We're built to last 100 years

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2009

Has there ever been a better time in history to live to be 100? Pessimists point to the classic infirmities that make a life that long not worth living but there is a growing number of happy, healthy and alert centenarians around the globe. In his book The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner describes the way of life of four groups of old but active persons in different parts of the world. Genes do matter but other factors matter even more.

There is not much genetic similarity among the dwellers of Okinawa, Costa Rica, Sardinia and California. To be sure, these clusters of longevity-blessed heroes described by Buettner represent only a small fraction of the population in each of their respective countries. They are all surrounded by persons of lesser age and poorer health. Okinawa, for instance, boasts of the highest per capita percentage of centenarians in the world but that same island has one of the highest rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes anywhere. That's because the youngest generation has divorced itself from the lifestyle and traditions of the oldest.

One might assume that the long-lived Californians — these are Seventh Day Adventists — made it that far because of the wondrous advances of first-rate medical care. The truth is that they don't need it because they have avoided so many of the chronic conditions that are brought on by a First World lifestyle. Instead, they follow in the footsteps of Stone-Agers. Almost all are vegetarians. They don't smoke or drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages. Nuts are part of their daily diet. They exercise almost every day.

Not all the Blue Zone centenarians are vegetarians but most eat meat only sparingly. Their animal protein sources are either low in saturated fat, like the wild game of the Stone Age, or high in polyunsaturated fat that is found in fish.

All have a high intake of seasonal fruits and vegetables whose carbohydrate doesn't raise blood sugar and whose fiber contributes to a low incidence of cancer.

Sardinians and Okinawans bolster their antioxidant intake with curry and turmeric, spices that modern scientists are studying intensively because of their heart-protective anti-inflammatory properties.

There is a thread that connects all four of these groups: close relationships with others. They spend long hours with family and friends on a daily basis, minding children, working together, playing traditional games, sharing meals or simply visiting. Their world is similar to that of ancient Stone Agers who lived in small bands of 20 or 30 individuals. Working together to gather food, to hunt, to build a shelter or to protect each other, the band functioned like a machine. They huddled together for protection and warmth when the sun went down and their stress went down with it.

Perhaps the most subtle but the most important observation is that among all these groups there is a sense of purpose, a reason for living. Physicians have known for centuries that persons with a purpose are more joyful, less likely to be depressed and less susceptible to illness than those who have nothing to look forward to in life.

Life can be long — and worth living.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.