waist. It took me a long time to realize that beauty is within. It comes from not worrying so much about your own problems. Sometimes you can best take care of yourself by taking care of others.”
We’re used to a world of options, and we think, ‘Of all the options, what are the best?’ Okinawans are just born into a lifestyle that promotes health. They have been blessed by access to year-round fresh, organic vegetables, strong social support, and these amazing herbs that amount to preventive medicines.”
“Do you see how she springs up and down from the mat?” How many 80-year-olds back home can get up from the floor like that? Gozei’s over 100 and probably gets up and down 30 times a day. For her age, she has incredibly good lower body strength and balance. That makes a huge difference in old-age mortality because falls and broken bones are usually fatal when seniors reach a certain age.”
Months later on a return trip to Okinawa, I was to meet Kamata in the old-age recreation center where she spends her days. Inside, 30 or so seniors sat at tables chatting or doing crafts. It looked like a bright, cheerful kindergarten with hand-drawn pictures on the walls and board games on the table. But it smelled, as these places often do, of urine. Bent old men hobbled by with walkers; one lady slouched in a chair with a string of drool hanging from her mouth like clear spaghetti. Though Kamada and Gozei don’t have access to this type of recreation, it struck me that they were better off with their gardens, their moais, and the weekend visits from grandkids.
“Japan has seven semi-supercentenarians per million people,” Hirose said, referring to those over age 110. In Okinawa, the rate is 35 semi-supercentenarians per million. “Perhaps it’s because in the north, where it’s colder, old people are more likely to die of respiratory infections. Or because in Okinawa they can grow vegetables year-round and therefore eat fewer salty pickles and canned meat. Or perhaps exposure to more sun gives Okinawans an advantage?” That would support Greg’s vitamin D theory.
A nonagenarian is a person who is in his or her 90s, a centenarian is someone who reaches the age 100 and older, but a supercentenarian is a person aged 110 and higher. Today, the exact number of supercentenarians in the world is unknown, but studies show that worldwide their overall numbers have been increasing steadily since the 1980s.
“Now when you talk about AHS-1 and cancer, it gets a little more controversial,” he cautioned. “Because, despite hundreds of studies and huge amounts of press, what epidemiologists know with certainty about diet and cancer can be stated in a single paragraph. And that would say that consuming fruits and vegetables and whole grains
“Now when you talk about AHS-1 and cancer, it gets a little more controversial,” he cautioned. “Because, despite hundreds of studies and huge amounts of press, what epidemiologists know with certainty about diet and cancer can be stated in a single paragraph. And that would say that consuming fruits and vegetables and whole grains seems to be protective for a wide variety of cancers.”
In fact we just cracked some numbers from AHS-2 that show that Adventists who are what we call lacto-ovo vegetarians, meaning they eat eggs and other dairy products, still are an average of 16 pounds lighter than Adventists of the same height who are nonvegetarian. And Adventists who are strictly vegan, which is only 4 percent, are 30 to 32 pounds lighter than nonvegetarian Adventists of the same height. That has a huge impact on cardiovascular disease, on blood pressure, on blood cholesterol, on inflammation related to hormones and the way it stimulates cells in the body.”
She grew up poor in what was then rural California, close enough to San Francisco to have a vague memory of water sloshing around in the family animal trough during the great 1906 earthquake. Her father was a mule skinner. Her mother converted to Adventism when Marge was 9 months old, so Marge rarely ate meat and hadn’t now for more than 50 years. “My father was a fun man; he’d laugh and pull jokes on us and torment my mother. I’m like him a little bit. I always wanted to do things for people. When I was a little girl I used to tell my mother to go to bed so I could bring her things. I waited on tables when I was 14, and then I worked in a fruit cannery to help the family, but I knew I had to stay in school to become a nurse. My father died of pneumonia before I graduated, but I knew he was proud of me.”
A stranger is a friend we haven’t met yet.
Some people walked by and Marge waited until they were out of earshot, then said, “There are some folks in here who are 80 years old. I was out still working when I was 80. I tell them, ‘I’m old enough to be your mother!’ ”
A few minutes later, it was time for me to go. When I complimented Marge on her firm handshake bidding me adieu, she replied, “I’m a strong woman. That comes from all the massages I have given in my life. Say, you need to remember to send me what you write. People come and talk to me because I’m old, and that’s the last I hear from them. They probably think I’m going to die, or have already died. But I’m still here.”
For all the sweat rolling into his eyes, however, Wareham couldn’t see much of anything. When he wiped his brow with his forearm, it was as if he had used a squeegee to send water down the rest of his body, soaking his clothes. His shoulder muscles showed through his clinging T-shirt as he struggled to corkscrew the post-hole digger through the packed soil. Recently, a contractor had presented Wareham with an estimate of $5,000 to install an eight-foot-high wooden fence along a steep hillside on the edge of his property. By consulting his local discount hardware store, he had learned that the fence materials would cost only about $2,000. So he decided to do the work himself. Thus far he’d sunk a couple of poles and sealed a couple of holes, but there was an imposing pile of posts and fence sections left. There was also a potentially significant complication: Ellsworth Wareham was in his 90s. He was born in 1914.
Four days later, Wareham was in open-heart surgery at a community hospital on the edge of Los Angeles. But he was not the one on the table. He had a scalpel in his hand.
“I think it is important for me to keep active,” he said, gesturing for me to take a seat in his study. “People say, ‘Oh, I don’t drive at night.’ Well, I drive over 2,000 miles a month on Southern California freeways, much of it at night. I think it keeps me alert.”
As a surgeon he was a pioneer of open-heart procedures. (Dr. Leonard Bailey, who has performed more infant heart transplants than anyone in the world, unabashedly refers to Wareham as “my mentor.”) When rudimentary open-heart surgery was first practiced in the early 1950s, Wareham saw the emergence of a new field and extended his residency to acquire the necessary expertise. But what he saw on the operating table would have a profound effect on his own health habits. “In the early days, when we used the heart-lung machine, we connected the arterial line to a cannula in the leg artery, later it would be straight into the aorta,” he said. “But I observed when I was cutting into the thighs of these patients that those who were vegetarians had better arteries.” “When we did the surgery,” he continued, “if it was a nice, smooth artery, I went back later and asked the patient, and it turned out that he or she was a vegetarian. And those who really had a lot of heavy calcium and plaque in the arteries, their diet would not be toward the vegetarian side. Now that wasn’t true 100 percent, and I didn’t keep any statistics or write any papers or anything; it was just something I observed. But I began thinking about it. And I saw people getting their toes cut off or their feet cut off because of vascular disease, and that motivated me. So it was a gradual thing.” In middle age, he decided to become a vegan.
A combination of four types of exercise will keep the body balanced and strong. Endurance: Activities like walking, hiking, swimming, and cycling improve the health of the cardiovascular system. Strength: Lifting weights builds up and maintains muscles. Flexibility: Stretching keeps us limber and flexible. Balance: Practicing balance through activities like yoga will help avoid falls.
The longer Wareham talks, the more apparent it became that he’s a walking advertisement for the Blue Zone lifestyle of the Adventists. “I am very fond of nuts, all kinds of nuts,” he said happily. “I have to restrain myself. Most days I eat two meals, first around ten in the morning and then again around four in the afternoon, so I can keep my weight down. When I eat, I really enjoy it, and twice a day is enough. Nuts are usually part of the menu. I know walnuts are reported to be very good for you, but I don’t eat them because I enjoy peanuts and cashews and almonds so much. Sometimes I get purist and think I should eat them raw, but really, whatever is handy. I am not a nutritionist, and I don’t profess to be.” Another thing that helps keep the weight off is drinking water, Wareham noted, as, almost in gentle rebuttal, his wife entered and gave us both a glass of cranberry juice. “I became aware some years ago that water is highly important to health, and I do make an effort to drink a lot of it. I’ll drink maybe three glasses of water when I first get up, because I want to make sure before I get busy and forget to have some. Then when I get home I have some more. And one of my little rituals is to never pass a water fountain without having a drink. It adds up.
As we negotiated our way through the dogs and walked toward my car, Wareham closed with his own little pep talk. “It is so simple just to get on a good program. I don’t have great genes. I just try to observe broad principles that anybody can pick up, and I still don’t take any blood pressure medication. We are especially blessed out here in California, where there are so many good things to eat. “People talk about curing cancer and heart disease, and of course it is an important and worthy goal that can’t happen soon enough. But there are simple things everyone could be doing right now that would save so much money and suffering—like drinking enough water every day, exercise, and eating healthy food. But hey,” Wareham said, suddenly catching himself in his fervor, “everybody has his own idea about these things—it’s their lives, after all. You can tell somebody what to do, but it’s up to them whether they do it. But you can tell them how good you feel.”
Studies have found that a belly laugh a day may keep the doctor away. In 2005, researchers at the University of Maryland showed that laughter helped relax blood vessels, linking it to healthier function and a possible decreased risk of heart attack. Others have found that laughter may lower blood pressure and increase the amount of disease-fighting cells found in the body.
Eat an early, light dinner. “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper,” American nutritionist Adelle Davis is said to have recommended—an attitude also reflected in Adventist practices. A light dinner early in the evening avoids flooding the body with calories during the inactive parts of the day. It seems to promote better sleep and a lower BMI.
Put more plants in your diet. Nonsmoking Adventists who ate 2 or more servings of fruit per day had about 70 percent fewer lung cancers than nonsmokers who ate fruit only once or twice a week. Adventists who ate legumes such as peas and beans 3 times a week had a 30 to 40 percent reduction in colon cancer. Adventist women who consumed tomatoes at least three or four times a week reduced their chance of getting ovarian cancer by 70 percent over those who ate tomatoes less often. Eating a lot of tomatoes also seemed to have an effect on reducing prostate cancer for men.
Drink plenty of water. The AHS suggests that men who drank 5 or 6 daily glasses of water had a substantial reduction in the risk of a fatal heart attack—60 to 70 percent—compared to those who drank considerably less.
Getting enough sleep keeps the immune system functioning smoothly, decreases the risk of heart attack, and recharges the brain. Adults both young and old need between 7 to 9 hours per night. To help get it, go to bed at the same time every night and wake up the same time each morning; keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool; and use a comfortable mattress and pillows.
“We notice that the most highly functioning people over 90 in Nicoya have a few common traits,” she told me. “One of them is that they feel a strong sense of service to others or care for their family. We see that as soon as they lose this, the switch goes off. They die very quickly if they don’t feel needed.” Indeed, in every Blue Zone, centenarians possess a strong sense of purpose. In Okinawa it was ikigai—the reason to wake up in the morning. Here, said Fernández, the Costa Ricans called it plan de vida.
Here was a man who still pushed himself to rise at four every Saturday morning, travel to the market, and buy the food to provide for his family. Maybe it’s the inertia of duty that keeps him going or the sense of caring and feeling good about doing something for others. Or perhaps it’s the human imperative to feel needed that keeps the river of life running through Don Faustino.
The garden had dozens of fruit trees,” she said, clicking through images of banana, lemon, and orange trees. “But then he showed me these wildly exotic fruits.” There was the marañón, a red-orange fruit five times richer in vitamin C than oranges; anona, which looks like a misshapen, thick-skinned pear known to have selective toxicity against various types of cancer cells; and wild ginger, a great source of vitamin B6, magnesium, and manganese. “All of these are antioxidant powerhouses associated with disease prevention and longer life,” Eliza informed us. “At the edge of the garden, Aureliano showed me the corn and bean field he tends and harvests twice a year. He showed me how the low-growing beans provide moisture-capturing ground cover and fix nitrogen in the soil and, in turn, how the corn provides stalks for the bean vines to climb. “He took me back to the house where he showed me how the corn is dried, then soaked in water with ash and lime, to loosen the tough outer skin,” Eliza explained. “Then his wife demonstrated how the corn is ground, made into dough, patted into tortillas, and served with beans and squash. This creates the foundation of perhaps the best longevity diet the world has ever known,” Eliza said with some excitement. “This food combination is rich in complex carbohydrates, protein, calcium, and niacin. Recent research shows that in high doses maize can reduce bad cholesterol and augment good cholesterol.” Eliza looked up at us and shuffled her papers. “In San José I interviewed Professor Leonardo Mata, who proposed that the most significant component of this food triangle is maize (corn). Here, the fact that they use lime—which is calcium hydroxide—to cook the kernels makes all the difference. It infuses the grain with a high concentration of calcium greater than in untreated maize and most other foods, and unlocks certain amino acids for the body to absorb. Nicoyans call the resulting maize dough maíz nixquezado.
“Just 15 kilometers over there,” he continued, pointing beyond the grown-over remains of Lagada, across the smoky-blue Aegean, to an island on the horizon, “you have Samos. It’s a completely different world. There they are much more developed. There are high-rises and resorts and homes worth a million euros. In Samos, they care about money. Here, we don’t. For the many religious and cultural holidays, people pool their money and buy food and wine. If there is money left over, they give it to the poor. It’s not a ‘me’ place. It’s an ‘us’ place.”
Your kindergarten teacher may be onto something—napping is good for you. Any time you can rest and recharge is good, but a study by the University of Athens Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who took naps had lower coronary mortality than those who didn’t. The researchers defined “regular” naps as the kind that took place at least three times a week for about 30 minutes.
One memory of that visit, more than any other, conveys the feeling of living in a Blue Zone. Vasilis and Eleutheria had taken me on a tour of their property (they introduced their pigs to me by name). It was just after sunset and we had come back into their hut and were drinking tea. Another ancient couple walked in, carrying a glass amphora of homemade wine. The four nonagenarians cheek-kissed one another heartily and settled in around the table. Eleutheria lit three candles that cast a glow over the room. Vasilis offered a toast that brought forth a loud “Yamas!” (Cheers!) They settled into gossip, drank wine, and occasionally erupted into endearingly geriatric laughter. I could not understand their conversation, but I thought about how this could be such a powerful routine. Humans have succeeded as a species because we are social creatures with the capacity to cooperate. In the same way that we get pleasure from sex and eating, socializing brings us a fundamental satisfaction. But in today’s hectic society, too many of us let TV or “busyness” push face-to-face time out of our lives. Not here.
HERBAL TEAS. Ikarians drink herbal teas made from wild oregano, sage, and rosemary—all of which lower blood pressure. How they drink them is important too: They drink these teas daily but rotate flavors—to not get too much of any one compound. Researchers have also found that chamomile tea contains properties that guard against platelet clumping; peppermint tea exhibits antiviral properties; and hibiscus tea may lower blood pressure.
LEAFY GREENS Salads offer a great way to eat a variety of vegetables, but the greens themselves also can be full of vitamins and minerals. Leafy greens are low in sodium and calories, and they are completely cholesterol free. Greens contain vitamins (A and C), folate, calcium, fiber, and phytonutrients. When picking greens, look for those that are darker green or red because they tend to have more nutrients than lighter varieties.
Ask centenarians on Ikaria how they got to be 100 and they’ll usually tell you about the clean air and the wine. One 101-year-old lady shrugged and said, “We just forget to die.” The reality is they have no idea how they got to be so old. But pay careful attention to the way they lived their lives and you can see a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing, and omnipresent factors at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon nap time. The cheapest, most accessible foods are also the healthiest—and your ancestors have spent centuries developing recipes to make them taste good. So that’s what you eat. You cannot get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. You’ll never feel the stress of arriving late because everyone else does. Your community makes sure you’ll always have something to eat, but they’ll also peer-pressure you into contributing something too. You’re going to grow a garden, because that’s what your parents did, and that’s what your neighbors are doing. You’re less likely to be a victim of crime because everyone’s at once a busybody and feels like they’re being watched. At day’s end, you’ll share a cup of the seasonal herbal tea with your neighbor because that’s what he’s serving. Several glasses of wine may follow that cup of tea, but you’ll drink them in the company of good friends. On Sunday, you’ll be at church and you’ll fast on Orthodox feast days. And even if you try to be alone (isolation shaves good years off your life), or you’re a jerk, or you have the social agility of a small soap dish, you will never be entirely alone. Your neighbors will cajole you out of your house for the village festival to eat your portion of goat meat.
You can tie any of these factors to longevity and build an interesting story around each one. That’s what the $20 billion diet industry and $21 billion health club industry do in their effort to convince us that if we take the right pill, eat the right food, or do the right workout, we’ll be healthier, lose weight, and live longer. But these strategies don’t work. Not because they’re wrong-minded: It’s a good idea for people to eat the right foods, get exercise, and possibly even take nutritional supplements (though they don’t figure into Blue Zone longevity). The problem is, as habits they don’t last. It’s said that diets fail for 98 percent of the people who start them; gym memberships last on average nine months; and people only take pills for about three years before they get bored with the habit. After studying Blue Zones for nearly a decade, the big aha for me is how the agents of longevity reinforce one another for the long term. If you want people to adopt a healthy lifestyle, you need to build an ecosystem around them. As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose, or religion out of the picture, the foundation collapses. There’s no silver bullet. The power lies in the mutually reinforcing relationship between lots of little bullets. The secret is silver buckshot.
Studies have indicated that nuts may help protect the heart by reducing total blood cholesterol levels. In a large, ongoing population study from Harvard University’s School of Public Health, people who often ate nuts had lower risks of coronary heart disease than those who rarely or never ate nuts. The Adventist Health Study (AHS) showed that the person who ate nuts at least five times per week, two ounces per serving, lived on average about two years longer than those who didn’t eat nuts.
The best nuts are almonds, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts, and some pine nuts. Brazil nuts, cashews, and macadamias have a little more saturated fat and are less desirable. But all nuts are good.
Take time to see the big picture Okinawans call it ikigai, and Nicoyans call it plan de vida, but in both cultures the phrase essentially translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” The strong sense of purpose possessed by older Okinawans may act as a buffer against stress and help reduce their chances of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and stroke. Dr. Robert Butler and collaborators led an NIH-funded study that looked at the correlation between having a sense of purpose and longevity. His 11-year study followed highly functioning people between the ages of 65 and 92 and found that individuals who expressed a clear goal in life—something to get up for in the morning, something that made a difference—lived longer and were sharper than those who did not. It was also reported that immediately following December 31, 1999, demographers saw a spike in deaths among elders. These older people, in other words, may have willed themselves to stay alive into the new millennium. A sense of purpose may come from something as simple as seeing that children or grandchildren grow up well. Purpose can come from a job or a hobby, especially if you can immerse yourself completely in it. Claremont University psychologist Dr. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi best describes this feeling in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He defines flow as a Zen-like state of total oneness with the activity at hand in which you feel fully immersed in what you’re doing. It’s characterized by a sense of freedom, enjoyment, fulfillment, and skill, and while you’re in it, temporal concerns (time, food, ego/self, etc.) are typically ignored. If you can identify the activity that gives you this sense of flow and make it the focus of your job or hobby, it can also become your sense of purpose. A new activity can give you purpose as well. Learning a musical instrument or a new language gives you a double bonus, since both have been shown to help keep your brain sharper longer. “Exercising your brain is important,” says Dr. Thomas Perls of Boston University Medical School. “Doing things that are novel and complex. Once you get good at them, and they are no longer novel, then you move on to something else. So you’re kind of doing strength training for the brain, and that has been shown to decrease your rate of memory loss, and maybe even decrease the rate at which one might develop Alzheimer’s disease.”
Craft a personal mission statement. If you don’t have a sense of purpose, how do you find it? Articulating your personal mission statement can be a good start. Begin by answering this question in a single, memorable sentence: Why do you get up in the morning? Consider what you’re passionate about, how you enjoy using your talents, and what is truly important to you.
Take time to relieve stress Sardinians pour into the streets at 5 p.m., while Nicoyans take a break every afternoon to rest and socialize with friends. Remember Ushi and her moai? They gather every evening before supper to socialize. People who’ve made it to 100 seem to exude a sense of sublime serenity. Part of it is that their bodies naturally slow down as they have aged, but they’re also wise enough to know that many of life’s most precious moments pass us by if we’re lurching blindly toward some goal. I remember watching Gozei Shinzato pause to watch a brilliant thunderstorm as she washed her breakfast dishes in Okinawa, and Sardinian shepherd Tonino Tola stop to take a long look over the emerald green plateaus below. He’d seen that same sweeping view for almost 80 years, yet still took time every day to appreciate it.
The result seems to be a greater sense of well-being. But how does slowing down help you live longer? The answer may have something to do with chronic inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s reaction to stress. That stress can come in the form of an injury, an infection, or anxiety. Small amounts of stress can be good—for fighting off disease, helping us heal, or preparing us for a traumatic event. But when we chronically trigger inflammation, our bodies can turn on themselves. Italian endocrinologist Dr. Claudio Franceschi has developed a widely accepted theory on the relationship between chronic inflammation and aging. Over time, he believes, the negative effects of inflammation build up to create conditions in the body that may promote age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Slowing life’s pace may help keep the chronic inflammation in check, and theoretically, the related disease at bay. Apart from such health benefits, this Blue Zone lesson does much to add richness to life. Slowing down ties together so many of the other lessons—eating right, appreciating friends, finding time for spirituality, making family a priority, creating things that bring purpose.
Reduce the noise. Minimizing time spent with television, radio, and the Internet can help reduce the amount of aural clutter in your life. Rid your home of as many TVs and radios as possible, or limit them to just one room. Most electronic entertainment just feeds mind chatter and works counter to the notion of slowing down. Be early. Plan to arrive 15 minutes early to every appointment. This one practice minimizes the stress that arises from traffic, getting lost, or underestimating travel time. It allows you to slow down and focus before a meeting or event. Meditate. Create a space in your home that is quiet, not too hot and not too cold, not too dark and not too light. Furnish the space with a meditation cushion or chair. Establish a regular meditation schedule, and try to meditate every day no matter what (but also not stressing out if you fail to do so). Start with 10 minutes a day, and try to work up to 30 minutes a day. Try to meditate with others occasionally.
Put family first. Invest time and energy in your children, your spouse, and your parents. Play with your children, nurture your marriage, and honor your parents.
Identify your inner circle. Know the people who reinforce the right habits, people who understand or live by Blue Zone secrets. Go through your address book or your contact list of friends. Think about which ones support healthy habits and challenge you mentally, and which ones you can truly rely on in case of need. Put a big “BZ” by their names. Ideally, family members are the first names on that list. Be likable. Of the centenarians interviewed, there wasn’t a grump in the bunch. Dr. Nobuyoshi Hirose, one of Japan’s preeminent longevity experts, had a similar observation. Some people are born popular, and people are naturally drawn to them. Likable old people are more likely to have a social network, frequent visitors, and de facto caregivers. They seem to experience less stress and live purposeful lives. Create time together. Spend at least 30 minutes a day with members of your inner circle. Establish a regular time to meet or share a meal together. Take a daily walk. Building a strong friendship requires some effort, but it is an investment that can pay back handsomely in added years.
To me, they offered a lesson about decline. I know that our bones will soften and our arteries will harden. Our hearing will dull and our vision will fade. We’ll slow down. And, finally, our bodies will fail altogether, and we’ll die. How this decline unfolds is up to us. The calculus of aging offers us two options: We can live a shorter life with more years of disability, or we can live the longest possible life with the fewest bad years. As my centenarian friends showed me, the choice is largely up to us.