Long live us! Geography, genetics, and the key to extending your lifespan

By Sammy Caiola

Native Foods Cafe


I’m 21 years old and I’ve got one living grandparent.


Both of my mother’s parents died in their 70’s, while I was still on training wheels, and my father’s father succumbed to colon cancer a few years ago. His mother, now in her early 80’s, lives a pleasant but limited life in a Florida nursing home, where she’s apparently a champion at poolside poker.


Here in America our elderly are crippled- be it by physical deterioration or by society’s insistence that their wrinkled hands remain clutched around metal walkers until it comes time to take to the deathbed.


But that’s not what old age has to be about.


There are parts of the world where people live past the 100-mark and enjoy a full and active life until quite close to their passing. These are people who walk dogs and tend gardens and cook fresh meals and travel the world. People who, by taking care of their bodies over their lifespan, manage to weather the winds of time and remain crucial cogs in their communities.


The average lifespan in America is 76 for males and 81 for females, according to the most recent data from the Center for Disease Control. This week’s Morbidity and Mortality and report stated that 900,000 American die sooner than they should due to the five leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, stroke, lung disease and accidents. The study concluded that healthier living could have prevented 20-40% of these premature deaths.


A few years ago a longevity researcher named Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic to identify and visit the four communities in which residents are10 times more likely than the average American to live to 100 years old. Here are those communities:


-Sardinia, Italy

-Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

-Loma Linda, California

-Okinawa, Japan


After studying these communities for months and interviewing the eldest residents, Buettner put together a list of  “‘Power 9” strategies that you can implement now to guarantee a longer life. The elixir of longevity, as the experts have it, is right here:


  1. Move Naturally The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron or run marathons. Instead, their environments nudge them into moving without thinking about it.
  2. Purpose Why do you wake up in the morning? Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
  3. Down Shift Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. The world’s longest-lived people have routines to shed that stress.
  4. 80% Rule “Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawans say this mantra before meals as a reminder to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full.
  5. Plant Slant The cornerstone of most centenarian diets? Beans. They typically eat meat—mostly pork—only five times per month.
  6. Wine @ 5 Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers, especially if they share those drinks with friends.
  7. Belong Attending faith-based services four times per month – no matter the denomination – adds up to 14 years of life expectancy.
  8. Loved Ones First Centenarians put their families first. They keep aging parents and grandparents nearby, commit to a life partner and invest in their children.
  9. Right Tribe They world’s longest lived people chose or were born into social circles that support healthy behaviors.


Blue zone pyramid

A visual presentation of the Power 9. Native Foods Cafe uses this image courtesy of bluezones.com.


Personally, I like these odds. Especially the part where we skip the gym and make a habbit of 5pm wine.


But in all seriousness, there’s a lot of merit to the ideas put forth here and the simple things we can change to live by them. Walking or biking to work, for example. Cutting down or eliminating meat. Spending time with friends and family instead of in front of a computer screen. Learning to stop when we’re full.


A USA Today article published last week hinted that our zip code may have more influence on our lifespan than our genetics, due to the way that policies in different parts of the country handle factors like smoking, drinking, obesity and public transit. It’s unsurprising that the states with the highest life expectancies– Hawaii, Minnesota, Connecticut, California–are places with widespread access to natural recreation and majestic scenery.

Life map

Map of life expectancy in the U.S., with darker shades representing longer life. Native Foods Cafe uses this image courtesy of measureofAmerica.org.


Life throws a lot of curveballs, and there’s a lot of killers we can’t prevent. But that’s why it’s even more important to keep a handle on the things we can- like our diet, lifestyle and substance intake. Staying happy, healthy and active might not seem like the utmost priority now, but if it means another 20 years of energy down the line, isn’t it worth the investment?


It certainly was for this little old lady in Loma Linda, California!


Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 3.39.17 PM

Marge Jetton lives in America’s only Blue Zone. Photo courtesy of Oprah.com.


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