“The longer I live the more beautiful life becomes.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

I agree. My life seems to improve as I age. In spite of my wrinkles, sore knees, and digestive issues, I’m happier. Could it be about increasing wisdom? Whatever the cause, I want more. I want a long life, and I want it to be an alert, healthy one. How can I make that happen?

Some Things Are Not in My Control

Some things are just out of my control. I can’t do much about my genetics, which determine about 40% of my longevity, and, according to National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner, another 15% is about life circumstances.

Mine are good. I won the birth lottery. I was born in Minnesota – not Ethiopia. That leaves about 45% of my future within my control, and I want to make it a good one. Oh, I’ve heard all the usual: get good sleep, exercise, eat well, yadda, yadda, yadda. But what REALLY makes the difference?

The Blue Zones

Dan Buettner has done extensive research on longevity and happiness (yes, they are related), focusing on populations in five areas of the world where people live longer and better lives.

Buettner interviewed over 300 centenarians and identified nine features common to all of them. He has divided these into four main categories, all things we can control in our own lives.

Close Relationships Promote Longevity

In his research, Buettner found that nearly all his centenarians have at least three good friends they connect with regularly (often daily), people they can rely on when in need.

He said that living without close relationships can shave eight years off your life. Adding happy people to your world has an even stronger influence on your longevity.

He also found that of those 300+ centenarians, only five did not have a faith community, which indicates that both faith and community increase longevity, perhaps because of the sense of belonging and purpose that these relationships bring to us.

According to Buettner’s research, people who show up at a house of worship four times a month live four to fourteen years longer than those who don’t.

Natural Activity Helps You Live Longer

Many of us think we have to lift weights and run marathons to stay healthy. Not so, says Buettner. His research has shown that a naturally active lifestyle is the best way to stay healthy.

Being naturally active involves your daily routine: walking to the store, cleaning, gardening, walking with friends, or whatever other physical activity makes you happy. Not surprisingly, people who live in areas with steeper terrain tend to live longer, healthier lives, so use the stairs instead of an elevator.

It’s important, too, to live in a place that makes you happy; a community that’s safe, has green space, and offers activities you enjoy. If you don’t live in such a place, what could you do to change that?

Perhaps you can find opportunities in your community, make an effort to meet your neighbors, or – maybe it’s time to move. Many people are surprised at the social connections they make when they move to a senior living community. Ever considered Okinawa?

Less Meat in Your Diet Will Lengthen Your Life

In Okinawa, one of the five communities with a high percentage of centenarians, people have very different eating habits from those of us in the Western World. Rather than gorging themselves, they eat until they’re 80% full, perhaps because of a historic struggle to get enough food.

Buettner has found that reducing your caloric intake by 20-30% will increase your life expectancy by that same percentage. His theory is that eating less slows our body’s rate of internal oxidation, putting us in sort of a hibernative state.

Nutritionists believe that the oxidation in cells is one of the things that causes aging. I’m not sure I understand it completely, but I do know that eating less is a good idea – at least for me.

Okinawa, Japan, and Icaria, Greece, are two communities that have the highest percentage of centenarians, and both have similar plant-based diets with lots of nuts and beans as well as very little meat. Buettner said that eating a cup of beans daily can add four years to your life.

These communities also have incredibly low rates of dementia, especially compared to the Western World. In the U.S., according to Buettner, 40% of men and 60% of women over 85 deal with dementia, while in Icaria and Okinawa it’s only 10%.

Areas of the world that consume a lot of animal products tend to have higher levels of dementia.

In addition to their plant-based diets, people in these communities typically sleep from sunset to sunrise, which is yet another lifestyle factor to consider.

Purpose Helps You Live Longer

Having a sense of purpose, whether through others who depend on you or activities you love to engage in, is crucial in having a long life.

Centenarians across the planet have enjoyed lives where they wake up eager for each new day, feeling engaged and motivated. When grandparents live near their grandchildren and engage regularly, both generations benefit in health and happiness.

A well-loved activity, like gardening or volunteering, will also give you a sense of purpose, a reason to get up and face each day. That’s why social groups, church activities, and community responsibilities all contribute to helping you live a longer, happier life.

I couldn’t resist taking the Blue Zones longevity test, a fascinating way to learn more about your life expectancy. It also offers specific information on what you can do to improve your life in the years ahead.

What do you think is your life expectancy? What can you do to improve your future years? Which of the four areas above contribute most to your longevity and health? Please discuss below.

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