We can learn a lot about improving quality of life — and maybe even increase longevity — by studying the habits of people who live the longest.
Where in the world are the longest-lived people? Though we in the U.S. tend to think we own good health and longevity, the truth might surprise you — the small, remote island of Okinawa, Japan, is where you’ll find the world’s largest population of healthy older adults. In fact, of the five locales scientists are studying for their longevity secrets, three are islands, one is a peninsula and one is simply a spiritual oasis.
Researcher Dan Buettner, who studies these populations for the National Geographic Society, calls these long-lived pockets Blue Zones. The top five Blue Zones may be relatively isolated and scattered around the globe, but here’s what they have in common, according to the New York Times:
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In Okinawa — an archipelago 360 miles off the coast of Japan — you’ll find the world’s highest prevalence of proven centenarians: 740 out of a population of 1.3 million. Okinawan seniors not only have the highest life expectancy in the world, but also the highest health expectancy: they remain vigorous and healthy into old age, suffering relatively few age-related ailments.
Secrets of Longevity: Widespread gardening provides an opportunity for exercise, nutritious food and sunlight, and Okinawans follow an old adage that says “eat until you are 80% full” instead of gorging. They also have a sense of purpose, a positive outlook on life and close social support groups.
Sardinia is an island 120 miles off the coast of Italy where the men — mostly farmers and shepherds — are particularly long-lived. In fact, just one town of 1,700 people, Ovodda, boasts five centenarians.
Secrets of Longevity: Although part of the reason for Sardinia’s longevity may be genetic, they also have the opportunity to follow that healthy Mediterranean diet, as well as consuming lots of goats’ cheese and milk. They walk a lot, but they also take time for leisure, and maintain a positive attitude and sense of humor about life.
East of Los Angeles, Loma Linda is a community that includes about 9,000 Seventh-Day Adventists — a religious group that is significantly longer-lived than the average American. Adventist culture is focused on healthful habits such as vegetarianism, and warns against alcohol and smoking.
Secrets of Longevity: Besides the healthful habits integral to their belief system, Adventists drink plenty of water, eat lots of nuts, exercise regularly and tend to maintain a healthy weight. They nurture emotional and spiritual health, value their family relationships, and prize volunteering.
The remote Nicoya peninsula has an inland community in which middle-age mortality is surprisingly low: a man at age 60 has about twice the chance of reaching age 90 than a man living in the U.S. They also have the lowest rates of cancer in Costa Rica.
Secrets of Longevity: Their plan de vida or sense of purpose in life encourages a lifestyle that is physically active, with plenty of time outdoors as well as time spent on family and spirituality. They sleep 8 hours and their diet includes not only nutrient-rich foods like beans, corn and rice, but also water that’s naturally high in calcium and magnesium.
Ikaria is a Greek island 35 miles off the coast of Turkey. Like Nicoya, they’ve got a lot of nonagenarians: people there are three times more likely to reach 90 than Americans are. According to the Blue Zones website, “Chronic diseases are a rarity in Ikaria. People living in this region have 20% less cancer, half the rate of cardiovascular disease and almost no dementia!”
Secrets of Longevity: Boasting a mineral hot springs, Ikaria has been a health destination for centuries. Its residents stay active through walking, farming and fishing, but they also make sure to take time out to nap and socialize. In addition to their Mediterranean diet, they eat a lot of wild greens and drink an herbal tea that’s full of nutrients. Their community lifestyle also encourages good health habits and regular social engagement.
A few more fun facts about where people live the longest:
First, the five U.S. states with the highest life expectancy at birth are, in descending order:
As for entire countries with the highest life expectancy at birth, the top five are:
According to the researchers for Blue Zones and the Okinawa Centenarian Study, a handful of places that previously claimed to be exceptionally long-lived have since been proven not to be so — among them the valley of Vicalbamba in Ecuador, the former Soviet state of Georgia, and the Hunza Valley in Pakistan. Researchers found that age exaggeration is common, and many people simply do not know their ages for certain. Not only that, birth records aren’t always tracked.
By contrast, in the truly long-lived society of Okinawa, there is a family registry dating back to 1879.
One other thing the longest-lived societies tend to have in common: they have limited or no consumption of refined sugar and other processed foods. But with increased globalization, this is changing, and the food environment is becoming more Americanized in all of these once-remote places. This is already having an effect on their health and longevity — for the worse.
What do you think is the secret to these places where people live the longest? Should we change some of our habits to match? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.