‘Health is the state about which medicine has nothing to say.’ W. H. Auden
The literature is full of adventurers who searched for places on this earth where time stood still. In the 1933 novel Lost Horizon, British author James Hilton describes a place called Shangri-La in a mystical valley enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains between China and Tibet. Shangri-La soon became a byword for a secluded, idyllic place where people lived far beyond the average human lifespan.
Modern civilisation has brought us many fancy things and astounding advances in medicine, yet it’s brought us much misery too. So the dream of a mythical place where people live to 100 years or more in good health is more than appealing to those of us who want to avoid the chronic ills of civilisation.
The Secret to a Long Life
Wind the tape forward to the new millennium, and we find American journalist Dan Buettner and a couple of European demographers looking for places in the world that come close to the dream of Shangri-La. They found 5 places where people live longer, healthier and happier lives than people elsewhere:
· The Nuoro province in the mountains of Sardinia
· The island of Okinawa, Japan
· The town of Loma Linda, California
· The Nicoya Peninsula, an isolated part of Costa Rica
· A Greek island called Ikaria
In these places, many more people live to 100 years than elsewhere in the world. They also suffer the lowest rates of cancer, heart disease and stroke. They live in small, tight-knit communities where people socialise, share food and wine and support each other in times of need. It’s the same story we tell about the strong community that existed in the town of Roseto in Pennsylvania in the fifties and sixties, in the chapter Matters of the Heart.
Buettner called these areas blue zones because the researchers drew their boundaries in blue on their maps. The Nuoro Province in Sardinia is a one of these: here small communities live much like their ancestors, working the land, raising pigs, sheep and goats in steep terrain, growing their own fruit and veggies, and living simple lives in large families where the elders are revered.
Hot Air and Mountain Air
Researchers were quick to claim that their long lives were due to the Mediterranean diet that’s become so popular in recent times. That’s nonsense. The people in this mountainous province live a long way from the sea and its sardines; they settled in the mountains a long time ago to escape seafaring invaders. These days they eat a lot of roast pig, lamb and goat, and they love their raw milk and cheese and red wine. They’ve gone to some pains to set the record straight on their diet.
Source: Nourishing Traditions
The picture above shows us their favourite foods. Processed meats are front and center, along with olives and cheese and sourdough bread. Yes, they eat some beans around here, and some veggies, but they love the processed meat that we’re told to avoid; mind you, theirs is all free range. They also drink raw milk and use lard for frying. There goes another myth …
Antonio Mario Attene, the mayor of a village called Silanus, was asked what he thought the reasons for the long and healthy lives of inhabitants were. He said: ‘Our centenarians are people who are used to working in the countryside, mostly as farmers or shepherds. They are simple people who have always loved to live simply, and they worked up to eighty years of age.’
The mayor added that their way of life was a key factor in their longevity. He spoke of ‘community life and family, which is strong, enlarged; they have siblings, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, almost three generations around them. The elderly are never alone, they continue to be of great significance in the community, are not closed in elderly homes with other elderly people. They are happy to live and are convinced that it is worth living even if they are weak, just because there is the affection of children, grandchildren and friends.’
The Same Old Story
When the Mediterranean diet story didn’t check out, the geneticists jumped in claiming that the gene pool here was uncompromised due to the people’s isolation for many centuries. That’s unlikely too since the Sardinians who leave these mountains end up suffering from the same ills as the rest of us, and live no longer.
It’s the same on the island of Okinawa, another blue zone: as soon as Okinawans settle elsewhere, their lives are no different from ours. Their diet is quite different from that of the Sardinians, of course, with fish, soy sauce and beans given pride of place. Yet once again we find close, tight-knit communities on this island.
The sad news is that the healthy oldies will soon be lost in history because the young Okinawans don’t follow the traditional lifestyle that produced so many centenarians. With three quarters of US bases in Japan located on Okinawa, and some 50,000 troops stationed there, the American way of life has had a big impact on the lifestyles of the younger people.
In addition, the US military presence has poisoned the soil of the island with chemicals such as Agent Orange. According to the Japan Times, ‘the Pentagon is the largest polluter on the planet, producing more toxic waste than the top three U.S. chemical manufacturers combined … Over the past seven decades, Okinawa’s sea, land and air have been contaminated with toxins including arsenic, depleted uranium, nerve gas and carcinogenic hexavalent chromium.’
The Way We Were
Another blue zone is the Greek island of Ikaria, which lies about 50kms west of the Turkish coast. It features picture book coves, rocky cliffs, steep valleys and olive groves. It looks much like other Greek islands, but people here live about 10 years longer than elsewhere, and one in three Ikarians reaches 90 years and more.
‘They also have much lower rates of cancer and heart disease,’ Andrew Anthony writes in The Guardian, ‘suffer significantly less depression and dementia, maintain a sex life into old age and remain physically active deep into their nineties.’
What’s their secret? The nutrition zealots tell us that they eat a pure Mediterranean diet of fish and healthy legumes and veggies, but they eat pork as well and many of the men smoke. This may be a better explanation: ‘Ikaria is still an isolated island without tourists,’ says cardiologist Christina Chrysohoou, ‘which means that, especially in the villages in the north, where the highest longevity rates have been recorded, life is largely unaffected by the westernised way of living.’
This is a recurring theme: the best chance of living a long and fulfilled life is to live as far away from civilisation as possible, in a small, cohesive community where people live simple, hard-working lives without the excesses most of us have become used to.
‘The island’s greatest charm is that it is an unselfconscious sort of place,’ writes Andrew Anthony. ‘That could soon change: the spread of tourism is bound to have an effect. The island is protected by its remoteness and limited access, but is now at the mercy of blue zone tourists, those relentless hordes of blue-rinsed travellers looking for the secret elixir of eternal life.’ Clearly he’s talking about baby boomers.
A World of our Own
Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula lies north of the Nicaraguan border in the Guanacaste region, and it’s another blue zone where nonagenarians are commonplace and centenarians number over 600. Once again we find tight-knit communities where the older members are revered and supported by large families, and once more we find people who live simple lives that avoid the excesses of civilisation. Once again we find communities that are not burdened by chronic, degenerative diseases.
The only unusual ingredients in the diet of the people here are vitamin D from the sun, calcium from the hard water, and a diet with tortillas, black beans, squash, papayas and yams at its centre. Their lives are sun-filled and stress-free, and the climate is tropical. It’s a very different place from Sardinia or Okinawa, and even more different to Loma Linda.
Loma Linda in California is another blue zone, and the only one that is not a remote place protected by its geographic isolation. The Spanish name means ‘lovely hill’, and the town lies 100km east of Los Angeles. If you need more convincing that small, tight-knit communities with common values are the secret to long, fulfilled lives, this town makes a strong case.
Seventh Day Adventists settled here over a century ago and still form the core of this community, with their members making up half the population of 20,000. Of course the reductionists have seized on the fact that Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarians who don’t smoke and don’t drink. What about the healthy nonagenarians on Ikaria who eat plenty of meat, drink lots of wine and smoke? I’d say their cohesive community is most likely the secret ingredient.
‘When we look at just mortality, Adventists appear to die of approximately the same diseases but the age at which they die is much later,’ Dr Larry Beeson from Loma Linda University told the BBC. Beeson says their health isn’t just due to their diet: ‘It is a complex mix of religiosity, spirituality and a person’s understanding of their belief in God combined with other lifestyle components such as exercise and social support.’
The article then describes 101-year-old Betty Streifling lifting weights at the gym in her retirement home, Linda Valley Villa, a community for senior citizens with an average age of 90. ‘Betty attends an exercise class five days a week and takes a morning stroll in the street. She puts her longevity down to “living a pure life, no alcohol, no tobacco, going to bed early, praising God for his goodness and for the blessing of life”.’
‘It is possible to buy a burger and fries in Loma Linda,’ the BBC article says, ‘although last year the city council banned the operation of any new “formula-based fast food restaurants that offer drive-through food service”. The move was designed to the “protect public health, safety and welfare” of its residents.’ If only we had guardians of our health as vigilant as that down under.
When the Saints go Marching In
Do we find the same longevity in members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons? They don’t drink, not even tea or coffee, and they don’t smoke. In 2008, the University of California published The Mormon Longevity Study, which found that Mormon males had a life expectancy of 84.1 years, almost ten years longer than the average for U.S. white males. Mormon females only did 5.6 years better than their non-Mormon counterparts.
The other takeaway from the study was this: the more strictly people followed Mormon lifestyle elements, the longer they lived. Southern Utah missed out on a Blue Zone nomination because it’s not in the same league as the other five: Mormon Utah simply can’t compete when it comes to nonagenarians and centenarians.
I’m sure the Americans or the Chinese will recreate an accurate replica of Ikaria or the Nuoro province of Sardinia, but for the rest of us creating our own village or community is hardly an option. As you would expect, we now have Blue Zone tourism and a Blue Zone Diet that promises to help us live longer. Yes, the reductionists will always grab a piece of the puzzle that fits on a bumper sticker.
The take-home message for those of us with more open minds is that we should learn to live simpler, more active lives that avoid the excesses of civilisation, the food artefacts and the mind-numbing garbage in the media and on the internet, look for beauty and meaning and treasure our families and friends.
Dan Buettner and his colleagues have extracted the key ingredients for longevity from the blue zones, and are running programs based on adopting these principles in American communities. Good luck to them.
The Secret to a Long Life in the Civilised World
Have you ever noticed that people who love their work so much that they don’t retire tend to live longer than people who do? I’m thinking of classical musicians and conductors, novelists, painters, sculptors, entrepreneurs, politicians and actors. A recent study supports that impression: it found that people who work past 65 have an 11% lower risk of death from all causes than people who retire.
Professionals on the whole tend to live longer: The life expectancy of professionals such as pastors, doctors and engineers is 80 years, while that of unskilled workers such as labourers, cleaners and messengers is 73. In both cases, women live an extra 5–6 years. We have no data on the quality of life in this context.
These are US figures; Australians can add a couple of years to them. People in Hong Kong can add 4 years, which is surprising given their hectic and crowded lifestyle. More curious are the statistics for doctors: anaesthetists tend to die young (73), while doctors working in public health can expect to live to 84. GPs are half way between the two at 79.
The bottom line? Your best chance to live a long life in the advanced western world is to become a doctor working in a government facility in Hong Kong.