5 Secrets to Live Over 100 Years Old (The Science Behind the Longest-Living People on Earth)

This is a guest post by Alexander Heyne of Modern Health Monk.

Health

There are places on earth where, if you don’t make it to 100, it’s almost unusual.

These places have been studied by scientists for decades and have been given a name: blue zones.

As it turns out, blue zones exist only in a few places on earth:

  1. Sardinia, Italy
  2. The islands of Okinawa, Japan
  3. Loma Linda, California
  4. Nicoya, Costa Rica
  5. Ikaria, Greece

But there’s one reason why these people have been studied so much by scientists.

Beyond just living to 100 in much higher rates than virtually anywhere else in the world, these people suffer from a fraction of the health issues that most westerners suffer from in their 30s, 40s, 50s and later.

Dementia, heart issues and depression are almost non-existent among these people. What this means it that these people live a fantastic quality of life their entire (long) lives – not just at the end.

That is why this research is so tremendously valuable to most of us.

What’s Wrong In the West?

In the United States, 50% of the people that die every year die from Heart Disease and Cancer – both of which are somewhat preventable.

We know that there are cultures on earth without heart disease.

And we know that there are cultures on earth without cancer or incredibly low rates of cancer.

And we know that both have a very strong diet and lifestyle component. Yet we haven’t quite figured out why so many people are dying.

What’s amazing is that in these blue zone communities (in particular, Ikaria, Greece) cancer rates are a fraction of what they are in the west, heart disease rates are almost HALF of what they are, and dementia doesn’t even exist.

What that means is that not only do these people rarely get many of the diseases you and I would get (and thus live a more enjoyable, pain-free life), they enjoy optimal health throughout their entire lives – almost until the day they die.

By living a certain lifestyle, not only do you improve your health NOW, this ensures you avoid the major killers later in your life. 

So rather than just saying “okay, but what if I don’t want to live to 100?” these suggestions will help you live an optimally healthy and happy life now.

So What Are These Similarities?

Longevity Venn Diagram

Researchers ended up drawing conclusions between three of these particular groups: the Sardinians, the Okinawans, and the Loma Linda, California group.

What’s interesting is that their “secrets” are not all tangible things.

I’m going to introduce you to the five similarities among the groups, which aren’t exactly secrets, and then after I’ll show you the individual secrets each of these cultures had. To me, the secrets are what come after these five.

Here’s what they are:

#1 Family

Family is stressed as the most important thing in the lives of these people. It’s a priority to regularly see them, visit them, and interact with people part of their own tribe.  Virtually everything in these cultures revolves around social interaction.

#2 No smoking (obvious)

#3 Plant-based diet

The major part of each meal was plants.

Note: this does NOT mean they didn’t eat meat or carbohydrates. It means that (like I’ve recommended in this six pack article), the foundation of each meal is plants, followed by a smaller portion of meat or refined carbohydrates.

#4 Constant low level of exercise (maybe not what you’re thinking of).

When we usually think of physical activity these days, we usually think of going to the gym and hitting it hard.

In reality, the people that regularly live to be the oldest aren’t going through extreme workouts – they’re just getting regular physical activity like gardening, hiking, or other labor required for farming. And they’re getting this activity every day.

Regular low or moderate level exercise every day is their exercise.

#5 Social engagement

We see “social ties/family” as 2/5 key characteristics of people who live to 100. 

Family and social ties make up an entire 30% of this “secret.” Pretty interesting, right?

But what I wanted was specifics. Having a social life is great, but what was it about the specific characteristics of each culture that was enabling them to live to an old age?

The Specific “Secrets” of Each Culture

I want to quickly go into a bit of detail on each culture just so you can see how intangible some aspects of optimal health are.  Check out some of the qualities that researchers noted about each culture, that weren’t necessarily as concrete as “diet and exercise.”

The Ikarian Secret

The Ikarians in Greece have 10x the amount of people that reach 100, compared to the United States.

Here are some of the really interesting things, tangible or otherwise, about them:

  • They put their family first and have really close family ties – stronger social ties have been linked to lower rates of depression and stress (Source).
  • They walk an average of 5 miles a day on uneven terrain (as shepherds).
  • They drink red wine – where studies usually show back and forth research on alcohol, red wine is packed with antioxidants – what’s interesting is that the Ikarian (like the Sardinian) variety of red wine has three times the normal levels of most red wine.

Ikarians also have a more relaxed outlook on life and laugh whenever possible. (More on the studies behind the Ikarians here).

The Okinawan Secret

The Okinawans in Japan have a fascinating concept they partly attribute to their long lives, called ikigai – which is a reason for waking up in the morning. It’s almost like a purpose you give to life (or to the day). (Source)

  • They partly develop this ikigai by having incredibly strong social ties – friends and family that help provide emotional, physical and even financial support (+1 for friends!) (More on ikigai here).
  • Many of the local Okinawans have their own gardens that they play in daily (and obviously get food from, too).
  • The Okinawans also follow a mostly plant diet, but what’s interesting is that they also have a personal rule where they only eat until 80% full, called hari hachi bu.

Some Okinawans in their 90s still even have an active sex life. Talk about impressive!

Nicoya, Costa Rican Secret

The Costa Ricans have a very similar rule as the Okinawans – they have something called a plan de vida – a reason to live (source).

  • The plan de vida is essentially a purpose or meaning they give to life, which frequently revolves around their social circle or their family. Family is again a huge component of the Nicoya people’s lives.
  • The Nicoyans also believe in hard work, they rise with the sun, sleep at least 8 hours a night, and eat their biggest meal in the morning – and their smallest meal at night.

***

The Million Dollar Question: Is Longevity “All About” Diet and Exercise?

Honestly, we may never be able to synthesize and write a scientific article on “why” these people live long. We know diet, lifestyle, etc. are critical factors but there are probably many other intangible factors associated with their lifestyle of longevity and great health.

I want to draw your attention to a few interesting things: the intangible aspects of these people’s lives.

Their social circles. The importance of family.

Having a “reason for living.”  Working very hard and being active (not in the gym!), but also having a relaxed mental attitude towards life so they aren’t getting overly stressed.

What’s incredibly interesting about these blue zones is that we typically associate longevity and health with fitness and food. In reality, there is an entire mental, social, spiritual and psychological realm that is equally as important.

What About You?

Are you making sure to take into account the intangible aspects of health? Your “social” health, your mental health, your “happiness” health, your spiritual health?

All these factors play much more into health and longevity than you might think. Eating right and exercise are fantastic tools and critical for health, but so is inner cultivation and the cultivation of friendships.

For more health-and-fitness posts by Alexander, click here.

 Images: Health, Longevity Diagram

About the Author: Alexander runs Modern Health Monk, a site that shows people how to reverse health problems caused by 21st century life. Check out his free weight-loss crash course, or recent article on fixingneck and shoulder pain for office workers.
  • Caitriona Doran

    I saw an episode of Oprah, some years ago, where a number if people from the blue zones were interviewed, one word FASCINATING!!!

    • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

      Caitriona,

      I totally agree. Really interesting stuff! It’s just amazing to see the kind of shape these people are in, even in their 90s. But then again, we do have these people among us – just check out Jack Lalanne. He was strong as an Ox even in his 80s. He died around 95 even though both his parents died young from health-related issues (I believe).

      Like anything, it just takes regular, daily work –

      - Alex

  • Amit Yadav

    Life shouldn’t be long it should be great.

    • http://personalexcellence.co/ Celestine Chua

      Why think either this or that? Wouldn’t it be better if it is both long and great? :)

      • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

        Amen Celes !

  • Stella

    Plant based includes a lot of healthy carbohydrates in starches, legumes, etc. Do you mean refined carbohydrates, when you say “little meat and carbohydrates”?

    • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

      Hi Stella,

      Sorry, yes I meant refined carbohydates :) . Many of them ate sweet potatoes, potatoes, pasta etc. but the emphasis was on plants.

      - Alex

  • Madalina Sraier

    I knew about the Japanese and the Italians who lived a long period of time, but I didn’t know about all the other people. This is very interesting. I’m currently transitioning form a “hit it hard”-kind of routine to a rather moderate one, something I can do for years and years, not just for 3 weeks and then feel drained and grumpy. As for my “social health”, in the past 2 years it has considerably improved. As a teenager I was pretty much a loner.

    • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

      Lina,

      Haha I totally agree with having a routine that you looked forward to that doesn’t leave you grumpy.

      IMHO the social health is really important too – I was similar when I was a teenager. My social life could have used some work haha. It took a few years to work on improving myself, getting better social skills, and just having the courage to force myself and make new friends. But when I did have a close circle, I noticed that my happiness had really improved.

      - Alex

  • http://selfstairway.com/about/ Vincent Nguyen

    Wow, I guess I have to move out there for a while. :) Truthfully, I’d be lying if I said I balanced everything in my life that I should. Sometimes work takes priority over family because I’m still taking everything for granted.

    I had a dream last night that my closest friend died. I felt horrible. I felt depressed when I woke up and all I could think about was how glad I was it was just a dream. If I had that sort of compassion for everyone, maybe I’d be one step closer to a long life.

    • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

      Hey Vincent –

      Haha, don’t worry it just means you’re human ;) I struggle with it a lot too. It’s not always easy because sometimes you have to invest extra in some phase of life to improve/get ahead… which means that time is coming from somewhere else you know? So it’s like, do I sacrifice personal time, sleep, family time, exercise time, free time.. etc. Not always a fun decision.

      Totally with you on the compassion part. In fact, it made me kind of realize that many of these people have an almost Taoist/Buddhist outlook on life. They’re pretty relaxed overall – a “take life as it comes” kind of mentality. I think that says a lot about their stress levels and health too.

      - Alex

  • http://www.ricocompagnie.com/ Rico Compagnie

    I think the majority of those people are stress free.

    • http://personalexcellence.co/ Celestine Chua

      Possibly true, though I also think that “stress free” is a state of mind rather than a situational construct. It’s about learning how to feel “stressless” even when we are faced with stress (otherwise people like Barack Obama or Mark Zuckerberg would probably die quite early because of the amount of stress they face in their work). A lot comes from becoming bigger than the problem at hand.

      A piece I wrote before on how I broke out of a stressful situation in my past: http://personalexcellence.co/blog/the-night-i-cried/

  • Don

    It’s interesting about the constant low levels of exercise. I’ve noticed in my life that older people that stay active look and feel younger and tend to live longer than those that just sit around all day watching TV and doing crossword puzzles look older.

    • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

      Don,

      You’re absolutely right. Motion (even a little) keeps the body healthy and also prevents chronic pain (all while keeping you fit).

  • JadePenguin

    I heard about those Blue Zones some years ago when looking up Aubrey de Grey. He did an interview with Dan Buettner from BZ. I totally believe that mental health is just as important as physical, and also makes it easier to take care of your body. If you’ve got something to look forward to in life, you’re also more likely to care about your diet and exercise ;)

    As for dementia, you could look up The Nun Study. They found that being educated, keeping your mind active and having a purpose in life helps against Alzheimer’s, even if the physical symptoms are present! Plus a myriad of other research that frequently brings up all things already mentioned (I wrote an essay on it last year for my Psych degree, most of which focused on prevention because there is no cure).

    • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

      Awesome Jade I will definitely check it out!

  • http://modernhealthmonk.com/ Alexander Heyne

    Haha Courtney, I used this to justify my compulsive red wine drinking too ;)

  • Aseem Kumar

    Celes, you know that according to the law of attraction, people consciously attract like outcomes and effects. Happiness is an important constituent of health. And social participation is an active constituent of happiness itself. Scientifically more happy you are, more serotonin levels, and more dopamine, not only it plays an exponential part in increasing your wellbeing but also increases the self healing powers of the body. Results in more vitality, more longevity and a purposeful life. What’s more important is that these traits complement each other ( i visualize them as circular helical strands intertwined together and reaching for the top and as each strand reaches for the top, other strands have to follow and so on). I will suggest the book, ” the monk who sold his Ferrari” by Robin Sharma in which the sages of Sivana live up to the 150 or more years.

    Affections,
    Aseem

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