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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


Updated: Oct 9, 2023

I am at that age and stage of life where the question of longevity is pertinent. Although it is a subject that has not been far from my mind in the last few decades, it is not and has never been a prominent concern. A documentary mini-series on Netflix brought it to the surface recently with a provocative survey of those places around the globe that have an unusually high number of centenarians, those that have been dubbed blue zones.

My own family had two centenarians, my grandmother (100) and her sister, my great aunt and godmother (103). Both were vital people who remained active, curious and engaged throughout their extended lives—a gene I can only hope was somehow conveyed to my line as well. But what was compelling about this program was the contention that we truly do have some degree of control over how long we live—at least barring the unforeseen, and it does not depend on our genes. Even more arresting, there is a genuine evidence that it is possible to change our lifespans and conceivably alter the course for future generations.

It will not surprise you that among many things about our country which are not only unexceptional but actually far worse than comparable nations around the world, our lifespans are declining at a time when modern medicine should be yielding significant gains. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other so-called lifestyle diseases are the main cause—almost all preventable by the application of common-sense habits.

As you might suspect, the blue zones, places in parts of Sardinia, Greece, Okinawa, Costa Rica and right here in the US in Loma Linda, California share many things in common—not least of which is a significant proportion of individuals who live well beyond the age actuarial tables predict—as much as 15-20 years longer. Sadly, most of us don’t think about the prospect of living longer until we get to the shorter end of the wick. The findings are not a total revelation—we’ve all heard injunctions from doctors, dieticians and other healthcare professionals and scientists before. I am going to sum them up into these five categories in the interest of brevity: Diet; Exercise; Community; Attitude and Faith.

Now the first two are painfully obvious but the fine points are not. As for diet—there is a great deal of difference in the foods available and consumed in the blue zones. There is also a lot of evidence to suggest that the folklore about our diets is vastly over simplified. Take carbohydrates for example, or the need for animal proteins to sustain a healthy balance, both subjects that are much more nuanced than you might expect. Sardinians and eat lots of pasta, potatoes, and bread, and along with the residents of a the Greek Island of Ikaria are not averse to a glass or two of wine with their meals—all foods which many health experts say are bad for you. They also eat a lot of vegetables and legumes—almost daily in fact and the reason they do not eat a lot of animal protein is because it is scarce and expensive. Greeks eat a lot of seafood and olive oil rather than butter, they are the exemplars of the Mediterranean diet. Okinawans eat a particular variety of purple sweet potatoes native to their island. Are these their secrets?

Well it turns out that the dietary generalizations we've been taught don’t apply. Three things do; first and most important how much we eat. Americans consume on average nearly 4,000 calories a day—much of it in the form of processed foods, and animal proteins. Blue zone folks eat less than 2,000 calories a day on average and a high percentage of it is plant based. Let me say here that I am not a vegetarian, and there is nothing wrong with fish or poultry, even other animal proteins in the right proportions to everything else we eat. Legumes, beans for the rest of us, and nuts are equally important and it is entirely possible to consume all of the essential amino acids we need for a healthy diet without any added cholesterol or fats. The key—reasonable portions, more of the good stuff, and getting rid of the high calorie low content junk foods that are not only not good for us, but proven contributors to the most common causes of an early demise.

Now some might say that poor diet is a product of low income as well as poor education on the subject and they are not entirely wrong, but the foods Blue Zone folks eat are not at all expensive and readily obtainable without having to go marching down to your local Whole Foods outlet. In fact these foods are cheap by comparison to processed foods and can also be easily grown in a plot of earth not much bigger than a parking spot. Which leads to the second admonition—blue zoners are walkers not drivers, gardeners not gym rats, they are leaner than the average American largely because of their diets, but they do exercise, every day as part of their daily life choices.

Sardinians living up in the hills have no choice, their homes require walking up and down to get anywhere. Cars are for going long distances only—and the same is true in other blue zone areas but the forms of exercise may vary from just walking—a lot, every day, to vegetable gardening, to tai chi or well whatever folks need to do or enjoy doing. Look at blue zone people and you'll see that they remain active and limber and even retain musculature and balance throughout their lives. It turns out that all my yardwork every day for an hour or two followed by the gym isn't such a bad idea even if I grumble about it from time to time. Being sedentary for hours every day is decidedly not. Sodoku or Wordle may be good for your brain but take a break and walk around the neighborhood it's a lot better for your body. Exercise in our daily living, in everything we do, at work, at play, is crucial to our welfare.

So much for the predictable differentiators. Again, we all may have heard some of this before, even taken a stab at trying to live a different way but drinking a health tonic and walking up a flight or two of stairs every day while a good beginning isn’t enough. If we really want to live longer, we need to attend to the three other life choices, because they have as much to do with our welfare as diet and exercise, perhaps even more.

The first is community. What does that mean? Well in the simplest sense it means being in relationship with a circle of like-minded folks who love and support each other. That does not seem so hard does it? If you commit to eating a healthy diet and getting daily exercise but your circle of support are folks chunking down potato chips and fast-food burgers while slumped in front of their TV or computer screens, it’s going to be hard to stay the course. But even if you are strong of will and can stick to your plans, the way we socialize has become a lot more virtual and a lot less physical. We do fewer things together, and we do them less frequently—thanks to social media and other distractions of modern life. Study after study confirms that elderly people in nursing homes lose from 2 to 5 years off their lives while those nurtured by relatives and friends persist. Community is about being a part--not apart and it goes along with two other elements where community plays a central role, it goes along with faith and attitude.

Resilience, the ability to handle the stress of modern life not only depends on the support of others it also requires that we and they have good coping mechanisms so that we can adjust to negative circumstances when they arise. Call it positive thinking if you like. I prefer something less glib—acceptance. Not acceptance of everything that is wrong with our world, never that, but inner acceptance. The ability to see beyond immediate and sometimes dire outcomes to what is greater than us; that is acceptance. When we live alone in our own minds it can be a very unhealthy place. We need to foster attitudes that help us cope along with people in our lives who practice those attitudes. We also need to have a clear sense of purpose--a reason to get up each day and commit ourselves to a life worth living. Which brings us to faith—perhaps the most controversial of the elements.

To be clear I am not talking about religion per se, although blue zone folks tend to practice a religion or at least an abiding faith in someone or something greater than themselves. In interviews, these centenarians and those approaching that age don’t appear to simply credit God for their longevity, however thankful they may be for that blessing. Instead, they have placed their relationship to God, to the Universe, or to their Ancestors at the center of their faith. They have a personal cosmology that lives in the larger frame of existence alongside family and community and in resonance with their creator. One does not believe simply to believe but out of a daily affirmation of life's goodness.

I have a mental picture from my many visits to San Francisco over the years of ancient Nonna’s walking up the steep streets of its North Beach neighborhood, grocery bags clenched in both hands as they ever so slowly make their way up the hills. Every day, the same drill--up and down, to mass at the nearby cathedral, to the market, perhaps a visit with friends and home to make the minestrone, bake the bread and make the pasta. All my huffing and puffing up those same streets on my early morning ambles probably did me less good than their daily routine. Somehow, they learned crucial lessons about how to live that the rest of us failed to note. The same lessons that aging grandmothers and grandfathers practicing Tai Chi in the park just below also intuited.

The series begins and ends with a challenge. Paraphrasing, the narrator asks, "if I told you that you could live 15 or 20 years beyond the expected norms, would you take that offer"? Most of us would say yes but most of us may not be prepared to change the way we live, to alter our environment and our commitments to ourselves and each other. I am a work in process—doing many of the things the blue zone folks do, though admittedly not as consistently as I should be but working toward that objective. I’m not doing it out of vanity or fear of death, but because life is worth enjoying and if I am so fortunate as to get a few more years than I otherwise might I am glad to be sharing that life with you.

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