The human striving for betterment has always included longevity; the eternal seeking to maximize our health, happiness and appearance and age as gracefully as possible while staving off the ravages of aging and disease.
The secret to longevity by this definition is not a secret at all, but out in the open if one looks for answers in the right places – the trick of course is to be willing to make the necessary changes. Some of these changes may be small shifts in daily habits, while some might take a little self-reflection.
In modern life, we are constantly bombarded with studies and conflicting messages about whether every aspect of our lives and what is healthy versus not. Get more sunlight -, stay out of the sun, eat eggs – limit eggs, coffee good, coffee bad, and the list goes on and can be overwhelming in its constant and at times, contradicting nature.
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Rather than get too caught up in the “science de jour” as studies can literally seem to conflict with each other or fall victim to the misleading advertising (remember the ad claiming that more doctors smoke camels?), it is very enlightening to simply look at what long-lived, mostly disease-free societies are doing – and what they are not doing.
There are pockets around the world referred to as “blue zones“ in which people typically enjoy substantially longer life spans as well as freedom from most of the diseases that plague Western societies, specifically North America – such as cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart attack. These areas have the highest number of centenarians and people typically are much longer lived – and in a much healthier state, than in many Western societies. The observations summarizing the common practices of these blue zones in contrast to the western lifestyle may provide some key insights.
In this article, the focus will be on inner health in order to effect inner health and longevity - which of course has an impact on outer appearance, but of course we have many anti-aging tips for skin as well that you can read all about right here for wrinkle prevention and here for skin rejuvination.
- Don’t Smoke
While this one may seem like a no-brainer unfortunately too many people fail to appreciate the incredible harm done by using tobacco products, and specifically cigarettes. Smoking is the number one overall cause of cancer, which in of itself is reason enough to stop. Additionally, smoking both directly and indirectly causes heart disease and stroke, which rank as the top causes of mortality worldwide. The list of devastating health conditions is long and according to the American CDC “Cigarette smoking harms nearly every organ of the body, causes many diseases, and reduces the health of smokers in general”. We know that it’s easier said than done however the importance of quitting smoking cannot be overstated. Therefore, that is the number one habit to avoid and tops our list by far.
- Don’t consume sugar
One of the biggest differences that set westerners, more specifically North Americans apart from populations living in blue zones (one of which surprisingly is in California) is our love affair with sugar. According “Face the Facts USA” a George Washington University funded project, Americans annually consume a whopping 100 pounds of sugar per person! Sugar is featured in almost everything we eat that comes out of a bag, can or box. The top sources of sugar cited by Face the Facts were sweetened beverages, desserts, yeast breads, chicken dishes and pizza.
Why is sugar so bad? The human body is not meant to handle artificially refined glucose in all the commonly found forms; be it white or brown sugar, enriched flour, high fructose corn syrup etc. Once ingested, with such high concentrations and no fiber to slow its absorption, sudden spikes in blood sugar follow. The resulting insulin production launches the beginning of a vicious cycle. The pancreas desperately pumps out insulin to keep up with the demand, and over time the body falls behind as it cannot possibly keep up with the sustained assault of relentless glucose consumption.
The resulting chronically high blood and high levels of insulin opens the door to a host of deadly diseases, including cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. Therefore avoiding the consumption of sugar and artificial sweets as much as possible is key. Switching to natural alternatives such whole fruit and natural lower glycemic sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit is a great start.
- Don’t eat processed foods
Processed food has much of the nutritional content removed for convenience, texture and taste. These artificially altered foods are made with highly manipulated ingredients that do not occur naturally, and are loaded with additives, preservatives and a host of compounds that are foreign to our bodies.
In a study published in JAMA in February 2019, a cohort study of 44,551 French adults 45 years or older found that “a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food consumption was statistically significantly associated with a 14% higher risk of all-cause mortality”.
Processed foods are a burden and tax on our bodies, forcing resources to be dedicated to disposing of the toxic waste by either elimination or storage into fat cells which then become toxic timebombs. This prevents the ability to regenerate cells properly and often causes cellular damage which can lead to a host of diseases including cancer and an overall accelerated rate of ageing. These foods not only do not support longevity, they directly sabotage it and our appearance, quality of life and health along with it.
- Don’t abuse alcohol
Alcohol has an oddly paradoxical relationship with longevity. Used in moderation, it has in some studies showed positive and protective cardiovascular benefits. These benefits however, come to a screeching halt when the amount consumed increases. According Dr. Sharon Orrange, as quoted by the article What Does Heavy Drinking Do to Your Body? Drinking more than 14 beers/glasses of wine or 1.5 ounce serving of liquor can lead to liver damage, heart problems and an increased risk of cancer.
Since, unfortunately drinking a few beers or glasses of wine every night is an extremely widespread habit, the incremental amount of damage that is done to so many people’s health could be prevented by simply limiting intake.
- Don’t Have a Seat
The expression “sitting is the new smoking” is beginning to emerge, as the hazards of being too sedentary are becoming apparent. With more and more people working from home, the prevalence of diseases arising from the lack of exercise is also rising. In a study entitled Sedentary behavior as a mediator of type 2 diabetes - PMC (nih.gov) referenced a meta-analysis of data, one study found a significant increase in the incidence of type II diabetes, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome in people who sit more than 50% to 75% of the day.
- Don’t Stress too much
Chronic stress is a root cause of health issues in modern life. We are faced with stress from so many directions, as we increasingly surround ourselves in a crush of tight schedules and nonstop stimuli. This constant state of heightened stress heightens the incidence of heart disease, addiction, mood disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder, says Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale Interdisciplinary Stress Center. I an article entitled “Stress makes life’s clock tick faster. Chilling out slows it down” researchers go into detail how stress can cause changes in our base rate metabolism, accelerating obesity-related disorders such as diabetes. Stress also drains our ability to control emotions and to think clearly. This makes getting rid of or preventing stress in one’s life an important strategy.
- Don’t be a Hermit
Leading a busy social life full of meaningful relationships was one of common characteristics found in the Blue Zone analysis by Sally Beare. Frequent and joyous interaction with friends and family were built into the daily lives of these long-lived and healthy people. The importance of being surrounded by loving and meaningful relationships is also supported by one large study involving a random sample of 6928 adults in Alameda County, California and a nine year mortality follow-up demonstrated that “people who lacked social and community ties were more likely to die in the follow-up period than those with more extensive contacts“. Having a close relationship with just one other person can greatly improve the longevity of any individual, but the best is being surrounded by friends and family, both old and young.
Now for the Do’s
Keep in mind, these are tips are for everyday living, an occasional indulgence is perfectly fine. This is where balance comes in; there is nothing wrong with going out to eat occasionally or having a drink with friends. The trick is to keep these indulgences proportionally small so they are accents and not the main theme of our routines.
The Do’s are a list of proactive strategies that can be built upon the Don’ts - once it is established that someone is avoiding the common most unhealthy habits, adding these habits can help complete the strategy and really enhance one’s ability to live long in good health.
- Limit meal times and sizes
Harah Hashi Bun Me is Japanese for “eat until you are 8 parts (out of ten) full. This practice is in line with mindful eating that incorporates specific mealtimes as well as limits serving sizes.
In a study of hundreds of mice over the course of four years, a restricted-calorie diet was observed to add 10% to the animals’ lifespans. By limiting meals to their most active time of the day, which for mice is at night, their lifespans were extended life by an incredible 35 percent. The combination of these two variables – the restriction of calories coupled with a particular feeding window, which for humans would be typically during the day, added 9 months to the mice’s average median two-year life span, which is a substantial difference.
This is in line with the observation that people in Blue Zones have a philosophy around food that does not encourage overindulgence or nighttime eating. Additionally the lack of hyperpalatable food aka junk food, in these societies, removes the urge to keep eating past the point of fullness.
- Limit Meat to once per week
The pigs, cows and chickens are applauding this one, as the frequent consumption of high amounts of commercially farmed meat is tied to much higher rates of Western diseases. A massive study called The China Study , found that rural Chinese people had far lower rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis than their urban dwelling counterparts, who ate a lot more meat. Additionally, urban dwelling Chinese were found to have 6% of the heart disease of Americans at the time of the study.
Moreover, when analyzing the habits of the Blue Zone societies in her book 50 Secrets of the World’s Longest Living People, Sally Bear summarizes that they all have in common a very minimal intake of meat in common, eating smaller amounts of free-ranging, lean meats as seldom as once per week, and then only as a treat. Meat is used more as a condiment than a main course, otherwise, and is only used sparsely in combination with larger servings of vegetables. This distinction between the way Western societies live, with all of our attendant, life shortening ailments may not have all other causes ruled out, however this dietary variable cannot be ignored.
- Try a form of Fasting
Among one of the Blue Zones the Hunzakuts living in the mountainous regions of India, experience an annual scarcity of food in the spring time. This causes missed meals for a few weeks, which has been hypothesized to come with some remarkable health benefits. Since it is not sustained for the entire year, but isolated to just a shorter period of a few weeks, it acts as a “spring cleaning” according to Beare.
The biochemistry involved is based on a process called “autophagy” which is a unique state entered into during the withholding of food. This is literal translation of this term is “self-eating” and can play an important role maintaining good health and longevity. When calories are restricted and the body enters a ketogenic state spurring the production of a hormone called glucagon, in order to maintain life-sustaining glucose levels. In a study entitled “Relevance of Autophagy Induction by Gastrointestinal Hormones: Focus on the Incretin-Based Drug Target and Glucagon“ the authors state that “during nutrient depletion, autophagy can provide essential components for energy production and biosynthesis. However, it also acts in a similar manner by recycling damaged organelles, unnecessary proteins, and foreign substances for the quality maintenance of these intracellular components”. This is obviously a very valuable process by which our bodies clean house.
Please always check with your physician before starting any fasts or making any dietary changes.
- Eat 5 to 7 Servings of Fruits and vegetables per Day
The importance of eating fresh vegetables cannot be stressed enough, as the bulk of all the societies who live in Blue Zones eat up to ten servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Vegetables are featured in all their main dishes, whereas meat is sparsely used. They use many spices, garlic and olive oil to make delicious salads and stews.
They also eat a variety of fruits such as pineapples, apricots, pomegranates, mangos, berries, apples, pears etc. Fruits and vegetables also offer a lot of protective benefits that can help prevent every kind of cancer, diabetes, heart disease etc. while giving us the nutrients that we need to stay healthy and look our best. The digestive enzymes, vitamins and minerals and fiber that these fruits offer, not to mention that they are delicious makes following this strategy easy.
It can be a little alarming to hear about people living in Western countries who claim to be vegan or vegetarian but are suffering from many of the Western diseases, which is unfortunately likely due to their overreliance on processed foods, and the notable lack of vegetables in their diets. Incorporating fresh, locally grown – organically if possible, produce as the main staple of one’s diet is a most important step towards improved longevity.
- Maintain a Healthy Weight
With rates of obesity rising in North America, so has the prevalence of visceral fat which is the fat that is carried in the upper area of the body and surrounds the organs. According to an article in Harvard Health Visceral fat is responsible for producing proteins that cause inflammation and can heighten one’s risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer, and stroke.
In the Blue Zones that were studied, the lower daily, caloric intake, high levels of fiber, modest amounts of fat and highly active populations, weight problems are virtually nonexistent. Obesity is the second leading cause of cancer and losing weight should not be overlooked as a critical component of supporting longevity.
For specific advice on weight loss, we also have a great blog post on helping the body process and eliminate fat right here.
- Move Your Body
As can be seen, these strategies work well together to support optimal health. The implementation of a healthy exercise routine is also a critical component of maintaining good health. Regular exercise that avoids pushing the extreme outer limits of endurance and challenges the body just enough but not too much is the best parameter. Blue Zones are often in areas with little pollution where food is raised and harvested locally, where a portion of travel is often done on foot in mountainous areas and life involves a lot of time spent outdoors and tending to gardens.
Where it may not be possible to implement that type of a lifestyle for the average working Westerner, there are steps (literally) that everyone can take to maximize their health.
In a study titled “Is there evidence that walking groups have health benefits? A systematic review and meta-analysis” concluded those who implemented regular and sustained walking into their routine showed remarkable improvements in blood pressure, a slower resting heart rate, fat loss and body weight, lower cholesterol, better depression scores with higher quality of life and increased endurance. Simply adding an hour per day of outdoor walking to one’s day is great way to increase longevity. Please note that we recommend checking with your doctor before embarking on any new exercise routine.
For additional tips on boosting your workouts in our blog article collection, visit our article on weight loss right here.
- Hang out with Mother Nature
The lifestyles of centenarians in Blue Zones incorporate plenty of outdoor activity in natural settings. A study published in Environmental Study and Ecology found that “Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy”. Similar benefits were found by various other studies that either used questionnaires or looked at meta data. The causality was not isolated but the benefits of being outdoors in a green space had significant positive correlations over spending time indoors and in artificial environments. The setting does not have to be a forest or remote area, it can be a park in your neighborhood or even a street lined with trees or your own backyard. The combination of natural light, a connection to the earth and a sense of freedom are one of the easy ways to relieve stress and fight depression.
The preceding list of things to avoid as well as to do represents just some of the many strategies that can help us live a longer and healthier life. There are many resources which can make implementing these strategies easier; from community gardens to walking clubs and support groups – the goal is to improve our longevity by spreading knowledge and support. We wish you the best of luck with your longevity journey!