Is There a Longevity Myth?

April 24th, 2013
in Op Ed, syndication

Written by

A long healthy life starts with good genes but it also depends on good habits. Thanks to National Geographic (November 2005), a display of great photos and lively text tells the story. Although a few years old, it's still pertinent.

Follow up:

In Sardinia, Italy researchers found men in mountain villages reaching the age of 100 at an amazing rate. On the Island of Okinawa, Japan another team looked at a group that's among the longest lived on earth. And in Loma Linda, California a group of Seventh-day Adventists were studied with similar results. So here are three sets of "best practices" to emulate. Now it's up to you.

Sardinia: Lifestyle is part of the answer in this remote mountainous region in central Sardinia. By 11 a.m. a 75 year old shepherd has already milked four cows, split half a core of wood, slaughtered a calf and walked for miles to pasture his sheep. In the US the ratio of female to male centenarians (living past 100 years) is about 4 to 1. In this part of Sardinia it's more like 1 to 1.

With globalization and modernization even Sardinia is changing, not though Sardinia's dedication to extended family which assures support in times of crisis. As one Sardinian said, she would never put her father in a retirement home. "It would dishonor the family." Gerontologists say seniors who live near loved ones tend to live longer.

Roughly eighty percent of Sardinians are directly related to the first Sardinians (11,000 years ago). Somewhere in this genetic mix may lie a combination that favors longevity. Family diet is another factor in which obesity was, until recently nonexistent. It's packed with homegrown fruits and vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and fava beans. Also on the table are dairy products like milk from grass-fed sheep and pecorino cheese, which, like fish, contribute protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Wine, consumed in moderation, comes from family vineyards containing two to three times as much of a component found in other wines that may prevent artery clogging. No wonder a Sardinian greeting - Akent' annos (health and life for 100 years) - doubles as a toast.

Adventists: Marge, age 101, is driving for one of several volunteer commitments. Already this morning she's walked a mile, lifted weights and eaten her oatmeal. Marge is a Seventh-day Adventist. Their church, born in the nineteenth century, always preached and practiced a message of health. It expressly forbids smoking, alcohol and eating biblically unclean foods such as pork. It also discourages the consumption of other meats, rich foods, caffeinated drinks and "stimulating" condiments and spices. Their Creator has chosen grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables as the preferred diet. They also consume beans and soy milk and drink 5 or so glasses of water a day. The average Adventist lives 4 to 10 years beyond the average Californian.

Returning to 101 year old Marge, she hasn't eaten meat in 50 years and never eats between meals. She says, tapping her perfect teeth, "They're all mine." Her volunteer work helps her avoid the life-shortening loneliness suffered by many seniors and gives her a sense of purpose. She says:

"I realized a long time ago that I needed to go out to the world. The world is not going to come to me."

Okinawans of Japan suffer way fewer diseases that consume other parts of the developed world, thereby enjoying more healthy years of life. Super seniors in these widely different regions have many differences in backgrounds, beliefs and customs, but they also share a number of key habits. What they all share in common is putting family first, being active every day, keeping socially engaged, eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains and not smoking!

Okinawa"s Ushi has taken a new job, tried to run away from home and started wearing perfume. Not a teen, Ushi is 103. When asked about the perfume, she jokes that she has a new boyfriend. Fumiyassi Yamakawai is training for his annual decathlonn. His favorite events are high jump and pole vault. He is 84.

Aside from being among the world's longest lived people, Okinawans have a fifth the heart disease, a fourth the prostate and breast cancer, and a third less dementia than Americans.

One of the keys to their success in this lush, sub-tropical archipelago is Lkigal, roughly translated as "what makes one's life worth living." Okinawans possess a strong sense of purpose. Many also belong to a mutual support group that provides financial, emotional and social assistance throughout life.

A lean diet may also be a factor, such as a heaping plate of Okinawan vegetables, tofu, miso soup and a little fish and meat. Many of the older Okinawans live by the Confucian-inspired adage: "Eat until your stomach is 80% full." Taking one look at the food they grow themselves - a variety of of herbs, spices and vegetables - their diet may help in preventing diseases.

Back to 103 year old Ushi: her tradition includes time-honored daily rituals like morning prayers to her ancestors, tea with friends, lunch with family, an afternoon nap, a sunset social hour with friends and a cup of saki infused with the herb mugwort before bed.

Ushi's daughter says her mother brings pride to her family and this village. Older Okinawan women are respected spiritual leaders in many villages, a role that gives them purpose.

You now have these "good practices" to follow to regain the fountain of youth if moved to do so, adapted to your own culture and lifestyle. Longevity can be a myth if you don't believe in proper action and fail to follow it.

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