This week, it occurred to me that there is one question that only an elder can answer from real experience: what is the key to living a long life?
When asked her secret, 102-year-old Kamada Nakazato of Okinawa replied, “Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to people… and smile.”
Sounds like a simple bit of wisdom, but it pretty much encapsulates what modern science is now understanding to be the most important factor in longevity.
Until a few decades ago, most doctors believed that our life-span was largely determined by our genetic makeup, but recent discoveries have changed all that. Nowadays, it is commonly understood that our genes only have about 25% to do with how long we live – the other 75% is a result of our lifestyle and environmental factors.
My ears perk up at data like this, because I know that behind those stats there is usually an even richer story. “Lifestyle” and “environmental factors” are sterile ways of saying, “living a fulfilled existence” and “maintaining a healthy connection to spirit and nature.”
In researching longevity, the first places we looked were the “blue zones” — pockets around the world with unusually long life expectancy, where locals outlive the rest of us by a long shot. Well-funded studies have found that the inhabitants of these blue zones are up to 10 times more likely to reach the ripe old age of 100 and are 3 times more likely to live to 90. Not bad huh?
Oddly enough, these countries are thousands of miles apart, tucked away in remote regions of Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean, Central America, and the west coast of the United States. So the secret can’t be in the water!
What then is the unifying factor that is propelling these folks well past their golden years and into the record books?
Below are three main “secrets to longevity” that each of these communities share:
A Sense of Belonging: These elders never stop being an integral part of the community. Whether you are speaking to a centenarian (100 year old) in Sardinia or Costa Rica, they usually have a very good reason for getting up in the morning – this is what the Nicoyans refer to as “plan de vida.” Unlike here in the States, the younger generations in these communities truly respect their elders and will regularly come to them for advice. Their role as oracle or knowledge-keeper is beyond mere symbolism. They are cherished as true wisdom in the flesh.
Imagine living in a neighborhood where an elder was consulted throughout the day, as if he or she had some sort of PhD in “life studies.” It just makes sense – and is a pretty lovely thought!
Putting Family and Faith First: Unlike many in the western world, these 90 and 100 year olds have prioritized their loved ones and their spiritual practice above any other life pursuit. Many of these communities religiously take a day off on the weekend, and spend it solely with their families – no technology, no outside distraction.
These great, great (and sometimes greater) grandparents have a multi-tiered perspective on how our human existence works. At 97, my own grandfather seems to have a great grandchild coming each year – not a bad reason to stick around!
Primarily Plant-based Diet: Most of these elders take very few pills or supplements, but they do eat well. A largely plant-based diet with small portions of well-sourced meat on special occasions seems to be the general rule.
Possibly even more important is the size of each portion. In Okinawa, there is a household saying,”Hara hachi bu,” which translates to “eat until you are 80% full.”
Enjoy and appreciate each bite, but know when to put the fork down.
One more observation: None of the centenarians we have studied uses tobacco on a regular, non-ceremonial basis.
Reverence for family, the transfer of hard-earned wisdom to future generations, conscious nutrition, and appreciation of the “big picture” – these proven longevity practices are another bright twinkly intersection between the sacred and the science.
A question for you: Do you know any elders who are ninety and older? If so, what is their secret?
Taking a moment to ask them might help you both live longer!
Director, The Sacred Science