We found our first Blue Zone about 125 miles off the coast of Italy, on the island of Sardinia. And not the entire island, the island is about 1.4 million people, but only up in the highlands, an area called the Nuoro province. And here we have this area where men live the longest, about 10 times more centenarians than we have here in America. And this is a place where people not only reach age 100, they do so with extraordinary vigor. Places where 102 year olds still ride their bike to work, chop wood, and can beat a guy 60 years younger than them.
Their history actually goes back to about the time of Christ. It’s actually a Bronze Age culture that’s been isolated. Because the land is so infertile, they largely are shepherds, which occasions regular, low-intensity physical activity. Their diet is mostly plant-based, accentuated with foods that they can carry into the fields. They came up with an unleavened whole wheat bread called carta musica made out of durum wheat, a type of cheese made from grass-fed animals so the cheese is high in Omega-3 fatty acids instead of Omega-6 fatty acids from corn-fed animals, and a type of wine that has three times the level of polyphenols than any known wine in the world. It’s called Cannonau.
But the real secret I think lies more in the way that they organize their society. And one of the most salient elements of the Sardinian society is how they treat older people. You ever notice here in America, social equity seems to peak at about age 24? Just look at the advertisements. Here in Sardinia, the older you get the more equity you have, the more wisdom you’re celebrated for. You go into the bars in Sardinia, instead of seeing the Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar, you see the centenarian of the month calendar.
This, as it turns out, is not only good for your aging parents to keep them close to the family — it imparts about four to six years of extra life expectancy — research shows it’s also good for the children of those families, who have lower rates of mortality and lower rates of disease. That’s called the grandmother effect.
We found our second Blue Zone on the other side of the planet, about 800 miles south of Tokyo, on the archipelago of Okinawa. Okinawa is actually 161 small islands. And in the northern part of the main island, this is ground zero for world longevity. This is a place where the oldest living female population is found. It’s a place where people have the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. They have what we want. They live a long time, and tend to die in their sleep, very quickly, and often, I can tell you, after sex.
They live about seven good years longer than the average American. Five times as many centenarians as we have in America. One fifth the rate of colon and breast cancer, big killers here in America. And one sixth the rate of cardiovascular disease. And the fact that this culture has yielded these numbers suggests strongly they have something to teach us. What do they do? Once again, a plant-based diet, full of vegetables with lots of color in them. And they eat about eight times as much tofu as Americans do.
More significant than what they eat is how they eat it. They have all kinds of little strategies to keep from overeating, which, as you know, is a big problem here in America. A few of the strategies we observed: they eat off of smaller plates, so they tend to eat fewer calories at every sitting. Instead of serving family style, where you can sort of mindlessly eat as you’re talking, they serve at the counter, put the food away, and then bring it to the table.
They also have a 3,000-year-old adage, which I think is the greatest sort of diet suggestion ever invented. It was invented by Confucius. And that diet is known as the Hara, Hatchi, Bu diet. It’s simply a little saying these people say before their meal to remind them to stop eating when their stomach is 80% full. It takes about a half hour for that full feeling to travel from your belly to your brain. And by remembering to stop at 80% it helps keep you from doing that very thing.
But, like Sardinia, Okinawa has a few social constructs that we can associate with longevity. We know that isolation kills. Fifteen years ago, the average American had three good friends. We’re down to one and half right now. If you were lucky enough to be born in Okinawa, you were born into a system where you automatically have a half a dozen friends with whom you travel through life. They call it a Moai. And if you’re in a Moai you’re expected to share the bounty if you encounter luck, and if things go bad, child gets sick, parent dies, you always have somebody who has your back. This particular Moai, these five ladies have been together for 97 years. Their average age is 102.
Typically in America we’ve divided our adult life up into two sections. There is our work life, where we’re productive. And then one day, boom, we retire. And typically that has meant retiring to the easy chair, or going down to Arizona to play golf. In the Okinawan language there is not even a word for retirement. Instead there is one word that imbues your entire life, and that word is “ikigai.” And, roughly translated, it means “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.”
For this 102-year-old karate master, his ikigai was carrying forth this martial art. For this hundred-year-old fisherman it was continuing to catch fish for his family three times a week. And this is a question. The National Institute on Aging actually gave us a questionnaire to give these centenarians. And one of the questions, they were very culturally astute, the people who put the questionnaire. One of the questions was, “What is your ikigai?” They instantly knew why they woke up in the morning.
For this 102 year old woman, her ikigai was simply her great-great-great-granddaughter. Two girls separated in age by 101 and a half years. And I asked her what it felt like to hold a great-great-great-granddaughter. And she put her head back and she said, “It feels like leaping into heaven.” I thought that was a wonderful thought.
My editor at Geographic wanted me to find America’s Blue Zone. And for a while we looked on the prairies of Minnesota, where actually there is a very high proportion of centenarians. But that’s because all the young people left. So, we turned to the data again. And we found America’s longest-lived population among the Seventh-Day Adventists concentrated in and around Loma Linda, California. Adventists are conservative Methodists. They celebrate their Sabbath from sunset on Friday till sunset on Saturday. A “24-hour sanctuary in time,” they call it. And they follow five little habits that conveys to them extraordinary longevity, comparatively speaking.