According to the Danish Twin Study, only about 10% of the length of an average person’s life is dictated by our genes. The other 90% is determined by our lifestyle. So, in theory, if we can come up with the optimal formula for a good lifestyle, we can come up with the formula for longevity.
WHAT IS THE OPTIMAL LIFESTYLE FOR LONGEVITY?
If you ask the average person what a good lifestyle formula is, they probably couldn’t tell you. They may have heard of the Atkins diet or the Mediterranean diet. Should you be eating organic meat or tofu? Run marathons, or do yoga? There’s a lot of confusion about what helps us achieve a longer, healthier life. There’s also the aspect of your purpose or mission in life, your spirituality, and how you socialise.
ARE THERE WAYS TO REVERSE OR SLOW AGEING?
Our bodies have 35 trillion cells, and there are many things that can go wrong with them. According to research done at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, these cells renew them- selves every 8 to 10 years (except for neurons in the cerebral cortex, which are never replaced). Every time cell renewal takes place there is some damage, and the damage builds up exponentially. That’s why a 65-year-old person is ageing about 125 times faster than a 12-year-old person. So if there is nothing you can do to slow or reverse ageing, why am I writing this article?
The fact is that the human body has the capacity to last about 90 years on average. But life expectancy worldwide is only about 78.1
So somewhere along the line we are losing a good 12 years – in South Africa 37 years, as the life expectancy of South Africans is 53 years, and not even 1% of South Africans live to be 100!
A good way to look at how to retrieve these missing years is by examining cultures around the world where longevity is common, and where deaths in middle age represent just a fraction of what we are experiencing in this country. The lifestyles of these people have more in common than the foods they eat, even though their diets do in fact appear to be similar. What I find so interesting about the parts of the world where people experience extreme longevity is that they live long and healthy lives without trying to. In fact, four of the five identified longevity zones, as described in Dan Buettner’s book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, have no gyms, no supplements and no health food stores. The island of Sardinia in Italy is one of those four.
At least 220 of Sardinia’s current 1.6 million people have reached the age of 100, twice the average of the rest of the world. This longevity especially applies to the population of a highland province called Nuoro. Here the men live the longest – they not only often reach the age of 100, but they do so with extraordinary vigour. It’s a bronze-age culture that’s been isolated from the rest of the world. Because the land is so infertile, the men are mostly shepherds. Their diet is largely plant-based, with foods they can carry into the fields. These include bread made from durum wheat and cheese made from milk produced by grass-fed animals, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids (cheeses from corn-fed animals are high in the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids). They also drink a very dark red wine called Cannonau that has three times higher levels of polyphenols than any other wine in the world.
But I think the real secret is the way in which their society is organised. One of the more important elements of Sardinian society is how they treat their aged members. They place high value on the elderly, so the older you get in Sardinia, the more you are respected and the more your wisdom is celebrated.
South of Tokyo lies Okinawa, a group of 161 small islands, and in the northern part of the main island is the centre of world longevity. On average Okinawan women live to be 86 years old. This is not only where the oldest female population is found, but where people have the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. They have what we all want – they live very long and healthy lives, and tend to die in their sleep very quickly. What can they teach us?
The Okinawans eat a plant-based diet full of vegetables with lots of colour in them, and consume local fermented soy products. Researchers believe that the women don’t struggle with the changes of menopause, because their diet is high in soy. (Taking soy supplements may have disappointing results: in order to receive the benefits, phyto-oestrogens must be ingested naturally, through foods rich in soy.2)
More significant is how they eat. They have all sorts of strategies that keep them from over- eating. They eat small servings from small plates, served at a counter and brought to the table. They also have a 3 000-year-old adage, one of the principles of a diet invented by Confucius known as the hara hachi bu diet. It’s a simple saying that they recite before a meal, to remind them to stop eating when their stomach is not yet full – a self-imposed habit of calorie restriction.
The health of the people in this region revolves around their gardens! Locals spend a lot of time tending (and eating) their herbs and vegetables, rich in vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. Being out in their gardens also gives Okinawans exposure to the sun, giving them ample opportunity to absorb their daily dose of vitamin D, which is good for bone health.
What they have in common with the Sardinians is social acceptance and integration. They have seven to nine people with whom they travel through life, their ‘moais’, lifelong friends who provide social, emotional and financial support networks. Research shows that friends share similar health behaviours, which can have a long-term impact on our health. And, as we all know, social isolation kills.
The Okinawans maintain a positive outlook on life, much like the Sardinians. They live for their ikigai, reason for waking up in the morning. What is your ikigai? Do you instantly know, and are reassured by, the reason you wake up in the morning?
In Okinawa, like Sardinia, almost all the people who reach their 90s and above, do so as physically and mentally functional members of society, who can take care of themselves.
A supercentenarian is someone who has reached the age of not just 100, but 110!
During the research into this article, the official oldest man in the world, Salustiano ‘Shorty’ Sanchez, died (on 15 September 2013) aged 112. This Spaniard was known for his talent on the dulzaina (a double-reed wind instrument). He was the oldest man following the death, in June this year, of 116-year-old Jiroemon Kimura of Japan. Jiroemon’s secret to longevity? ‘I am always looking up towards the sky – that is how I am.’
The oldest authenticated person was Jeanne Louise Calment of France, who died at the age of 122 years and 164 days. She ascribed her longevity and relatively youthful appearance for her age to olive oil, which she said she poured on all her food and rubbed onto her skin. She also drank port wine, and ate nearly 1 kg of baker’s chocolate every week – baker’s chocolate consists almost entirely of cacao!
At 115 years Misao Okawa is the oldest living person on the planet today, and she says she eats whatever she likes – as long it’s made in Japan! But she has a birth certificate. If Bolivia’s public records are correct, Carmelo Flores Laura is the oldest living person ever documented. They say he turned 123 in July this year, but birth certificates did not exist in Bolivia until 1940. Like most peasants in the Bolivian highlands, he has been chewing coca leaf, a mild stimulant that staves off hunger, all his life. ‘I walk a lot, that’s all. I go out with the animals,’ says Flores, who has herded cattle and sheep for a very long time. He says he has never been seriously ill.
In Xinjiang, Northwest China, lives Almihan Sayit, who says she is 127 years old and has never been to a hospital. She said she has always tried to keep an optimistic view of life: ‘There is nothing in the family that makes me upset. My children treat me very well and they love and respect me.’ She loves singing songs – especially love songs.
Arturo Licata of Italy is now the leading candidate to be officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the current world’s oldest man. He is 111 years old.
ADD YEARS TO YOUR LIFE – AND LIFE TO YOUR YEARS
So the secrets to longevity from around the globe can be summed up as follows:
- Move naturally. Walk or garden every day.
- Have the right outlook on life – a purpose for living.
- Eat wisely, in moderation, and mostly plant-based foods. Enjoy a good red wine – and black foods!
- Very importantly, connect with loved ones and have a sense of belonging.
According to David Wolfe, who’s been called the rock star of longevity and nutrition, longevity foods include rainbow-colored foods rich in phytonutrients. But don’t ignore foods with dark pigments (purple and black) such as black rice, black chia seeds, black potato, red grapes, dark berries, black maca, seaweed, dried schizandra berry, blueberries, dark chocolate and olives – all rich in resveratrol, a natural compound shown to favourably alter genes implicated in the ageing process. David’s list also includes foods such as cinnamon, olive oil, garlic and honey.
- http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN. LE00.IN
- http://www.menopauserx.com/ health_center/com_ SoyProtein.htm
- Number of Okinawa’s centenarians up to 920. Ryuku Shimpo 2011, 14 September.
- Poulain M, et al. Identification of a geographic area characterized by extreme longevity in the Sardinia island: the AKEA study. Exp Gerontol. 2004; 39(9): 1423-9.
- Blue Zone Regions – Health and Nutrition. NutritionistWorld.com
- Pes GM, et al. Lifestyle and nutrition related to male longevity in Sardinia: an ecological study. Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases. 2011.