I have a friend who turned 51 not that long ago, and to say she wasn’t handling it well would be putting it mildly. She acted like getting old was something she should have stopped from happening, like suddenly realizing that she forgot to stop the newspaper from being delivered before she left on vacation, so why not just put a sign on the front lawn that said, “We aren’t here anyway, so go ahead and rob us blind”?
I’m not sure why she felt she should have been able prevent something as basic as aging, and after she met Mary, she wondered why she was ever worried about it to begin with. Mary is 84 years old and a widow who decided (when husband number three kicked the bucket after 22 years on the road together) that she wasn’t ready to hang it up just yet. She drives a 26 foot RV and sets it up by herself, and when my friend met her, she was on her way to Carmel to learn how to surf. It seems Mary’s only concession to age is the Harley Davidson she gave up at 72 after it became too heavy for her to get up on its kickstand.
It seems my life is filled with people in their seventies and eighties who have more going on than six people half their ages. My friend, Leo Monahan, is in his early eighties, and between a career as the most amazing paper artist I have ever met, he is also the tongue in cheek voice of Leo the Colorman, describing his childhood in South Dakota through the paper sculptures that have taken him all over the world. My uncle, Chuck Foster, who is in his early sixties, is pursuing his dream of becoming a rock star (and why not?). A few days ago, I was lucky enough to meet Ardell, a security guard who checks in trucks and cargo at a National Guard facility in Arkansas. She is 74.
I am not sure why so many people I talk to in their forties and fifties think life is over just because a certain number has been reached. I went to a lecture by Dan Buettner last year on what he calls “The Blue Zones”. Buettner discovered that there are seven places in the world where people lead healthy, active lives, well into their late nineties. When I first mentioned the concept on Facebook, everyone said the same thing. “Why on earth would you want to live to be that OLD?”. The assumption was that living to 100 meant less mobility, less quality of life; in other words, sitting in a wheelchair on the porch of the nursing home, drooling on yourself, just waiting to die.
Buettner proved through his research that these Blue Zones aren’t a fluke, and that people from these regions experience an exceptional quality of life. What was even more surprising is that, while all seven zones were in different parts of the world, successful aging had the following factors in common:
Move Naturally – Gain 4 Years
1. Just Move
The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They live in places where they can walk to the store, to their friends house or places of worship, their houses have stairs, they have gardens in their yards.
Consider making things a little inconvenient. Make that extra trip up or down the stairs instead of loading things at the top or bottom to take up later, walk to your airport gate instead of taking the moving walkway, park far from the entrance, walk a dog, do your own yard and house work, get rid of some the time saving electronics and power equipment that have “simplified” your life.
Right Outlook – Gain 4 Years
2. Purpose Now
Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy. The Okinawans call it “ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Do an internal inventory. Be able to articulate your values, passions, gifts and talents. What are the things you like to do and the things you don’t? Then incorporate ways to put your skills into action.
3. Down Shift
Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation which is associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour. Find a stress shedding strategy that works for you and make it routine.
Eat Wisely – Gain 8 Years
4. 80% Rule
Marketers tell us we can eat our way to health. America has been eating its way well beyond health. Our strategy focuses on taking things out — instead of putting more things in — our diet. “Hara hachi bu” – the Okianawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomach is 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. Serve food at the counter, store leftovers, then sit down to enjoy the meal. Replace your big dishes with 10” plates. Remove TV’s from the kitchen. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.
5. Plant Slant
Go ahead and eat meat if you want. But consider it a condiment and try the leanest, finest meat you can afford. Try to limit it to a portion the size of a deck of cards and only twice per week. Beans, including fava, black and soy and lentils are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Snacking on nuts–about a handful a day has been associated with and extra 2-3 years of life expectancy.
6. Wine @ 5
Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 drinks per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all weekend and have 14 drinks on Saturday.
Connect – Gain 4 Years
All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish or some other religion that meets as a community. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.
8. Loved Ones First
Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping your aging parents and grandparents near by or in your home. (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.) Work on being in a positive, committed relationship (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in your children with time and love. (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes.)
9. Right Tribe
The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies show that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness is contagious. Assessing who you hang out with, and then proactively surrounding yourself with the right friends, will do more to add years to your life than just about anything else.
I don’t know Mary’s secret to long life. I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting her. It seems to me that if I had to make a list of things that wuld keep people young it would boil down to just one offering: “You ARE going to die someday, right, so why the hell not?????”
For more information on the Blue Zones, visit http://www.bluezones.com