By Eli Follick
All of us want to age with the ability to enjoy family, travel, and restaurants, meet friends, attend parties, celebrate holidays, and much more. But how do we better ensure those days await when circumstance, genetics, and other factors seem to dictate our futures? The key is to do as much as we can within our power today to yield the life we want tomorrow.
After studying populations in countries worldwide, Dan Buettner, an American National Geographic Fellow, educator and author, along with a team of researchers, found similarities among groups that have a large number of people enjoying a healthy life of 100 or more years. The research, summarized in his book, “The Blue Zones Solutions: Secrets of the World’s Healthiest People,” examined multiple aspects of their lives, such as culture, climate, foods, and activity levels.
Researchers arrived at a list showing what each locale had in common. A diet that was largely plant-based made the list: vegetables, beans and lentils, fruits, olive oil, nuts, avocados, berries, whole-grain breads, water, wine, and olives. Lean proteins, including fish, eggs, and occasional small servings of meats were parts of a few meals a week. Herbs and spices were key flavoring choices. Nothing was fried, and store-bought meals didn’t exist.
Further, most of the food ingredients were locally grown – usually in family or community gardens. Entire families worked together, getting exercise and cementing relationships with each other and with neighbors.
In fact, community arose as a critical element for longevity. Most meals were eaten with family members of up to three generations in a setting where the dining table was the focus of quality conversation, including problem-sharing and story-telling. Grandpa shares his wisdom-based idea; Grandma tells a tale to enrich the heritage of the children. Family togetherness has been included in the data that Buettner assembled as a component of longevity.
People could also depend on their neighbors to loan a tool, help patch a roof, or care for a child. Access to this degree of togetherness and mutuality has been shown to strengthen the mind and eases anxiety.
In the communities studied, a person’s feet were the main form of transportation. If a trip to the community market was necessary, everybody walked. If a neighbor needed help, someone walked to the house. People walked together to church.
Most families also attended Sunday church services. It was a day of rest, family, and community visits. Regardless of the religion and level of observance, the concept of spirituality impacted longevity by increasing feelings of hope, satisfaction, and comfort.
Putting the Research to Work for You
While most of us don’t spend hours tending gardens to grow our own foods, and American society requires cars to go most places, there are elements we all can take away from the communities that tend to see a larger number of centenarians.
- Food: Make healthful food choices by increasing fruits and vegetables, decreasing store-bought, fast foods, fried foods, and processed snacks and sugar. Cut down on red meat, chicken skin, white potatoes, white rice, white bread, butter, mayonnaise, and desserts. Can you do this all at once? Maybe not. But today is the best day to start.
- Exercise: You must move to sustain the strength, flexibility, balance, endurance and heart health that will serve you well as you age.
- Spirituality/mindfulness: Join a church or other house of worship. Meditate. Get out in nature.
- Community: When possible, join in activities with others, possibly through a community center or senior center. Volunteer to distribute meals or help out in a local hospital or school.
- Family: This is one of the most important elements to health. Visit family members, call them, invite them to visit you. Attend family functions, including graduations, sporting events, or family reunions. Those people with stronger relationships are proven to be happier and physically and mentally healthier than those who are less well connected. Quality relationships, not quantity, are better predictors of a long, healthy and happy life than social class, IQ, or genetics, according to the 2017 Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life. Keep in mind that these relationships require work. You have to keep up with people, which means giving them your time and attention.
- Random acts of kindness: Performing random acts of kindness can make a person feel happier and less depressed and anxious according to a series of recent studies conducted by University of California, Riverside, distinguished professor Sonja Lyubomirsky. Small acts, such as thanking the grocery store clerk, or making your spouse a cup of coffee and serving it to him or her, have been associated with a longer, healthier life.
- Gratitude: Writing down three things you’re grateful for at the end of each day, and why they happened, leads to long-term increases in happiness and decreases depression symptoms, according to recent studies conducted by University of California, Davis, psychology professor Robert Emmons. A leading author on positive psychology, Emmons has found that it doesn’t matter how large or small each item is. The point is to train your mind to orient itself to the parts of life that are good, instead of directing your attention to things that are stressful or irritating. In short, count your blessings.
- Self-compassion: Some people adopt a propensity for self-criticism and tend to punish themselves when dealing with setbacks and failures. However, excessive self-criticism gets in the way of achieving your goals. Instead, use setbacks as a learning opportunity. What would you do differently the next time? What was the obstacle or mistake? What can you change? Likely you’ll improve and move ahead. You can cultivate a supportive inner voice, rather than a hostile self-critical one.
Virtually all of the above impacts how our bodies and minds work together. While there is still a lot to learn, we can use what we do know to keep ourselves healthy and enjoy the life we have.