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.
In America here, life expectancy for the average woman is 80. But for an Adventist woman, their life expectancy is 89. And the difference is even more pronounced among men, who are expected to live about 11 years longer than their American counterparts. Now, this is a study that followed about 70,000 people for 30 years. Sterling study. And I think it supremely illustrates the premise of this Blue Zone project.
This is a heterogeneous community. It’s white, black, Hispanic, Asian. The only thing they have in common are a set of very small lifestyle habits that they follow ritualistically for most of their lives. They take their diet directly from the Bible. Genesis: Chapter one, Verse 26, where God talks about legumes and seeds, and on one more stanza about green plants, ostensibly missing is meat. They take this sanctuary in time very serious.
For 24 hours every week, no matter how busy they are, how stressed out they are at work, where the kids need to be driven, they stop everything and they focus on their God, their social network, and then, hardwired right in the religion, are nature walks. And the power of this is not that it’s done occasionally, the power is it’s done every week for a lifetime. None of it’s hard. None of it costs money. Adventists also tend to hang out with other Adventists. So, if you go to an Adventist’s party you don’t see people swilling Jim Beam or rolling a joint. Instead they’re talking about their next nature walk, exchanging recipes, and yes, they pray. But they influence each other in profound and measurable ways.
This is a culture that has yielded Ellsworth Whareham. Ellsworth Whareham is 97 years old. He’s a multimillionaire, yet when a contractor wanted $6,000 to build a privacy fence, he said, “For that kind of money I’ll do it myself.” So for the next three days he was out shoveling cement, and hauling poles around. And predictably, perhaps, on the fourth day he ended up in the operating room. But not as the guy on the table; the guy doing open-heart surgery. At 97 he still does 20 open-heart surgeries every month.
Ed Rawlings, 103 years old now, an active cowboy, starts his morning with a swim. And on weekends he likes to put on the boards, throw up rooster tails.
And then Marge Deton. Marge is 104. Her grandson actually lives in the Twin Cities here. She starts her day with lifting weights. She rides her bicycle. And then she gets in her root-beer colored 1994 Cadillac Seville, and tears down the San Bernardino freeway, where she still volunteers for seven different organizations. I’ve been on 19 hardcore expeditions. I’m probably the only person you’ll ever meet who rode his bicycle across the Sahara desert without sunscreen. But I’ll tell you, there was no adventure more harrowing than riding shotgun with Marge Deton. “A stranger is a friend I haven’t met yet!” she’d say to me.