The United States Census Bureau released a report last week that indicates what most of already know. Americans are getting older. From 2010 to 2018, the U.S. population’s median age increased by one year. In 2018, 16% of Americans were age 65 or older, a 3% increase over the prior year and a 30% increase since 2010. By the year 2030 all of the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) will be over age 65.
While it is wonderful that Americans are living longer, we do wonder about the experience people are having as they live longer. What is the quality of this extra time? Are people healthy? Happy? At peace? We know that there are many reasons for our increased longevity. Infant mortality has dropped dramatically over the past century. People generally work in safer environments than they did in the past. Modern medicine is able to prolong lives that previously would have been cut short.
Several years ago, a journalist for National Geographic magazine, Dan Buettner, became curious about places he had heard about, where people lived long, productive and satisfying lives. He began to research these places, and he eventually named them “Blue Zones.” He identified Ikaria (Greece), Loma Linda (California, USA), Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), and Nikoya (Costa Rica) as the original Blue Zones.
While we may not live in a Blue Zone, we can actually create our own Blue Zone by trying to live like those who do. Buettner identified common elements in the Blue Zones that lead to longer, healthier and happier lives.
Movement: Healthy people are physically active. You don’t need to join a gym to move your body. But it’s very important that you move. You can do so by walking, hiking, gardening, or doing household chores.
Purpose: Happy people have a sense of purpose. When they wake up in the morning, that purpose gets them out of bed and moving. It could be community service, caring for grandkids, tending a garden, performing part-time work, etc. Buettner, claims “knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.”
Stress Management: We may live in one of the most advanced nations in human history. But life for so many in this country, even after retirement, is stressful. People in the Blue Zones have developed ways to reduce stress in their lives. You can do it through prayer (Adventists in Loma Linda), reverence for ancestors (Okinawans), or socializing (Sardinians). You might also consider meditation and mindfulness.
The 80% rule: This is not the Pareto Principle. Buettner found that Okinawans stopped eating when they felt 80% full. People in Blue Zones don’t overeat; they tend to have their smallest meal in the late afternoon/early evening, and then don’t eat the rest of the day. Americans tend to regularly overeat, which is evidenced by the obesity numbers in our country.
Eat Plants: While the Blue Zones are not strictly vegetarian, they emphasize fruits, vegetable and legumes in their diets. Meat consumption is minimal and only in small portions. So, make sure your diet includes lots of plants.
Alcohol in Moderation: People in Blue Zones consume alcohol modestly and regularly. They typically drink wine with their main meal and socially. Buettner’s research indicates that moderate drinkers actually outlive nondrinkers. Just don’t allow your alcohol consumption to exceed 1-2 glasses of wine a day.
Faith and Belonging: People in Blue Zones have some kind of faith (i.e. religion) and they belong to a group that shares their conviction. Buettner claims that “attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.” If you are not active in a religion, perhaps there is some alternative that appeals to you, such as group meditation.
Family First: Even though people in Blue Zones are involved in their communities, they always put their families first. They are in long-term relationships with their spouses. Several generations often live in the same home and this allows them to care for aging relatives.
Social Networks: Residents of Blue Zones are strongly connected to others. They form small support groups that enrich their lives. Buettner references the Framingham Studies which show that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So, find other healthy and happy people and nurture each other.
As you read through these characteristics, you may have done your own self-assessment. If your life is not totally aligned with the Blue Zone elements, consider how you can move closer to fully experiencing them. Doing so may allow you to not just add 10-12 years onto your life. You may also add extra years of health, happiness and vitality.
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