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Centenarian Studies

Longevity research that has studied centenarians and supercentenarians has led to some major findings that support our list of tips for longevity (see the previous section). In the next section, we’ve summarized some of the most prominent research that has been done to date.

The Blue Zones

It could all start with where you live. In 2004, one of the most extensive longevity studies was conducted by American explorer Dan Buettner in partnership with National Geographic and a team of the world’s top longevity experts. The premise of the study was to map out areas of the world where the highest concentration of people are living abnormally long and healthy lives, and then, to explore those regions to isolate potential longevity factors. The project identified the following five regions, which Buettner calls the Blue Zones:

  • Icaria, Greece—This Greek island is home to approximately 8,500 people that enjoy an isolated culture built on tradition. They value family and spend time with the people in the community. They drink wine together, play games, and socialize daily.

  • Loma Linda, California—A city in Southern California with a big slice of the population that are members of a Protestant sect known as the Seventh-Day Adventists. The religion focuses on principles of healthy living, exercise, vegetarianism, and avoidance of tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drug use. The focus on the California community comes from the concentration of Seventh-Day Adventists, however the lifestyle the religion promotes extends the Blue Zone merits outside that geographic area to include any Seventh-Day Adventist congregation.

  • Sardinia, Italy—Inhabitants of the highlands of this Mediterranean island hunt, fish, and cultivate most of their own food. While they live a very healthy life, their superior longevity could be related to a genetic marker, M26, that might be a factor linked to long life spans.

  • Okinawa, Japan—Okinawa has long been a focus of longevity research. It’s where the world’s longest-living women live. However, men live longer there, too. The Okinawans value community. They work hard with a sense of purpose and eat healthy diets. They exemplify the Power 9, which are longevity-promoting lifestyle choices that Buettner recommends (see the following section entitled “Power 9: The Nine Lifestyle Choices that Promote Longer Life Spans”).

  • Nicoya, Costa Rica—An 80-mile peninsula south of the Nicaraguan border. People who live there have access to water rich in calcium and magnesium. It strengthens their bones and protects them from heart disease.

Power 9: The Nine Lifestyle Choices that Promote Longer Life Spans

People in the Blue Zone regions are ten times more likely than the average American to reach the age of 100. When they did a cross-comparison of the five zones, Buettner and his team identified nine reasons for higher rates in life span. Buettner calls them the Power 9. The following nine factors are suggested as essential for a longer than average life:

  1. Move naturally—A super-ager fitness regime involves daily physical activity that occurs spontaneously. The exercise is incorporated into activities that have to get done.

    Sardinians are a sheep-herding culture. Many of them get their physical activity from their work. Many Okinawans work in agriculture. Their day involves gardening and tending to fields.

  2. Live purposefully—The French refer to it as “raison d’etre.” The Nicoyans call it “plan de vida.” In English, it’s the “reason for being.” People who live long believe there is a reason for their life. They believe they are meant to achieve something. Waking up with this mindset encourages them to take action. It gives them a reason to want to live.

    World-renowned Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl would probably agree. He was a Holocaust survivor who studied the mental health of fellow prisoners in the concentration camps where he was imprisoned during World War II. In 1959, he published a book that established a revolutionary new therapy called logotherapy. It was built on the fundamental principle that people with a life’s purpose deal better with difficult life circumstances. He found that religious Holocaust prisoners were more apt to live through difficult times than commit suicide. He asserted it was because they believed they were there for a reason.

  3. De-stress regularly—The world’s longest living people have routines that help them de-stress regularly. This makes sense if you consider what the American Medical Association (AMA) says about stress. It’s the number one proxy killer in America and is linked to 60 percent of all human illness and major disease. Stress produces chronic inflammation in the body, which can lead to chronic illness and early death.

    To de-stress, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University in California, suggests that people should engage in activities that encourage what he calls “flow.” Experiencing flow involves engaging in an activity that encourages a total involvement with life in the moment.

    Here’s an example of flow. When a musician learns to play a song, the musician must concentrate on the notes he or she plays. However, once the song is learned, he or she can play without thinking. In a sense, the musician becomes one with the music. This experience of becoming completely entrenched in an activity so thoughts are concentrated on that very activity is “flow.”

  4. Don’t over-eat—Blue Zoners stop eating when they are 80 percent full. The Okinawan people have a name for it: “hara hachi bu.” Roughly, translated it means “eat until you are eight parts (out of ten) full.” Resist the temptation to yell out “HARA HACHI BU!!!!” at the pimply McDonald’s cashier the next time you are asked to super-size it.

  5. Eat more beans—Inhabitants of the Blue Zones eat a lot of beans and plant-based foods. Buettner says that Super Agers only eat meat about five times per month and it is usually pork. And no, that’s not a free pass to an all-bacon diet.

    Buettner’s diet suggestion is consistent with a 2014 study by Dr. Valter Longo, Professor of Gerontology at the University of Southern Carolina. He suggests that eating too much protein before age 65 can lead to an early death.

    The research study analyzed the diets of 6,831 middle-aged and older adults who responded to a national dietary survey. The findings indicated that people who ate high levels of protein before age 65 died sooner than those who didn’t.

    Longo suggests that an unhealthy growth hormone, 1GF-1, is activated in the body when a person eats large amounts of protein.

    However, adults older than 65 with little body fat are encouraged to eat protein to gain weight during a time when their body needs excess fat.

  6. Drink wine—We didn’t make this one up. And yes, we agree, it’s a good idea. People living in the Blue Zones provide solid evidence that moderate wine drinking increases life span. It turns out moderate drinkers outlive nondrinkers, especially when they enjoy their drinks with friends.

  7. A sense of belonging—Attendance at religious gatherings are falling but there might be a reason to start going to church, synagogue, or a mosque again. People who attend religious gatherings (no matter what their denomination) at least four times per month, are more likely to live longer than noncongregants. In fact, Buettner says they might live up to 14 years longer.

    A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center reported that only 37 percent of Americans attend church on a weekly basis. In 2014, 16 percent of the population said that they had no religious affiliation.

    In an interview about his documentary “The Happy Movie,” director Roko Belic said that during a visit to Okinawa, he learned the Okinawans see all members of their community as part of their family. They have a strong sense of belonging. He believes this is “one of the cultural traits that relates to why Okinawans are so happy.”

    It suggested this sense of incredible community has members with a strong sense of belonging always feel supported and able to take on tragedy easily with the support of others.

  8. Put loved ones first—Centenarians believe in building a close-knit community. They marry, live close to grandparents and relatives, and bear children. Remember that the next time you plan a convenient business trip on the same week your spouse’s parents are coming to town. Drinks with the in-laws equals a longer life.

  9. Get lucky—Becoming a super ager is ten percent luck. People born into a society that cares about health usually live longer. Their environment teaches them how to be healthy. Good news if you live in Monaco, Macau, or Japan. According to the CIA, those countries are top three for life expectancy rates.

    In 2009, Buettner partnered with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the United Health Foundation in a pilot project to test the Power 9 on a community: the city of Albert Lea, Minnesota.

    The project involved the enrollment of 20 percent of the city’s members, 50 percent of the top 20 employers, and 25 percent of the city’s restaurants, schools, and grocery stores. The Power 9 principles were incorporated into day-to-day life. The focus was on building sustainable health initiatives and making it easy for members of the community to make healthy choices.

    After just 1 year, participants added an estimated 2.9 years to their life span and health care claims for city workers dropped 49 percent. Efforts to implement the Power 9 into communities continue. There’s more about this at BlueZones.com.

The New England Centenarian Study

The New England Centenarian Study is the oldest, largest, and most prestigious centenarian study in the world. The study was established by the Boston University School of Medicine in 1995.

The premise of the original study was to understand the incidence of Alzheimer’s in centenarians living in eight towns in the Boston area. However, initial findings showed that centenarians with Alzheimer’s are rare. So, the study’s main focus shifted to isolating potential lifestyle and genetic factors that allow a person to live to the age of 100 or more.

When the study began in 1995, the prevalence of centenarians in industrialized regions was 1 per 10,000 people. In the United States specifically, that number has changed to 1 in 6,000, making centenarians the fastest growing segment of the population.

The original group studied consisted of 46 people. Today, the study group has grown to 1,600 centenarians, 500 children of centenarians aged 70 to 80, and 300 younger people. Participants no longer include only people in the Boston area. The expanded group lives around the world. It also includes 107 supercentenarians.

The most current findings from the New England Centenarian Study suggest that there are three lifestyle factors that contribute to longevity.

Centenarians have the following things in common:

  1. They are not obese.

  2. They don’t smoke.

  3. They’ve learned to deal with stress better than most people.

The study also uncovered some genetic findings:

  1. Fifty percent of centenarians have more Super Agers in their families.

  2. Centenarians have extroverted personalities (results based on personality tests).

  3. Centenarian women have had babies after the age of 35 years old.

This study shows that longevity is 70 percent to 80 percent lifestyle and 20 percent to 30 percent genetics. These statistics were gathered from studying twins separated at birth. They compared twins who were brought up in different environments to see how it affected their life spans.

The study also suggests that it is physically possible for all Americans to live to the age of 88 or 89. Researchers discovered this biological capacity by closely examining the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. Members of this group have an average life expectancy rate of 88 (see the Blue Zones section earlier in this chapter if you missed it).

In January 2014, the study published the results of their latest genetic findings. To date, they have isolated a total of 281 genetic markers. These markers are 61 percent accurate in predicting who will live to 100 years old, 73 percent accurate in predicting who will live to 102 years old or older, and 85 percent accurate in predicting who will live to 105 years old or older.

These same genetic markers play roles in many of the genes involved in old age diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure. They also play a role in the biological mechanisms that create aging in the body.

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