From the people who live the longest

The average life expectancy in the US is 78.1 years, an age that is far less than our potential maximum life spans.

On the Japanese island of Okinawa, there are approximately 50 centenarians (those who reach 100 years or more) per 100,000 people. In the US, at most 20 per 100,000 people reach this impressive milestone.

A long life is not an accident. Writer and longevity expert Dan Buettner, in conjunction with the National Institute on Aging and the nation’s top gerontologists, has studied what he calls the world’s “blue zone” areas where people live unexpectedly long and healthy lives. In addition to Okinawa, the blue zones include Sardinia, Italy… Loma Linda, California (home to many Seventh-day Adventists)… and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Important finding: Only about 25% of longevity is determined by genetics. The other 75% is largely determined by the choices that we make every day. The average American could live up to 14 more good years by putting the following habits to work…

Choose activity, not “exercise”

In Sardinia, where the rate of centenarians is 208 per 100,000, many men work as shepherds. They hike for miles every day. Similarly, people in Okinawa get hours of daily exercise in their gardens. California’s Seventh-day Adventists, one of the longest-living groups in the US, take frequent nature walks.

What these groups have in common is regular, low-intensity physical exercise. They don’t necessarily lift weights or run marathons. They merely stay active — and they do it every day throughout their lives.

Daily physical activity improves balance and reduces the risk for falls, a common cause of death among seniors. It lowers blood pressure and improves cardiovascular health. It increases the odds that people will be functionally independent in their later years.

Recommended: 30 to 60 minutes of moderate physical activity daily. This could include riding a bicycle or walking instead of driving.

Eat Less

Okinawan elders intone this adage before eating — hara hachi bu — a reminder to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full.

People who quit eating when they’re no longer hungry (rather than eating until they feel full) find it easy to maintain a healthy weight, which reduces the risk for heart disease. This approach is more natural than conventional diets. Helpful…

Serve yourself at the kitchen counter, then put the food away. People who do this tend to eat about 14% less than those who don’t.

Use smaller plates and bowls. Doing so makes servings look larger, which helps you eat less. In one study, people who ate from a 34-ounce bowl took in 31% more than those who used a 17-ounce bowl. Similarly, people drink at least 25% more when they use short, wide glasses instead of tall, narrow ones.

Buy small. Most people consume about 150 more calories when they take food from large packages than when they take it from smaller ones.

Limit Meat

In every blue zone, meat is consumed, at most, a few times a month. People in these communities live mainly on beans, whole grains, vegetables and other plant foods. These foods are high in fiber, antioxidants and anticancer compounds. Traditional Sardinians, Nicoyans and Okinawans eat what is produced in their gardens supplemented by staples — durum wheat (Sardinia), sweet potato (Okinawa) and maize (Nicoya). Strict Adventists avoid meat entirely.

Studies of Seventh-day Adventists show that a relatively high proportion eat nuts (any kind). Those who eat about two ounces of nuts five or more times a week have heart disease rates that are only half those who rarely eat nuts.

Consider wine

Studies of long-lived people suggest that drinking alcohol in moderation is a powerful factor in living longer. It is consumed in three of the blue zones (Okinawa, Sardinia and Costa Rica). In Sardinia, the shepherds drink about one-quarter bottle of red wine a day. Their wine has two to three times more flavonoids than other wines (because of the hot climate and the way the wine is made). Flavonoids reduce arterial inflammation. Inflammation has been linked to atherosclerosis, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Cultivate a sense of purpose

A study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that people who are excited by life and feel that they’re making a difference tend to live longer (and healthier) lives than those who just “get by.”

Okinawans call it ikigai and Nicoyans call it plan de vida, but in both cultures, the phrase essentially translates to why I wake up in the morning. Anything that gives you a sense of purpose — even something as simple as taking pleasure in watching your children or grandchildren grow up well — can add years to your life.


Many people don’t realize that the 24/7 American lifestyle is literally toxic. It produces a chronic increase in stress hormones that triggers inflammation throughout the body.

Most of the world’s longest-lived people incorporate some form of meaningful downtime into their daily lives. Nicoyans take a break every afternoon to socialize with friends. For Adventists, the Saturday Sabbath is a time to rest.

Embrace your spiritual side

Faith is a key element that most centenarians have in common. The Sardinians and Nicoyans are mostly Catholic. Okinawans have a blended religion that stresses ancestor worship. The Adventists form a strong religious community. People who attend religious services are about one-third less likely to die in a given period than those who don’t. Even among people who don’t go to church, those with spiritual beliefs have less depression, better immunity and lower rates of heart disease.

Put family first

In the blue zones, a great emphasis is placed on family — and people who live with or maintain close ties with their families get sick less often than those without these ties. They also are more likely to maintain better mental and social skills throughout their lives.