Across the globe, the longevity of people is steadily lengthening. Female life expectancy, which exceeds that of males by a narrowing margin, has climbed by approximately three months per year for the last 160 years. In 1840 in Sweden, for instance, the leading country for enjoying a long life at the time, life expectancy was about 45 years; in 2014 in Japan, a current leader in producing centenarians, it was 84, almost four decades longer.
This astounding increase in lifespan is most likely the result of worldwide improvements in sanitation, nutrition, education, and medicine. While you might expect that the United States, one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, would be at the top of the “best places to live for longevity” list, in fact it ranks an unimpressive 53, sinking over the last three decades from number 11. The populations of Andorra, Japan, France, Spain, Singapore, Guam, Greece, and Jordan, among many others, today lead longer lives than do Americans.
Behaviors Linked to Longevity
Tiny Andorra, a mountainous country wedged between Spain and France, currently boasts the longest life expectancy in the world, with people likely to live until they’re 83. Meanwhile, Americans’ best prospects hover at about 79.
So what would help? Dan Buettner presents some cogent answers in his book,Blue Zones: Lessons From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, whose research was funded by the National Geographic Society and the National Institute on Aging. He identifies four areas of the world where small populations are living notably longer than average: the Barbagia region of Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California, restricted to a community of Seventh Day Adventists; and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. In each place which he dubs a Blue Zone, people are reaching age 100 more frequently than the rest of us, and, on average, leading longer, healthier lives.
In the course of his research, Buettner identified a number of key behaviors and practices that these regional cultures have in common. Notable among them are:
- A regular, natural tendency to be active (like the Sardinian man who walks six miles a day while working on his farm)
- A habit of eating less than average (as in the Okinawan practice of hara hachi bu, which dictates that you should eat until your stomach is 80 percent full)
- A plant-based diet (like the Seventh Day Adventists’ strict vegetarian and nut-heavy regimen)
- Active participation in a community (faith-based or familial)
- A plan de vida, or life purpose
By virtue of their cultural heritage, the people in the Blue Zones naturally fulfill these criteria. As it applies to those of us outside these special regions, Buettner’s research reconfirms what we’ve known for decades: You’ll lead a healthier, longer life if you make an effort to eat well, exercise, be connected to those around you, and maintain a positive outlook.
Of course, more goes into the equation than what we can control as individuals. “Making it to age 100 is a bit of a poker game,” says Buettner, “and the ante is a reasonable public healthcare system.” Cutting-edge medical practices are not necessarily essential, Buettner says, as the longevity of Blue Zone centenarians has little to do with state-of-the-art hospitals. But basic medical care, including vaccinations, is indeed an important part of having a shot at a long life.