1 August, 2019

Some people are very old and it’s not down to luck. Here’s some life coaching from the 100+ club.

Meet an Italian from Sardinia, a Japanese person from Okinawa, a Greek from the island of Ikaria, an American from Loma Linda and a Costa Rican from the Nicoya Peninsula… They all speak different languages, have different opinions, and come from different cultures. But they also have something in common: they are fit, agile and healthy – and all of them are over 90 years old.

The thing is, they’re hardly noticeable in their hometowns because there are so many healthy and agile old people. It’s what we’d all like from later life, so it’s tempting to take a closer look at these so-called “blue zones” of the world. What (longer) life lessons could they teach us?

The term “blue zone” for these regions was coined by journalist Dan Buettner, author of the books The Secrets of a Long Life and The Blue Zones: Lessons in Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. The phrase was first used by demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain during their work in Sardinia, before working together with Buettner as a trio.

Buettner had earlier come across demographic studies which showed that Japanese residents of Okinawa lived on average seven years longer than their US counterparts. The Greek island of Ikaria can claim to have the highest proportion of over 90-year-olds in the world. There are also people getting very old in the US. They live a tiny small blue area, namely Loma Linda in California. The fact that these healthy seniors are members of the Seventh-Day Adventists indicates that lifestyle plays a vital role in reaching old age.

“The healthiest, oldest people on the planet can teach us a lot about how we ourselves can live a long and fulfilling life,” explains Buettner. “If wisdom is the sum of knowledge plus experience, then these individuals have more wisdom than anyone else.”

What connects the members of a faith community on the US West Coast with farms in the Sardinien mountains, the residents of a Japanese island chain, a peninsula in Costa Rica and the Greek island Ikaria which, geographically, could not be further apart? A great many things, according to Buettner…

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Keep moving

As much as we once admired Boris Becker for his Becker Hecht flying lunge, it is unfortunate what the will to always go to the limit (and beyond) has done to his body. High-performance sport is rarely healthy, but neither is doing no sport. The golden middle way is the route to clocking up 100 years on this planet. Neither Sardinian farmers or greek fisherman regularly go to the gym. But they keep moving, every day, for their entire lives. Those who don’t have cars and live in a mountain village, don’t need to do pilates. Going up and down mountains and working in the garden means an everyday workout, into old age.

Speaking of work: the concept of retirement doesn’t seem to contribute to longevity. People in the blue zones work until the bitter end – in the house, garden or family business. Albeit, without stress and with regular breaks, just as they have done for their entire lives.

Eat what the garden gives you

One doesn’t need to be vegetarian in order to celebrate your 100th birthday, but it doesn’t hurt. The centenarians of all blue zones do not exclusively eat vegetables, but mostly. The people from Ikaria prefer potatoes, chickpeas, beans and goat’s milk, but eat very little meat. Diet is regional in all blue zones. Soya and algae are important in Japan, while Costa Ricans eat a lot of corn, pumpkin and beans. In Loma Linda, where people eat a Bible-inspired diet, and in Sardinia, whole grain products, nuts and fruits are a focal point.

People in all blue zones eat a lot of vegetables that are grown without chemicals. This is no longer obvious, but organic labels mean toxin and fertiliser-free products are easy to spot. People also eat modestly in all these regions.

What about alcohol?

The good news first: centenarians also drink and have done for centuries. The bad: they only occasionally order a second glass of wine. In the mountain villages of Sardinia, everyone likes red wine, preferably a full-bodied Cannonau. In such small quantities, the positive health benefits of the ingredients outweigh the negative effects of the alcohol. An exception is the people of Loma Linda, who abstain from both alcohol and tobacco for religious reasons. Overall, however, wine is beneficial if it’s in small quantities.

Social engagement and relationships

Family and social cohesion are very pronounced in blue zones. Those who can rely on a functioning network, have solid contacts and carers, are happier and live longer. Whether it’s their own offspring, siblings, cousins, friends or neighbours is by the by. Anyone who has friendly people around feels involved. Those who care for others, know why they get up in the morning.

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Spirituality as meaning

The cultural environment of the blue zones is as diverse as their geography. The majority of mobile centenarians also have a spiritual or religious dimension to their lives. Spirituality has a meaningful effect and helps you reflect on your own life and put things into a wider context. It doesn’t matter whether you belong to a religious group, meditate or have exchanges with the universe.

The art of a simple life

A functioning social network, productive employment, work in the garden, healthy diets – the route to longevity is very simple. Unfortunately, our lifestyles make it difficult, otherwise they would be more blue zones in the world. Consumption, competitive thinking and ambition use energy, cause stress and make life hard. It’s worth stepping back from time to time and looking at the wider picture. What is important, what isn’t, what bothers you? Sometimes you can’t avoid stress in your job. But you can compensate for it: lunch in the park, a quick walk, time out on the sofa. And, now and again, by raising a glass of red wine to the wellbeing of the centenarians.

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