How to Slow the Aging Process

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The following is a summary of our recent podcast interview, which can be accessed on our site here or on iTunes here.

We often hear about new longevity breakthroughs on the horizon, but what if the fountain of youth was already discovered long ago by a small handful of communities around the world?

This time on Financial Sense Newshour, we spoke with Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, to discuss his fascinating research and how we can apply his findings to our own lives.

Finding the Fountain of Long Life

With a knack for solving mysteries, Buettner came across a study from the World Health Organization in 2000 that showed women from Okinawa, Japan had the highest disability-free life expectancy in the world.

So, he assembled a team, visited Okinawa, put together findings, and received a grant to identify other areas where people live the longest.

Dubbing these areas Blue Zones, Buettner found common characteristics that helped explain why communities in Costa Rica, Greece, Italy and others were living such long, healthy lives.

“People aren’t living a long time because they have special genes,” he said. “None of them are on diets. They’re not doing exercise programs. It turns out that their surroundings, and the nudges that come from those surroundings, are what’s driving their longevity more than anything else.”

Slowing Down the Aging Process

Our body ages at a predictable rate, Buettner noted, and it’s actually an increasing rate.

Every 7 years the cells in our body replace themselves, and in doing so the cells are slightly “scrambled,” he noted. As a result, cellular damage doubles every seven years.

Consequently, someone who is 65 is aging at a rate about 150 times faster than a much younger person. We can further speed up the aging process by stressing our bodies through psychological stress, eating poorly, or being sick too often.

For Blue Zone inhabitants, the secret appears to be living intentionally, with a focus on community support and meaning in their lives.

This meaning could take the form of family, religion, or an allegiance to a community, especially in the latter years of life.

“Older people are not seen as threats to the social security system, as they often are today,” he said. “They’re seen as repositories of wisdom, of agricultural and culinary knowledge.” Because of this “older people are suffused with a sense of worth and also a sense of responsibility to the next generation.”

Plant-based Diet

Diet plays a huge role in longevity Buettner noted. In Blue Zones, people eat mostly plant-based foods.

“We did a meta-analysis of the longest-lived people on the planet to see exactly what they’ve been eating for the last 100 years,” Buettner said. “On average, about 90 percent of what they consume is lightly processed plants.”

Four foods are the common denominators of every longevity diet in the world, Buettner noted. These are whole grains, greens, nuts, and beans.

“If I had to nominate one of those foods as the longevity all-star, the food that you should be eating every day is beans,” Buettner said. “If you’re eating a cup of beans a day, it’s probably adding 3 to 4 years to your life expectancy, over eating no beans at all or eating animal-based protein instead.”

Blue Zone inhabitants also use various tricks to keep from overeating, either by serving foods that help them feel full or by stopping themselves from eating too quickly or too much.

Integrated Exercise

In the West, we tend to think of exercise as something distinct from our daily activities. In Blue Zones, exercise is incorporated into daily life, often in the form of walking, gardening, and hiking.

“The big difference is, they don’t look at it as exercise,” Buettner said. “Their surroundings are punctuated with nudges. Not one of the healthy centenarians we met outside of the US ever exercised. They never went to a gym.”

Instead, they tend a garden or walk every day. Also, their houses aren’t full of mechanized conveniences. Women knead bread by hand, grind corn, or working in their yards.

Because they’re so often nudged into physical activity, Blue Zone inhabitants’ metabolisms are kept running at higher rates.

“When you add up all these short bursts of physical activity, it’s much more effective than if you sat in your office or at home all day long and expect to make it up at the gym,” Buettner said.

Making Changes to Live Longer

For people in their 50s and 60s, Buettner recommends staying active. Someone in this age range is probably still working, he noted. If possible, they should try to either move closer to work and walk, or take public transportation.

“That alone will statistically drop your chance of heart disease by about 15 percent,” he said.

Although Buettner's research argues for a strong plant-based diet, the most important thing, he said, is for people in their 50s and 60s to take stock of their social network.

If those around you are unhealthy, you’re likely to catch those habits. In Blue Zones, these communities propagate healthy habits. If you don’t already have friends who regularly get physical activity and who have a plant-based diet, Buettner suggests being proactive and making some new friends.

“We now know health habits are as contagious as catching a cold,” he said. “Friends tend to be long-term adventures.” The right social network “is a powerful longevity tool that will work for us for years or decades to come. You want to set up your life so that the healthy choice is not only easy but unavoidable.”

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