Live Longer, Live Healthier: Longevity Lessons from Around the World

Five cultures from around the world stand apart from the rest. What do they share in common that creates fulfillment and longevity?

Growing old is an inevitable process. But there are many things you can do to drastically slow down the aging process and increase your life expectancy, in addition to improving the QUALITY of your life and prolonging your health.

We know this primarily due to the research done on Blue Zones, regions of the world where a higher than usual number of people live much longer than average, and the research of David Sinclair and his team over at Harvard.

Essentially, your life expectancy is not predetermined by genetics or biology; however, it is significantly influenced by how you live your life - your diet, lifestyle, and environment. The buck starts and stops with you.

🧬 Aging and Epigenetics 🧬

Epigenetics refers to how your diet, lifestyle, behaviors, and environment affect how your genes work (i.e., how they express themselves). 

When you change these factors, the expression of genes can be altered, which in turn can affect DNA and overall health.

Research from the Sinclair Lab has demonstrated that aging is primarily due to the loss of epigenetic information. Their primary focus has been on identifying which genes impact aging, and they discovered that specific genes, especially sirtuin genes, such as SIRT1, SIRT2, etc., play a leading role.

A commonality of these is that they require nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), a coenzyme central to metabolism. It is essential for DNA repair and necessary for mitochondrial health and function

So why is this research so important? Well, it forms the basis for understanding a critical pathway in the aging process that Sinclair was able to uncover.

The Main Pathway

When DNA is damaged, proteins that regulate gene expression, such as sirtuins, become active to repair the damage, resulting in a temporary change in gene expression. However, if the damage isn't too extensive, these proteins can be reset, and everything can function normally.

On the other hand, persistent damage to these genes can result in permanent changes in gene expression and a loss of cell identity, which is a degradation of epigenetic information and thus speeds up aging.

An important result of the damage is that mitochondrial NAD levels drop, which is often required to repair damaged DNA. Low levels can lead to cell death or impaired cell function.

So, what are the factors that cause these epigenetic changes and overall damage?

The Major Culprit

Aging, as previously stated, is defined as the loss of epigenetic information. This happens when genes are exposed to information from their surroundings that is radically different from what they are programmed to respond to on a regular basis. 

And nowhere is this discrepancy between the interaction of genes and environment more evident than in modern life.

Chronic stress, processed foods, social isolation, an overabundance of technology, pollutants, and other stressors of modern life send messages that genes are not used to processing. 

These signals drive the aging process by disrupting the function of SIRT1 and other age-related genes, causing levels of NAD to drop, leading to cellular damage.

But you don't have to settle for poor health. And a good start is to implement some important lessons from the longest-lived cultures on earth.

The Blue Zones Solution

As mentioned earlier, Blue Zones refer to areas where people consistently live long lives, typically 90 years or more. And that's not just a few people; almost all people in these areas live happy and fulfilling lives late in their lives with excellent health! 

Dan Buettner and other researchers have discovered five areas where this is the case:

  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Sardinia, Italy
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica
  • Ikaria, Greece
  • Seventh-Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California

Although these areas differ significantly in location, geography, culture, etc., they all share nine essential characteristics for their longevity.

Power 9 Infographic

Natural Movement

The human body is designed to move, and that's a big reason why Blue Zoners are so healthy.

A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of almost all diseases, while exercise and movement do the opposite. 

Daily exercise is a significant factor in increasing NAD levels in the body, especially in the mitochondria. Therefore, according to the Sinclair model, it is one of the most natural ways to slow down aging and improve health.

With that said, people living in Blue Zones do not exercise in the literal sense. Instead, daily exercise is simply a natural part of their lives. Gardening, walking around the neighborhood, carrying things, pushing wheelbarrows, etc.

Natural movements are enough to keep them healthy, fit, and strong late into life. Most people can continue physical labor well into their 80s and 90s because they have been doing it all their lives.

The Fun Factor

Exercise does not have to feel like torture.

When Blue Zone cultures exercise specifically, it's something they enjoy. 

Usually, it involves a walk in nature, a stark contrast to those who dread exercise and rarely do it or make it a chore in the gym.

It should be something that you enjoy, and that adds value to your life. 

It's important to find small ways throughout your day to incorporate exercise, like taking the stairs and getting up, and walking around the office or home every thirty minutes. These little things add up over time.

The general rule is 3 minutes of moving for every 30 minutes of sitting. 

Proper Outlook

Mental and emotional states also play a significant role in longevity.

And people in the blue zones have two key factors that help them develop the right outlook: having a goal and shifting down a gear every day. 

These cultures even have unique words for goals, like "Ikigai" in Okinawa and "plan de Vida" in Nicoya. Instead of blindly following others or doing something they don’t like to make money, they try to make a living from their passions.

As a result, they have a higher level of positivity, optimism, and joy, all factors in a high-quality life. A high percentage of older adults in the Blue Zones report feeling optimism and positivity regularly.

Stress Management

Everyone experiences stress, but the Blue Zones have specific ways of dealing with stress.

Common activities include prayer, remembering loved ones, naps, happy hour, and meditation. And these practices are not just done once in a while or on a "when I have time, I'll do it" basis. Instead, they are purposefully integrated into the daily routine, leading to less stress and better mental, emotional, and physical health.

It's only logical because chronic stress is a significant trigger for inflammation, a risk factor for most chronic diseases. Increased blood pressure, chronic infections, low libido, decreased cardiometabolic health, and virtually every other health problem.

That's precisely why many people experience health problems today because they are constantly under the gun and do not give their bodies a break.

So, if you are one of those stressed-out people, it's essential to take it down a notch every day in some way. As mentioned above, there are many ways to do this. Pick something that you enjoy that you can easily do.

The Fullness Factor

In general, it is recommended by health professionals only to eat until you are about 80% full.

None of these Blue Zone cultures overeat, and they allow enough time for the brain to process the feeling of fullness and satisfaction. 

That's probably why these people are not overweight and in fantastic shape for most of their lives. Instead of feasting quickly and eating for hedonistic pleasure, these people take time to enjoy their meals and eat only what they need. With that said, they don't restrict themselves unnecessarily. 

They seem to have a more natural relationship with food than most.

Plant-Based

Blue Zones eat a plant-based diet primarily, with 90 percent or more of their calories coming from plants, except for Sardinia, where over 70 percent of calories still come from plants.

The exact foods vary from zone to zone, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds, which contain an abundance of nutrients that slow the aging process, restore health, and promote vitality and longevity. A plant-based diet contains also contains many health-promoting compounds, including phytochemicals such as carotenoids, phenols, alkaloids, and phytosterols.

If you have been told that carbohydrates are bad, you need to know that this is simply not true. All these Blue Zones consume large amounts of carbohydrates. In fact, Okinawans typically get 90 percent of their calories from carbohydrates! But they are all healthy, high fiber, nutrient-dense carbs... that's the key.

Furthermore, many of the foods they eat are directly from their gardens or fields. If not, they still come from local, organic sources. Meat, eggs, and dairy are still consumed, but less frequently. And portions are kept small, usually 3 to 4 ounces of meat, poultry, fish, etc.

Dairy is generally from sheep or goats, not cows, all of which are grass-fed and species-appropriate, of course.

Even the animal foods they eat are much healthier than those prevalent in Western societies. Because the animals are grass-fed and/or pasture-raised, they have much higher omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised animals. And the same goes for the wild-caught fish they consume. It is free of hormones, antibiotics, and other unnecessary substances and chemicals.


Alcohol?

The last interesting dietary note is the consumption of alcohol, except for Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, who abstain entirely.

Alcohol is typically consumed in the early evening, with no more than two drinks, and this is usually with family and friends alongside food.

It’s not a license to drink as much as you want, but moderate drinking does seem to be beneficial if it's in the right environment. 

As with many things, context is key.

Connection

Strong and meaningful social bonds are common in all Blue Zones.

In essence, almost all belong to a religious community, prioritize their loved ones, and have strong friendships and social groups. 

Concerning religious communities, it doesn't matter what the specific religion or faith they practice is. It is really about feeling a sense of belonging, feeling supported by others, and experiencing a deeper meaning to life.

Incredibly, attending faith-based services several times a month can add up to 14 years to one’s life expectancy.

Prioritizing Loved Ones

A strong emphasis is put on loved ones.

For example, grandparents and great-grandparents often live in their families' homes or near them. 

And most people are expected (and desire) to commit to a life partner. Not only that, but they place a high value on lovingly raising their children and devote a significant amount of time to ensuring that they are properly raised.

Tight Social Groups

Lastly, people in the Blue Zones are part of tight-knit social groups.

These groups don’t have to be large, sometimes as few as 3, but the quality of the social groups makes them extremely beneficial. 

Friendships are often long-lasting and contribute to better health in a number of ways, such as increased positive emotions.

Furthermore, it is generally recognized that the people you spend the most time with have a huge influence on your habits, so if everyone in these groups follows healthy behaviors, they are far more likely to do so throughout their lives.

Measure your health by your sympathy with morning and Spring.

Henry David Thoreau

☎️ Wake Up Call

None of this is anything novel. But how many people in modern society can say they do all these things Can you?

After all, religious attendance is declining dramatically. People are moving farther and farther away from their families. Many families are now affected by divorce, and only one parent often raises children.

Furthermore, more and more people are becoming reliant on social media for social interaction. While these interactions can lead to real-life friendships, interacting solely on a virtual level cannot replace face-to-face encounters. It is no surprise that people, particularly young adults have higher levels of anxiety, sadness, and loneliness than previous generations.

And despite what some may say, most of what is currently going on isn't healthy. And it surely won't lead to more longevity. A downside of modern society is that it can contribute to more stress, lack of fulfillment, loneliness, and low social support, the exact opposite of what the human body needs to thrive.

🌎 Implementing Blue Zone Practices

So, if the goal is optimal health and longevity, the practices of Blue Zones need to be implemented in our culture. In some areas, this has already begun, with excellent results.

Fortunately, because these practices and elements are simple and familiar, they are straightforward to implement.

Daily exercise is easy to incorporate by taking a walk in the park, climbing the stairs, gardening, playing with the kids, etc.

As for finding a purpose in life, there are a vast amount of ways to earn an income today. And there are countless free and paid courses, classes, certifications, etc., that you can take to expand your knowledge and skills in the areas you find meaningful and fulfilling.

Downshifting and stress reduction can be easily implemented through daily mindfulness/meditation sessions (even if it's just 10 minutes!), sitting in nature, praying, and/or being with friends and family.

A predominantly plant-based diet is also relatively easy to achieve. Anyone can take a step in the right direction and eat more fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, and less processed foods. If fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive, you can switch to canned or frozen foods. Sometimes frozen vegetables and fruits are even MORE nutritious.

And if you can afford it, try to buy locally at your farmer’s market. Not just for fruits and vegetables but also meat, eggs, and poultry. The Blue Zones excel in sustainable agriculture with healthy soil, and there is a growing movement arising here in the United States.

As for connection, there are many churches and faith-based organizations across the country and very likely one near you. Whether you belong to a less common faith or religion or aren't religious but still have spiritual leanings, it has never been easier to find like-minded people to start a group with. Volunteering or joining an association is also a great option.

Prioritizing family and friends should also be very easy to do. Take a step back from your busy life and start prioritizing spending quality time with the people you love. Many people get caught up with work or other commitments but making a conscious effort to spend time with them is all it takes. Spending time with family and friends should be easy because it creates gratifying experiences.

I realize that not all these actions can be implemented into your life immediately. Some steps may require political, legal, and/or environmental changes in the area where you live. But you can always do SOMETHING. Just take a step in the right direction and continue to make more and more healthy choices as you are able.

You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.

Joe Lewis

Getting Back to our Natural Ways

When people think about increasing longevity, they often think of an elixir, fountain of youth, or magic pill. And if you look at the Sinclair research, it almost seems like this is true in that increasing NAD improves sirtuin function and dramatically slows aging.

But think about what causes this NAD increase. Living naturally.

Blue Zone research shows us that increased longevity is not achieved through a complex equation but through a very simple process. Just eat, exercise, and live the way you were meant to; the way we have for thousands of years.

Every species on earth has an optimal way of living, and humans are probably the only species where many do not live the way they are meant to.

Other creatures accomplish this on their own. However, while our superior intelligence has provided numerous benefits, it has also resulted in the demise of our natural way of existence. Fortunately, we can simply use this same intelligence to find out how to return to our natural way of life and incorporate all of the factors that lead to a longer and, above all, healthier life.

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