The 9 secrets of a healthy, long life

With the right lifestyle, the experts tell us, the chances are that you could live up to a decade longer. But what’s the best prescription for long health? Is there a stand-out combination of diet and supplements that enhances lifespan and quality of life?

In 2004, Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic and hired the world’s best longevity researchers to identify pockets around the world where people lived measurably longer. In these so-called Blue Zones they discovered that people reach 100 years at rates ten times greater than the average. Teams of scientists were taken to each location to identify the lifestyle characteristics that might unlock the secrets of longevity.

They found that every Blue Zone resident shared nine specific characteristics.

1. Move naturally

Those who live longest don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving as part of their daily routines. They will grow their own gardens and tend not to have mechanical conveniences for housework.

2. A sense of purpose

Call it ikigai like the Okinawans, or plan de vida like the Nicoyans, but it means the same thing: a very strong sense of exactly why one wakes up in the morning. Having a strong sense of purpose is apparently worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.

3. Take it down a gear or two

Stress, of course, affects even people in the Blue Zones. It can lead to chronic inflammation which is associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we lack are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians harness the healing power of a happy hour.

4. The 80% rule

Hara hachi bu is the Okinawan’s 2,500-year old Confucian mantra. It is said before every meal to remind them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. This 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full helps them to maintain an optimum weight.

5. Plant power

Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat, usually pork, is eaten on average just five times each month. Serving sizes are typically 3-4oz, or roughly the size of a deck of cards.

6. Everything in moderation

People in all Blue Zones, with the exception of Adventists, drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers have been found to live longer than non-drinkers. The trick is to drink just one or two glasses each day, preferably of Sardinian Cannonau wine. Enjoy them with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save your daily glasses up for the weekend and tip fourteen glasses down your neck on Saturday night.

7. A sense of belonging

All but five of the 263 centenarians interviewed belonged to a faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times each month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.

8. Family first

Who’d have thought that secret to a long life was putting your family first? This means keeping ageing parents and grandparents nearby or in the home. This simple act of devotion also appears to lower disease and mortality rates for the children in your home too. Committing to a life partner can add up to three years of life expectancy, and investing your time and love in your children helps too (not least because they’ll be more likely to care for you when your time comes).

9. Tribe vibes

The world’s longest-lived people choose to live, or were born into, social circles that support healthy behaviours. Okinawans, for example, create moais which are groups of five friends that commit to each other for life. Indeed, research has shown that there is a social side to smoking, obesity, and even happiness and loneliness. The social networks of people enjoying a long life favourably shape their health behaviours.

It may be that to make it to 100 years, you actually have to be a genetic lottery winner. Even so, most of us have the capacity to make it well into our early 90s, and largely without suffering chronic disease. The average person’s life expectancy could increase by as much as 10-12 years simply by adopting a Blue Zone lifestyle.

Are you in the zone? Practical things you can do to live longer

Chuck out those conveniences

Lose the remote, buy a light garage door and lift it yourself.

Eat nuts

Have a can of nuts around your office or home and eat a handful daily.

Drink Sardinian wine

Sardinian Cannonau wine has the world’s highest levels of antioxidants. Feel free to drink a glass or two a day.

Play with your children

Strengthen your health with low-intensity exercise and strengthen your family bonds at the same time. Both things are associated with a longer life.

Grow a garden

Gardening reduces stress, offers regular exercise and provides a harvest of fresh, healthy vegetables.

Take an hour of power

Downshift daily with a nap, meditation, prayer or a quiet walk because de-stressing is a proven way to slow ageing.

Eat fermented soya

Arguably the world’s most perfect food, fermented soya is eaten by the women in the world who live the longest. It contains a plant oestrogen that makes their skin look younger too.

Get a tan

Almost anathema to say it in our age of sunscreen, but doctors are beginning to re-think the possible negative effects of always slopping on the protection. Up to half of Westerners are vitamin D deficient – a condition that can double your chance of dying in any given year. A tan, it seems, not only looks healthy, but is healthy.

Give your best, large dinner plates to the charity shop

Invest instead in nine-inch plates similar to those the Okinawans use. Portion control on a plate, quite literally this can reduce your calorie consumption at dinner by 20-30%.

Write down your personal mission

Knowing and putting into practice your mission gives you a powerful sense of purpose that, in turn, can bless you with a decade extra of a healthy life.

By Oliver Barnett. He practices nutritional medicine at Shine, Church Street.