From the moment you are born you start aging - it is an evitable part of life but often times gets a bad wrap...and rightfully so. Lots of things begin to change as we age: energy, metabolism, hormones, our immune system, our bone and muscle strength, our memory and overall cognition, and our ability to move. Yay for aging! While we can’t control aging, there are some things we can control like how we age and how soon the changes start to kick in (and how drastic they are).
There is a lot of research that suggests aging is really the accumulation of bad lifestyle habits - we sit more and move less, we don’t eat as well or we eat too much (or not enough), we don’t sleep well, we have more stress that we manage poorly, and we are so busy that we often don’t have time for meaningful connection. We know we beat the “‘lifestyle” drum a lot but that’s because it’s true! If you look at the Blue Zones, the five places around the world that have the highest life expectancy or with the highest proportion of centenarians (people who reach the age of 100), you can see that lifestyle plays a HUGE factor in their life span and healthspan. And it’s important to emphasize healthspan because it’s not just about increasing how many years you live overall, but it’s also increasing the number of years you are healthy and well.
September is healthy aging month so we wanted to provide some tips for healthy aging based on the Blue Zone findings, as well as research on longevity and healthing aging.
1. Focus on good nutrition
Good nutrition is increasingly important as you age. While your energy needs - aka calories - decline, the amount of nutrients your body needs actually increases, for the most part.
Eating a diet rich in Omega-3s and antioxidants, which are anti-inflammatory, can help mitigate the symptoms of arthritis, which is greatly impacted by inflammation, as well as boosts your immune system. Foods rich in antioxidants are also really good for your eye health and can help prevent cataracts.
Nutrition can also impact Alzheimer’s Disease, one of the most frightening neurodegenerative conditions out there. If you know anyone who has had it, it’s awful to watch. There is growing research that Alzheimer's is linked to high blood sugar levels, so much so that researchers are starting to dub the debilitating disease “Type 3 diabetes.” Nutrition can help manage blood sugar as well as ensure your brain is getting the nutrients it needs to stay strong and function well.
Folks in the Blue Zones consume a diet rich in fruits, veggies, high quality carbohydrates (like sweet potatoes), beans and other legumes, and nuts and seeds, while consuming small amounts of meat occasionally. If you are a self-proclaimed carnivore, we aren’t telling you that you have to cut it out. What we are saying is that populations in the Blue Zones tend to fill their plates with plants mostly. When they do eat meat, it’s good quality and small portions - about 3-4 ounces (or the size of a deck of cards).
2. Keep moving
In addition to eating a nutrient-dense diet, moving daily is one of the best things we can do for our health. As our metabolism declines - about 1-2% per decade after the age of 20 - exercise tells the body to use the nutrients it has and to balance blood sugar. It also helps prevent injury, helps build and repair bone and muscles, and helps circulate blood, oxygen, and nutrients through the body and to the brain.
Getting regular exercise, like 30 minutes of walking, is associated with lower rates (and delayed onset) of Alzheimer’s, as well as decreased risk of diabetes, heart disease, fatigue, arthritis, and overall mortality. It also has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, and boost overall mood. Conversely, not getting enough (or any) physical exercise has been shown to be a major cause of chronic diseases.
For populations living in the Blue Zones, movement is engineered into their daily life - whether that’s walking as a mode of transportation, gardening, swimming in the ocean, or dancing. It’s not that they lift weights, run marathons, or take spinning classes - it’s that their environments and daily lives encourage and naturally include movement, which has been associated with longer life expectancy. While that isn’t a reality for many of us, there are ways to offset that by building in movement whenever you can.
3. Have and know your sense of purpose
You’ve heard of stay-at-home parents becoming depressed when their kids go to college, or workers who experience the same once they retire - it’s actually pretty common for people to become more depressed and anxious as they grow older. One of the main reasons is they don’t feel they have a sense of purpose (or they aren’t aware of it). Purpose is such a fundamentally driving nature of humans that it actually impacts our life and healthspan.
Many of the Blue Zone populations have language or terms for describing this sense of purpose - they essentially translate into “why I wake up in the morning.” It’s important to know why you wake up in the morning. If you aren’t sure, do the work to figure it out. Think about what you want - what gives you joy and meaning - and make it happen. Having a sense of purpose is associated with increased lifespan - up to 7 more years of life. That’s something worth exploring, for sure.
4. Stop eating when you’re 80% full
Mindful eating is associated with better health and more positive relationships with food. Eating mindfully allows your body to cue into your hunger and fullness signals, meaning you don’t overeat. One of the key aspects of health, and something present in all of the Blue Zone populations, is that they eat until they are 80% full. Folks in Okinawa actually have a mantra they say before they eat reminding them to stop eating when they are 80% full. It aids in good digestion, requires mindfulness (which benefits both physical and emotional health), and can prevent you from eating too much and gaining unnecessary weight. Most folks in the Blue Zones eat their lightest meal in the evening and don’t eat again until the morning. Research shows the benefits of fasting at least 12 hours at night - including improving cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s Disease and decreasing blood sugar and liver glycogen stores - so eating an early dinner and refraining from anymore food until the next morning can be beneficial for bodily processes and functioning, as well as improving health and longevity.
5. Manage daily stress
Stress is an inevitable part of life and actually provides benefits to our body; however, constantly living in stress leads to chronic inflammation that is associated with most age-related diseases. The longest-lived people in the world incorporate stress-reducing techniques into their daily routines. While the routines vary - from taking a nap to socializing with friends to praying - the trick is that they have a planned routine for when stressful situations come up or for shedding the daily stressors that come with life. Identify stress reduction techniques for extra stressful times or defining a daily ritual that can help calm your body and mind is a great way to keep stress from impacting your health.
6. Consume alcohol moderately
While drinking too much alcohol is linked to a host of health issues, the world’s longest-lived people drink alcohol moderately and regularly (except for Adventists, which are one of the groups with the longest lifespans). Now this isn’t an excuse to binge drink on the weekends or consume large amounts of alcohol - it’s about moderation. In fact, research suggests that moderate drinkers actually outlive non-drinkers, as well as heavy drinkers. Moderate means 1-2 glasses per day - erring closer to 1, especially for women, and is best consumed with friends and/or family around mealtime or with food. There is also a leaning towards wine as the primary alcohol choice.
7. Connect with others
Interesting enough, connection has a lot to do with longevity for centenarians in the Blue Zones, including putting their families first, committing to a life partner, spending quality time with their children, and having a tight circle of friends on which to rely on and which support healthy living. There is research that suggests unhealthy behaviors like smoking or being obese are contagious, while positive traits, like happiness are also contagious. Having a supportive group of people surrounding you can be crucial for longevity and happiness. In Okinawa, Japan, each person actually has what’s called a “moais” which is a group of five friends who have committed to each other for life. With that kind of support, no wonder they are one of the longest-lived people in the world.