Want Great Longevity and Health? It Takes a Village
The secrets of the world’s longest-lived people include community, family, exercise and plenty of beans.
The cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world was the humble bean. One five-country study showed that beans were the only food that predicted a longer life—for each 20-gram serving (about two tablespoons) eaten a day, the chance of dying dropped by 8%. Fava beans in Sardinia, black beans in Costa Rica, lentils in Ikaria, soybeans in Okinawa.
Seventh-Day Adventists, America’s longest-lived subculture, eat all kinds of beans, taking their cue from God’s injunction, in the book of Genesis, to eat the fruits of “seed-bearing plants.”
Dollar for dollar, most beans deliver more protein than beef. More important, beans’ high fiber content serves as a gut compost of sorts, enabling healthy bacteria to thrive.
The centenarians and others we met in Sardinia showed us, though, that even the healthiest diet isn’t enough by itself to promote long life. The true longevity recipe transcends food to encompass a web of social and cultural factors.
On my recent visit to Sardinia, I spent an afternoon in the village of Villagrande with a baking circle of sorts: five women, including a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter, who get together every few weeks to bake traditional sourdough bread, leavened with lactobacillus cultures and yeast.
I was first drawn to them because of the bread. Dr. Pes had published a study showing that Sardinian sourdough bread actually lowers a meal’s glycemic load. (Most bread metabolizes almost immediately into sugar, spiking insulin levels.)
After spending a couple of hours with these women, I realized that the bread was only one ingredient in a larger group of benefits that the bread-making occasioned. The women also had to chop wood and stoke the oven. They had to knead the dough for 45 minutes (more exercise than going to the gym).
Life in these villages is very social. People meet on the street daily and savor each other’s company. They count on one another. If someone gets sick, a neighbor is right there. If a shepherd loses his flock, other shepherds rally round with donated sheep to rebuild the flock.
In the nearby hamlet of Mores, I met 94-year old Salvatore Pinna and three of his friends, whose ages ranged from 88 to 90. They wore woolen newsboy caps and the kind of rugged tweed jacket fashionable in both sheep pastures and the village square. They get together every morning for coffee, again in the afternoon to play dominoes and at night to drink homemade Cannonau wine. Two of them were living alone, but as one told me, “We’re never alone.”
When it comes to longevity, the long-standing support of a community is significant. In the U.S., you’re likely to die eight years earlier if you’re lonely, compared with people who have strong social networks. In Sardinia, “One hand washes the other, and they both wash the face,” as Mr. Pinna told me, summing up the social symbiosis.
He and his friends serve as repositories of agricultural wisdom, which they routinely share by advising local vintners how to cope with temperamental weather and various insect pests. They are pillars of the local economy and are prized for it.
A fanatic zeal for family has also survived here. Neither work, hobbies, friends nor a sports team would ever divert serious attention away from a spouse or children. In turn, parents and grandparents move serenely into old age, secure in the knowledge that their children will care for them. There are no retirement homes here.
What we found in Sardinia is similar in other blue zones. None of the spry centenarians I’ve met over the years said to themselves at age 50, “I’m going get on that longevity diet and live another 50 years!” None of them bought a treadmill, joined a gym or answered a late-night ad for a supplement.
Instead, they lived in cultures that made the right decisions for them. They lived in places where fresh vegetables were cheap and accessible. Their kitchens were set up so that making healthy food was quick and easy. Almost every trip to the store, a friend’s house, work or school occasioned a walk. Their houses didn’t have mechanized conveniences to do house work, kitchen work or yard work; they did it by hand.
People in the blue zones were nudged into physical activity every 20 minutes, my team estimated. This activity not only burned 500 to 1,000 calories a day; it also kept their metabolisms humming at a higher rate.
Americans spend about $110 billion a year on diets, exercise programs and supplements, but self-discipline is a muscle that fatigues. Research shows that such short-term efforts fail for almost everyone in less than three years. By contrast, successful strategies to avoid disease and yield longevity require decades of adherence—or entire lifetimes
For enduring gains in health in the U.S., we should shift our tactics away from trying to change individual behavior to optimizing our surroundings. We should make healthy choices not only easy, but also sometimes unavoidable—so that longevity “just happens” to Americans.
(By Dan Buettner, WSJ)
— Mr. Buettner is a National Geographic fellow and the author of “The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People.”