Why do people in some cultures live longer?

If you’ve ever wondered how much of longevity boils down to genetics, the answer may surprise you. It’s actually only about 10%. That means that the other 90% comes down to our lifestyle choices. You might assume that I’m going to tell you to exercise more or go on some new diet. But in areas of the world where the average lifespan is longest, people don’t necessarily do either of those things. 

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So what do they do that allows them to live longer, and better? Dan Buettner explores this question in detail in his Ted Talk. He looks at areas called ‘Blue Zones’ which include communities on the islands of Sardinia, Italy and Okinawa, Japan as well as the Seventh Day Adventist population in Loma Linda, California where people not only live a decade longer than the US average, but also largely free of chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes that plague so many in their latter years. Here are a few of their dos and don’ts. 

They don’t exercise. Instead of hitting the gym or putting in extra miles, these communities incorporate exercise into their daily routines. They don’t need to find time to exercise in the traditional sense because they set up their lives around activity. When they do exercise intentionally, they tend to do things they find enjoyable such as walking or gardening.

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They don’t diet. They eat a plant-based diet, practice portion control, and drink moderately or not at all. Like with exercise, healthy eating is part of the culture, so there is no need for diet crazes or New Year’s resolutions.

They take time to unwind. When we are in a constant state of stress, it initiates an inflammatory state in the body that is correlated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and Alzheimers. Simply taking as little as 15 minutes a day for calm introspection is enough to reverse this inflammatory state to an anti-inflammatory one.

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They live with a purpose and have community. When the average retiree in America spends over 40 hours a week watching tv, is it any wonder that so many report struggling with loneliness and depression? Instead of feeling that with age they are more of a burden on loved ones, in Blue Zones social equity increases with age. This gives the elderly a stronger sense of purpose and is correlated with lower infant mortality. Meanwhile, close-knit communities with an emphasis on family ties brings a sense of belonging.

So how can you adopt these principles as part of your lifestyle? Perhaps start by seeking to surround yourself with others who also value eating healthily, going on walks, or living with a purpose. Research shows us that habits are contagious. We are more likely to adopt similar characteristics to the people we hang out with. This first step might foster lasting changes that will help you live longer and better.