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Kathy Whelan

Posted on October 06, 2021

In a recent financial planning meeting, I saw this: “Life expectancy 100.” It was based on my gender, age, current health and the need to ensure that I don’t outlive my resources. I’d been more focused on how I want to live than how long, but now that three-digit number stuck in my mind.

I knew and had written about biological age and how it was more telling than chronological age, but did I really want to live that long? How healthy would I be at 100, even if my bio-age was a decade less? Lifespan is one thing, but what about my healthspan? And how happy would I be? I needed to know more.

I’d heard of Blue Zones, areas of the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives. In these places, people reach 100 much more often than Americans; live, on average, longer, healthier lives; and suffer only a fraction of the diseases that kill us. National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner, author of several Blue Zones books, has identified five such places: Ikaria, an island in Greece; Okinawa, an island in Japan; the Barbagia region of Sardinia, Italy; a Seventh-day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California; and the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica. Buettner and his team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers and epidemiologists studied the centenarians in these areas and found nine evidence-based common denominators that predicted longevity better than genetics:

1. They move naturally throughout the day.

2. They have a sense of purpose, a reason for getting up each morning.

3. They build stress-relieving rituals into their days like praying, napping, enjoying happy hour or using a sense of humor.

4. They follow the “80% Rule:” not eating after their stomachs are 80% full and taking their smallest meal in the evening.

5. They eat mostly plants, including a lot of beans, and little meat.

6. They consume moderate amounts of wine with friends and/or food.

7. They belong to a faith-based community.

8. They have close and strong intergenerational family connections.

9. They have strong social networks.

Many Americans would love to be so healthy but would find it difficult, I expect, to translate these practices into a more sedentary lifestyle in a less accommodating climate where we eat fewer natural foods, are less family-oriented and view aging less positively. In The Blue Zones, Buettner advises starting with a few of the easiest practices, gradually adding more, and celebrating each small success as we create a “personal Blue Zone.” He assures us that whatever we choose, we’re likely to add healthy months or years to our lives.

Centenarians, it turns out, have thrived, if not in the same numbers, without all the advantages of the Blue Zones. The New England Centenarian Study began in 1995, focusing on centenarians from all walks of life in eight Boston-area communities. According to Living to 100, the 1999 book by its founder, about 95% of the centenarians studied were physically healthy and cognitively independent well into their nineties. Importantly, it was those who had, over the years, made good choices affecting their long-term health and longevity who were able to live long, healthy, enjoyable lives.

Other Boston-based research is heading in another direction, one that could change the aging landscape altogether. Harvard geneticist David Sinclair, Ph. D. and others are looking at the “upstream” cause of the diseases that often accompany aging – heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia and more – in order to cure them all at once, thereby increasing both lifespan and healthspan. Imagine a world where you can get a shot that reverses aging, and when it wears off, get a booster. That’s exactly what Dr. Sinclair aims to accomplish. To grasp the full scope of his work and all its implications, you’d have to read his book, Lifespan: Why We Age - and Why We Don’t Have To.

Until Dr. Sinclair’s vision for the future comes to pass, and even then, I think I would want to know I owed my good health mainly to my own choices. Not that I would turn down a life-saving medication, but an important part of being happy would be feeling proud of doing what I could to create a healthy life. And that’s something no one else can give me. I plan to keep trying as best I can. And maybe that’s the principal thing I’ll celebrate – the effort, even more than the years – as I blow out the candles on my 100th Birthday cake.

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