Day 078 - Lifestyle for longevity

Submitted by Sam on 7 August, 2011 - 00:10

A study of the lives and deaths of 2872 pairs of Danish twins concluded in 1996 that the heritability of longevity is only moderate, that genetic factors account for only around a quarter of how long we live, and that within certain biological limits, our lifestyle plays the most important part in dictating our longevity 1. This study has informed interest in so-called 'Blue Zones', or regions of the world where an unusually high percentage of the population live active lives beyond one-hundred years of age, presumably as a result of a certain longevity-optimized lifestyle.

Dan Buettner, an explorer and writer for National Geographic, has identified five blue zones. In partnership with the National Institute on Aging and National Geographic, he methodically studied their demographies to tease out the cross-cultural factors that informed their longevity. Although not rigorously scientific, the studies indicate that inhabitants of Blue Zones share certain strikingly similar lifestyle characteristics, which seem intuitively probable to contribute to their long and active lives. Common among the geographically confined populations, the consumption of largely plant-based – and often leguminous – diets, the constant moderate level of physical activity, and the lack of smoking coupled with strong familial bonds and social integration at all ages combined to create an inventory of lifestyle characteristics that have potentially life-enhancing and life-extending properties.

Of the Blue Zones studied, the archipelago of Okinawa is perhaps the most striking. On the northern part of the main island, eight-hundred miles south of Tokyo, is the world's oldest living female population. The inhabitants here boast the world's longest disability-free life expectancy, with incidences of only one sixth the rate of cardiovascular disease and one fifth the rate of breast and colon cancers compared with America. As well as eating a diet full of varied vegetables, and as well as eating fewer calories at each sitting than Western cultures, the Okinawans have specific social constructs that seem likely to support longevity. Notably for Dan Buettner, the Okinawan language has no word for retirement, instead vitalizing entire lives with another word, “ikigai” – “a reason for being”, the raison d'etre. Okinawan centenarians questioned in the National Institute of Aging's survey about their ikigai, answered instantantly. For one 102 year old woman, her reason to wake up each morning was simply her great-great-great-granddaughter.

  • 1. Herskind, A. M., Matthew McGue, Niels V. Holm, Thorkild I. A. Sørensen, Bent Harvald, and James W. Vaupel. "The Heritability of Human Longevity: a Population-based Study of 2872 Danish Twin Pairs Born 1870-1900." Human Genetics 97.3 (1996): 319-23. Print.
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