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Lessons for Living Longer

This book not only gives us a list of practical tips for living long and well but it also describes the way people live in four of the world’s Blue Zones: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. These areas are known for their concentrations of some of the world’s longest-lived people.
The origin of the term, “Blue Zones” dates back to the year 2000 when a Belgian demographer Dr. Michel Poulain was sent to verify the number of centenarians living in Sardinia. He established the Extreme Longevity Index that considered birth and death records of all centenarians born between 1880 and 1900. He singled out the municipalities that had the greatest numbers of long-lived people, and circled the area on a map with blue ink, thus giving rise to the term “Blue Zone” which was eventually adopted by demographers.
The study of the Sardinian centenarians show that environment, lifestyle and food, play a far greater role than genetics to explain their longevity. Most of them drink goat’s milk for breakfast, walk at least six miles a day and enjoy working.
Giovanni Sannai, 103, for most of his life, woke up early and spent his day in the pastures. When he was asked if he’d ever been stressed in his life, he said:
“Sometimes, but my wife was in charge of the house, and I was in charge of the field. What’s there to worry about in the field? Mostly, I’ve always tried to remember that when you get good things from life, enjoy them, because they won’t be there forever.”
Scientists have discovered that dwarf curry, a plant that grows on the slopes of the Gennargentu Mountains in Sardinia and is eaten by goats, possesses an anti-inflammatory and bactericidal substance. It represents one of the natural molecules of greatest interest as a new anti-tumor and anti- AIDS drug. One might very well wonder whether the region’s goat’s milk possesses anti-inflammatory properties because it is richer in arzanol.
Besides drinking goat’s milk and eating a vegetarian diet largely based on beans, whole wheat and garden vegetables, Sardinia’s most important longevity secret lies in the unique outlook and perspective of its people. Their sense of humor helps them shed stress and diffuse feuds before they start. Moreover, their deep ties with their families has not only sheltered them from a hostile world but also gave them exceptional help and comfort in times of difficulty.
According to the author, Dan Buettner there is a connection between elders and longevity:
“Seniors who live at home are more likely to get better care and remain engaged. In Sardinia, they are expected to help with the childcare and contribute to the functioning of the household. They have strong self-esteem and a clear purpose. They love and they are loved… purpose and love are essential ingredients in all Blue Zone recipes for longevity.”
Okinawa in Japan has maintained a reputation for nurturing extreme longevity for nearly a millennium. At a 102, Kamada still gets up at 6 a.m. and works in her kitchen garden, which provides most of the vegetables (daikon, bitter melon, garlic, onion, peppers, and tomatoes) for her meals. Before every meal she takes a moment to say “hara hachi bu” which means ‘Eat until you are 80 percent full’. That’s because it takes around twenty minutes for the stomach to tell the brain it is full.
When Kamada was asked what’s the secret to living up to age 102, she replied:
“I used to be very beautiful, I had hair that came down to my waist. It took me a long time to realize that beauty is within. It comes from not worrying so much about your own problems. Sometimes you can best take care of yourself by taking care of others” and she finally concluded, “Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to people and smile.”
Upon hearing this, Craig Wilcox, a world renowned gerontologist, and co-author of the New York Times best seller, “The Okinawa Program” remarked: “It took us almost 500 pages in our book to say what she said in three sentences.”
And Dr. Greg Plotnikov, a leading expert on Japan’s traditional herbal medicine compares Kamada’s kitchen garden to a pharmacy:
“Okinawans see vegetables. I see powerful anti-inflammatory antiviral, anticancer drugs. You know, you don’t just wake up one day and have cancer. It’s a process, not an event… Okinawans are just born into a lifestyle that promotes health. They have been blessed by access to year-round, fresh organic vegetables, strong social support, and these amazing herbs that amount to preventive medicines.”
Kamada has also retained her duties as a “noro”, a spiritual adviser to her people. This role is called “ikigai” it is the reason for waking up in the morning. A sudden loss of a person’s traditional role can have negative effects. This happens to teachers and policemen who tend to die very soon after they quit working. After they retire, they lose their sense of purpose and their status and they decline rapidly.
Costa Rica known for malaria, dengue fever, and revolutions does not seem likely to nurture a Blue Zone. Yet, in 2002, a demographer, Luis Rosero-Bixby noticed that men seemed to be living longer than those in more developed countries around the world. According to Dr. Xinia Fernandez, a nutritionist who had conducted dietary surveys of the centenarians in Nicoya:
“The most highly functioning people over 90 in Nicoya have a few common traits. One of them is that they feel a strong sense of service to others or care for their family. We see that as soon as they lose this, the switch goes off. They die very quickly if they don’t feel needed”.
Like the people in other Blue Zones, Nicoyans eat a low-calorie, low-fat, vegetarian diet, rich in legumes. Furthermore, the water they drink is rich in calcium and magnesium. A 2004 World Health Organization study shows that over the past 50 years, populations with hard water have fewer deaths from heart disease than populations with soft water. The heart is a muscle, and all muscle contraction depend on calcium. Too little calcium weakens muscles, including the heart.
The centenarian in the region of Nicoya in Costa Rica live in close relation with a world of plants and turn to nature for the satisfaction of their needs. But sadly, the longevity culture in Nicoya and other Blue Zones is a disappearing phenomenon.
This small and easy book to read ends with lessons from the Blue Zones such as: Be active without having to think about it, stop eating before you are full, avoid meat and processed foods, take time to see the big picture, take time to relieve stress, participate in a spiritual community and finally, be surrounded by those who share Blue Zone Values. After reading about the remarkable people living in the world’s Blue Zones, the reader is encouraged to put the Blue Zones lessons to work in his own life. Inspired by their experiences we can learn to live not only longer but also, better.
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