Aging is no piece of cake, at any age! So how do we know when we are aging? Who decides and how does that get decided? In the United States we seem to hold on to the number 65, when we get Social Security and Medicare but don't we really start aging at birth? We feel we have aged when we hit the magic double digits at 10 years old or maybe sweet 16. What about 18 or 21? 40 or 50 seem to be landmarks also. We all experience it differently and differently at different times in our lives.
Our physical age is different than our chronological age is different than our spiritual age. So which is more important and does it matter? We tend to see ourselves at a certain age and we see others in our mind's eye at a certain age. For example, we see our parents as they were when we were about 10-15 years old and then at some point in our adulthood we realize they have gotten old and so the baton passes to the next generation.
We tend to feel younger than our real age. When I was in my 20's and 30's, I could stay up all night studying, be on 'call' and carry on the next day almost like nothing happened. In my 40's, I could do that but knew something happened and now in my 50's, I want a nap the next day. But I don't especially feel in my 50s. I have challenges to pursue, trips to plan, things to learn. I have plenty of attitude (my children think I have too much of that).
As we age, there is loss of people, the boundless energy, visibility and most scary, independence. And we gain... spirituality, mindfulness, emotional stability and freedom -nothing needs to be proven anymore. One is more in the present moment savoring all.
On average, we will live about 30 years longer than our great-grandparents, almost a second adult lifetime. How do we make it a time of fruition and growth with all of the physical challenges and changes that are constant in the world? Some of it is genetic, probably one third of it and there isn't much one can do about that. Some of the answer is pure luck. But the other two-thirds of how we age, we can do something about.
The Blue Zones began as a National Geographic expedition with the National Institute on Aging to find the longest living cultures which evolved into a recipe for living longer better. In the US, life expectancy is about 78 with a little longer for women. Best science tells us the human body has the capacity to live about 90 years. The Blue Zone project looked at cultures around the world that were actually experiencing life expectancies of 100 years old, living with vigor and largely free of chronic diseases such as heart, cancer and diabetes. Three Blue Zones were distinctive.
The first is in the highlands on the island of Sardinia, Italy in the Nuoro province. Their history goes back to the time of Christ. The land is not very fertile so shepherding is their livelihood. There are minimal conveniences which mean regular low intensity physical activity. Diet is mostly plant-based. Animals are mostly grass-fed so the cheese is high in Omega-3 fats instead of Omega-6 fats which are in corn-fed animals. The secret though is how their society is organized where the older you get, the more wisdom you are celebrated for. It keeps aging parents close to the family and adds life expectancy and fewer diseases to the entire family.
The second Blue Zone is in the northern part of the main island of Okinawa. They have 1/5 the rate of colon and breast cancer, 1/6 the rate of heart disease. Once again, they have a plant-based diet - especially colorful vegetables. They have strategies to prevent overeating such as smaller plates, therefore fewer calories at each sitting. Food is served at the counter and then put away instead of serving family style. A saying is said before each meal, "Hara, Hatchi, Bu" which reminds them to stop eating when their stomach is 80% full. It allows the feeling of fullness to travel from ones belly to the brain and keeps them from overeating.
Just as in Sardinia, their social structure improves longevity. Isolation kills. The average American might have 3 good friends but most only 1. If luck has you in Okinawa, you are born into a system of at least 6 friends that you travel through life with, your "Moai". One shares bounty if luck and if things go bad someone always has your back. Okinawans do not have a word for retirement but instead have "ikigai" which means "the reason for which you wake up in the morning." Their meaning is, one is always useful and appreciated in their society.
The third Blue Zone was found among the Seventh-Day Adventists in and around Loma Linda, California. This is a mixed community of white, black, Hispanic and Asian. They follow a set of little habits done for a lifetime that seem to extend healthy longevity. Their diet is taken directly from the Bible, Genesis: Chapter 1, Verse 29: " And God said, 'Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree by yielding seed; to you is shall be for meat.' They celebrate a 24 hour sanctuary time every week no matter how busy or stressed to stop everything and focus on their God. They tend to hang out with other Adventists, their social network. And there are regular nature walks. It's not hard and doesn't cost money.
So, what is the recipe to healthy longevity:
- Set up one’s life so you are constantly nudged into physical activity. Then you don't have to call it exercise. If it is intentional physical activity, make it something you enjoy like a walk, gardening, paddling, yoga, climb a mountain.
- Have a good outlook, attitude, or spirit.
- Take time to downshift whether that is prayer, meditation, petting your dog or cat, hug your child.
- Have a sense of purpose. It might be to spend time with a great grandchild, volunteer to read a book to the kindergarten class, compose a poem or take up water-coloring, research family history.
- There is no true longevity diet. The magic is mostly plant-based, colorful and in moderation.
- Connection on a regular basis. This could be worth 4-14 years of added quality lifetime. Put families first; take care of the children and the aging parents. Add in some sort of faith-based community. Surround yourself with a good tribe, whether born into it or proactively surrounding yourself with the right people. Family and friends are the long term adventure and the most significant thing to add more years to your life and life to your years.
Stay passionate, engage, and work on it every day and good luck on your journey.
By: Dr. Kay Balink