We all want to add years to our life and age healthily and gracefully – but how exactly can we do this? For years, it was thought that genetics determined life expectancy, but now we know that it’s more about environmental factors, like diet and lifestyle.
The good news is that these are things we can control and influence. So what changes can we make to increase our chances of living a long and healthy life?
We can get many of the answers from scientific research. All across the world, there are communities called ‘blue zones’, where a high proportion of people live much longer than anywhere else – with many residents reaching 100+ years old.
A study by National Geographic examined these groups and found five regions with the highest life expectancy: the Barbagia region of Sardinia, the island of Ikaria in Greece, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Loma Linda in California, and Okinawa in Japan.
From studying these ‘blue zones’ – as well as other research – we can see that there are a handful of common traits shared by the world’s longest-living people. And according to the team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and epidemiologists who participated in this exhaustive study, these traits are the reasons why blue zone residents live such long, healthy, and happy lives.
So, based on scientific evidence, here are eight tips to help you live longer – and stay happy and healthy while you’re at it.
1. Eat mostly plants
The five ‘blue zone’ regions had several denominators in common, but one of the most striking similarities between these very different groups of people was what they ate.
According to the research, people living in these blue zones eat diets that are 95–100% plant-based, with seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans dominating their meals. While some people in the blue zones do occasionally eat meat, they do so very sparingly, using it as a celebratory meal and eating no more than two ounces at a time.
Further research shows that in one of the blue zones – Loma Linda in California – 30-year-old residents following a plant-based diet will outlive their meat-eating counterparts by as much as eight years.
The Adventist Health Study 2 has also followed almost 100,000 Americans since 2002. It found that the people who live the longest were vegans or pesco-vegans – people who eat a plant-based diet that includes small amounts of fish. Plus, multiple studies link plant-rich diets to a reduced risk of premature death, cancer, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, and brain deterioration.
Whether you’re veggie, vegan, or omnivorous, we know that the best foods to eat for longevity are plants. So try to eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats, and try to include as many plant sources of protein (e.g. nuts, beans, and pulses) in your diet as you can. According to the blue zones study, fava beans, black beans, soya beans, and lentils are the cornerstone of centenarian diets.
If you’re looking to eat a healthier diet, why not head on over to the diet and nutrition section of our website? Here, you’ll find healthy recipes, information on the vital vitamins our bodies need, and much more.
2. Try not to overeat
Another common dietary denominator that’s been found in all blue zones – whether they eat any meat or not – is that residents avoid overeating.
In the blue zone of Okinawa, people practise Hara hachi bu – which is also known as the 80% rule. This rule is part of an ancient Chinese belief system that advocates that people stop eating when they’re only 80% full.
Aside from the blue zone research, there are plenty of other studies that show that avoiding the temptation to overeat can add years – as well as health – to your life. Restricting your calories (in a reasonable way) can reduce excess body weight and stomach fat, both of which are linked to premature death.
Other studies of blue zones around the world highlight the link between low-calorie intake, a longer lifespan, and a lower risk of disease. This study also found that eating until you’re only 80% full can slow the ageing process.
For more tips, you might want to check out our article; 9 tips to prevent overeating and encourage portion control.
3. Stay active
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that staying active can have a powerful effect on longevity – but you may be surprised at the type of exercise that’s best at preserving your body. One of the traits shared by blue zone residents is that they move naturally every day.
Rather than pumping iron, running marathons, or working out excessively, the world’s longest-lived people live in environments where they move constantly without even thinking about it. They walk to the shops rather than drive, they tend to their gardens, and they do manual work in their house.
Further research shows that just 15 minutes of exercise each day may help you live for an extra three years – and for every additional 15 minutes of daily exercise, the risk of premature death may decrease by 4%. So what’s the best type of exercise we can do?
Scientific research tells us that moderate-intensity exercise is best for longevity. This includes things like brisk walking, dancing, cycling, swimming, and even mowing the lawn or vacuuming. Aside from its physical benefits, exercise is also a great way to boost your mood, meet new people, and stay active within your community.
To find out more about the many benefits of exercise, why not have a read of our articles; How exercise can lead to better brain health and The importance of building strength and balance in your 50s and 60s?
4. Find purpose
Based on the blue zones research, having a sense of purpose and meaning in your life can add seven years to your life expectancy. The blue zone residents in Japan call it Ikigai, and those in Costa Rica call it plan de vida. Both expressions translate to ‘why I wake up in the morning’.
Having a sense of purpose and meaning in your life can not only tether you to something greater, it can also give you ambition, intention, passion, and energy. But of course, finding our purpose is often easier said than done, and many of us will experience a lack of it at some point in our lives.
The good news is that if you’re struggling to find your purpose in life, it’s never too late to discover what it might be. To find out how you can do this, check out our article; 5 ways to find meaning and purpose in your life,
5. Drink moderately
Another surprising common denominator that the blue zones study found was that people in all the zones – bar one – drank alcohol moderately, yet regularly.
While research links excessive alcohol consumption with liver, heart, and pancreatic disease, as well as an increased risk of early death, moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a reduced risk of several diseases, as well as up to an 18% decreased risk of premature death.
Many residents of blue zones drank one to two glasses of wine each day, usually with friends or with food. Other studies show that drinking moderate amounts of red wine can help protect against heart disease, diabetes, neurological disorders, and metabolic syndrome. One study followed men for 29 years and found that those who drank wine instead of beer or spirits were 34% less likely to die early.
However, it’s important to bear in mind that there’s no strong scientific research proving that moderate drinking is better than not drinking at all… so if you don’t already enjoy a glass of wine with your dinner, there’s no need to suddenly start pouring yourself one!
If you’d like to cut down on your drinking or find out more about how to form better drink habits, you might want to have a read of our article; How to make healthier drink choices.
6. Nurture your social connections
We all know that having strong social connections can help us stay happy – but there’s evidence that it can also help us live up to 50% longer.
Having just three social connections can reduce our risk of dying early by more than 200%, and many studies also show that having a strong social network can create positive changes in heart, brain, hormonal, and immune function, which, in turn, may reduce the risk of chronic disease.
The importance of nurturing your social circle is demonstrated in the blue zones study too. All the blue zone residents either chose or were born into social circles that encourage healthy behaviours. And because research from the famous Framingham studies found that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious, we can reason that the social networks of blue zone residents have positively shaped their own life and behaviour.
The Japanese blue zone residents even form moais – groups of five friends that commit to each other for life. Science shows that having a strong support network around you can also help you deal with stress – and because stress is known to be a contributing factor in early death, this might also explain why social connections seem to play such an important part in longevity.
If you’d like to strengthen your own social circle and make new friends, there are many ways you can do this. To find out more, have a read of our articles; 7 different ways to meet new people and 11 ways to make new friends.
7. Prioritise loved ones
Another striking factor the blue zones study found was that centenarians put their families and loved ones first. Ageing parents and grandparents often lived with their children or else close by – which has been found to reduce disease and mortality rates in children too.
Other studies show that older and younger people living together has a positive effect on health – and grandparents who look after their grandchildren also have a reduced risk of death.
There are several studies suggesting that having someone to love can also add years to your life. For example, this study followed nearly 5,000 people and found that those who were married or in committed relationships were far less likely to die prematurely.
This was also evident in the blue zone study, as almost all of the centenarians had a life partner or were in committed relationships.
If you’re single and would like to be in a relationship, do remember that it’s never too late to fall in love or meet the right person. If you’d like to meet someone, you might want to think about joining the Rest Less dating site.
8. Avoid stress
Chronic stress can seriously decrease your life expectancy. Men who are stressed are up to three times more likely to die early than their non-stressed counterparts – and women who suffer from stress are up to two times more likely to die from heart disease, stroke, or lung cancer.
Of course, avoiding stress altogether is pretty much impossible, and even residents of the blue zones experience it. So what do these people do that many of us don’t? They practise rituals that help them deal with stress. The Japanese centenarians take a few moments to remember their ancestors each day; the Californians pray; the Greeks have a nap, and the Sardinians have happy hour!
Studies show that laughter and having a positive outlook reduce stress – thereby potentially prolonging your life. If you feel like you need help dealing with stress, you might be interested in our articles; 7 tips for coping with stress and anxiety and The benefits of humour and laughing – 9 tips to help you laugh more.
It may seem that longevity is out of our control, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are many things we can do to add years to our life… and more good news is that many of these acts will bring us joy and meaning too.
Eating right and staying active are of course extremely important, but we should also take time to prioritise our social connections, find purpose, and enjoy time to relax.
And sometimes it’s the small things that make the biggest difference – whether that’s stopping eating when you’re only 80% full or enjoying a glass of wine at 5pm each day, like the Sardinian centenarians!
For more related reading, you might want to check our our articles; 7 diet habits that may boost longevity and Could telomere length be the key to healthier ageing. Or why not tune into our upcoming event on unlocking your healthspan over on the Rest Less Events platform?
Are you surprised by any of these tips? Or do you have any of your own suggestions for staying happy and healthy that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.