A long healthy life is no accident. It begins with good genes, but it also depends on good habits.” — Dan Beuttner
A favorite aunt of mine turns 100 in February. She was born in 1917– the same year the U.S. entered World War I, women suffragettes fought for the vote and a first class stamp cost three cents. She’s lived through a lot, including the roaring 20s, the Great Depression, World War II, the moon landing, the turning of the millennium – times of trial and times of celebration. She remembers it all clearly.
My aunt is still in her own home with three of her five living children within six blocks. Her garden is out her backdoor. Throughout harvest season she keeps a box of excess produce on the boulevard for passers-by to carry home. This summer she canned 100 jars of tomatoes which she generously gifts to family and friends. She has always lived within a mile and a half of the farm where she was born and raised.
It is tempting to think my aunt’s great health and longevity is in her genes (and therefore mine!) However, scientists say only 20 percent of our health is due to lucky or unlucky genes, the remaining 80 percent correlates to how we eat, move, and share our lives. My aunt has lived 19 years longer than her father, 40 years longer than her mother and at least 15 years longer than any of her now deceased siblings. Getting to age 100 does not appear to be a family trait.
She is like the centenarians local writer and researcher Dan Buettner found in his research of Blue Zones. Blue Zones are “pockets in the world where the population lives decades longer than average” and they are living not only longer, but better –“more active, greater vitality, and more engaged in life.”
Buettner recognized several characteristics and ways of life common among these communities. I think of it like family traits. We all know families where it’s obvious they are all related. It is not that everyone has the same features, but they all have features shared by others in the clan – a particular nose, a distinct forehead, a leading chin. No one has all of them, but all of them have some; you know they belong together. So it is with the Blue Zones – they don’t all have every characteristic, but they all share a good number of them.
Buettner found nine such characteristics. He calls them the Power Nine:
Move Naturally. Blue Zone people exercise as part of their everyday activities. They walk to get places. They garden, they make bread by hand, they move every 20 minutes. Their homes are de-convebynienced, which means they have no main floor laundry, no leaf-blowers, no electric garage door openers. They don’t go to the gym – they move throughout their day – and they keep moving as they age.
Purpose. Their life has purpose. Elders are respected and valued for their wisdom. They care for children, share their harvest, participate in the broader family. They know why they wake up in the morning. Their lives have meaning beyond work.
Downshift. It is not that people who live in the Blue Zones don’t have stress, but they have tools to manage their stress. Many take naps, they pray, some remember their ancestors. They are grateful.
The 80 Percent Rule. Blue Zone people stop eating before they are full. They eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and do not eat again before bed. They are rarely overweight.
Plant Slant. Blue Zoners eat a plant based diet, supported by their gardens. They eat nuts daily. They eat beans – the type varies by location: soy, black, lentil, fava. Grains are unprocessed. They eat fermented foods. Meat is a condiment.
Wine at 5. Wine is a part of the normal life for many Blue Zone people. They drink in moderation, 1-2 glasses of local wine per day, lingering over shared meals. (While many of us cannot drink, we can gather together to share and savor our day’s story with family or friends.)
Right Tribe. Blue Zone inhabitants were born into or chose to live in social circles that support healthy behavior – activity, diet, pace of life. We tend to eat and live like the people we hang out with. Healthy habits are contagious. So are unhealthy ones.
Community. Blue Zone people belong to faith-based communities. The specific faith doesn’t matter, the gathering weekly to participate in a ritual with others does.
Loved Ones First. The aged live with family. Extended family members care for each other. Elders belong. People marry for life. Children are valued and nurtured.
Many of these Power Nine principles have been a part of my aunt’s life since I was a little girl. Though we lived only 11 miles away, her life and her family’s were much different from ours. There was always a flurry of activity. My widowed grandfather, who lived nearby, was often there. Food was home-cooked in a big kitchen, healthy and bountiful, but never pushed. There was always room to squeeze in an extra place when someone showed up. Everyone supported the household by gardening, cooking and cleaning. We always spent time outside, no matter the season. We biked or walked everywhere -– to the library, the skating rink or the corner grocer for an extra bottle of milk. When I went to church there, I was surrounded by cousins. My uncle’s blacksmith shop was on the same block as the house. There was a non-stop buzz. I loved it!
Buettner’s Power Nine isn’t a prescription for a long life, rather it is a description of an environment that grows long-lived healthy and happy people. We Americans search for a secret remedy, a personally tailored plan, a way to beat the odds. Blue Zone people don’t work at it, they live it. And the environment supports it. It is much easier to live healthy when the whole community does. Unhappiness, obesity and apathy are contagious. So are buoyancy, fitness and serenity.
I look forward to celebrating my aunt’s 100th birthday. No doubt, she will shrug off all the attention; it’s just another day. I cannot imagine a world without her familiar lilt, her exuberance, her curiosity. This long life is a great blessing, not only for her but for all of us who have had her these many, many years. For more information on Blue Zones go to bluezones.com.
Mary Lou Logsdon provides spiritual direction and gives retreats in the Twin Cities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.