How to Prolong Your Life: Tips from a Nutritional Anthropologist

Want to learn how to prolong your life?  You’re certainly not alone!  Here, Sasha, our resident nutritional anthropologist, breaks down exactly what anthropology studies say about ways to make your life long, healthy, and happy!


Ah – the mysterious fountain of youth!  Humans have been on the quest for longevity and how to prolong your life for centuries, and cultures around the world have hundreds of myths, legends, and stories detailing successes and failures at achieving it.

Unfortunately, we still don’t have proof of the existence of the fountain of youth.

So, while we would have liked to use this article to detail the directions to this mythical location, we had to go with the next best thing: a sort of “roadmap” of research-based lifestyle advice for making your life longer and healthier.

And it’s a pretty extensive “map” since, as researcher Dan Buettner noted, a person’s lifespan is only about 20% dictated by genes.  The rest (a whopping 80%) is dictated by lifestyle and environment — completely modifiable factors.  So, it seems the keys for how to prolong your life are in choices you make, rather than in the cards you were dealt.

This article aims to compile the research on all these modifiable factors to give you the tools you need to extend your lifespan all by yourself — no magic spring required.

How Long are Humans Naturally Supposed to Live?

Humans vs. Other Animals

Humans are major outliers when we compare ourselves to other animal species.  (Yes, humans are animals – very intelligent animals, but animals, nonetheless.)

We can see this by comparing the length of our life stages to that of other mammals.

In general, for most mammals, life is divided into four simple stages:

  • birth
  • growth
  • reproduction
  • death

For humans, this would mean that once we pass our reproductive stage (menopause in women), we would die.

But we know this isn’t true — researchers and women alike see menopause as more of a “mid-life” experience than an end-of-life process.

In fact, human development specialists divide human life into a complex set of 9 stages and at least two of them (late adulthood and dying) come well after we are done being able to reproduce!  And a full 1/3 of our lives can take place after we’re out of our reproductive phase!


9 Human Life Stages

Prenatal Development

Infancy and Toddlerhood

Early Childhood

Middle Childhood

Adolescence

Early Adulthood

Middle Adulthood

Late Adulthood

Death and Dying


 

It is a hotly contested why we’ve developed the ability to live long after we are done having children.

One widely-promoted theory is the so-called “grandmother theory”.

The grandmother theory suggests that grandparents, who are in the post-reproductive, late adulthood phase of their lives, help raise their grandchildren.  Thus, they offer an evolutionary advantage to their descendants and the species, even though they aren’t reproducing themselves anymore.

In other words, human existence and life don’t necessarily revolve around the reproductive stage (even if reproduction is needed for a species survive).

And that means we can live well over 30 years after going through menopause (potentially up to a whopping 75 years!) – as long as we have made key lifestyle choices that keep us healthy.

Humans’ Lifespans Vary Wildly Around the World: Who Holds the Key to How to Prolong Your Life?

Older Couple Sitting On Bench Overlooking the Ocean

How do we know that humans’ lifespan depends on our lifestyle?

By comparing the lifespans of people around the world!

Luckily, the World Health Organization compiles and publishes longevity data regularly.  Below is the ranking of the top fifteen countries with the longest life expectancy for both sexes — let’s see who’s cultures hold the keys to how to prolong your life.

  1. Japan – 83.7 years
  2. Switzerland – 83.4 years
  3. Singapore – 83.1 years
  4. Australia – 82.8 years
  5. Spain – 82.8 years
  6. Iceland – 82.7 years
  7. Italy – 82.7 years
  8. Israel – 82.5 years
  9. Sweden – 82.4 years
  10. France – 82.4 years
  11. South Korea – 82.3 years
  12. Canada – 82.2 years
  13. Luxembourg – 82.0 years
  14. Netherlands – 81.9 years
  15. Norway – 81.8 years

 


Centenarian Side Note

Red and White Cake with 100 Candles
Centenarians are those who live to be 100 and over!

Would it surprise you to learn that the person who holds the Guinness Book of World Records record for “oldest person” is also someone from one of the countries mentioned above?  Jeanne Louise Calment from Arles, France, lived 122 years and 164 days.

(There are actually reports of other people who have lived longer, like an Indonesian man named Sodimejo, who claimed to have lived 146 years.  However, the Guinness World Records organization has not able to authenticate any of these other claims).

Currently, the oldest living person is Kane Tanaka, of Japan — another front-runner on our list — who is 116 years old.

Now, back to our main story!


The Blue Zones

The popular author and researcher Dan Buettner (yeah, that’s the same Dan Buettner I mentioned above), together with National Geographic, identified even smaller geographic pockets than our top 10 countries in which people have even more dramatically long lifespans.

These five regions, which Mr. Buettner dubbed “Blue Zones”, are:

  1. Ikaria, Greece
  2. Loma Linda, California
  3. Nicoya, Costa Rica
  4. Okinawa, Japan
  5. Sardinia, Italy

Naturally, this begs the question: why?  What is it about people’s lifestyles in these regions that allows them to live for so long?

Luckily, Mr. Buettner (and a swarm of other anthropologists!) have spent a long time researching the answer to that question!

Tips for How to Prolong Your Life: What do the People Who Live Longest Do Differently?

Smiling Middle Age Woman Holding Man's Hand

The idea of Blue Zones only identified where people tend to live longer but why they tend to live longer (and better) lives.

The keys to longevity described below are based on the Blue Zone data but draw on complementary research, as well.

So, what do people who live exceptionally long lives do that most of the rest of us don’t?  Here we discuss 5 of the habits Mr. Buettner identified (and many nutritionists and anthropologists have confirmed!) that seem to make the biggest differences.

Let’s check them out one-by-one.

They Are Active but Don’t Necessarily Exercise

While exercise is known to improve overall health, Buettner and his team noted that one thing that people in Blue Zones have in common is that they tend to stay active throughout the day, without necessarily making an effort to “exercise”.  People simply integrate activities like traveling on foot, using hand-operated tools, and gardening into their day-to-day activities.


What if you do want to exercise as you age?  Which exercises will support your health best?  Check out what our exercise physiologist says:  The 3 Best Exercises for Healthy Aging


 

Other studies have also confirmed the benefits of general physical activity for living longer.  In one study comparing physically active and sedentary participants, the odds of living 8 or more years after one’s 78th birthday was 84.8% in physically active people vs. 72.8% in physically inactive people.

The good news is that the same study revealed that you don’t have to have been active your whole life to reap the benefits of general physical activity.  People in the study who started being physically active in their old age increased their chance of living longer, as well.

So, if you haven’t been physically active in the past, pick up a hobby now!  Start using a bike to get around!  Start growing your own food!  The idea is to give yourself a reason to keep moving throughout the day.

They Don’t Overeat

Plate of Pasta on a Blue Painted Table

There is no need to stuff yourself at meals – another one will be along in a few hours.  And exercising self-restraint at meals may just help extend your lifespan.

Blue Zone data shows that people who live longest don’t eat until they feel completely full.  Buettner cites a Confucian mantra people in Okinawa, Japan like to cite – “stop eating when you feel 80% full”.

What keeps someone from overeating?  Cognitive behavioral specialists and psychologists have been studying this question for decades.  It likely has to do with a combination of self-awareness (mindfulness) and self-control.

Fortunately, even if you have the impulse to keep eating after you feel full, you can train your mind to control that impulse.  How?  According to studies, by consciously practicing saying “no” when temptation arises.

They Eat Plant-Based Diets

Mountains of research on the benefits of plant-based diets for boosting overall health are at our fingertips.  Many doctors are even recommending plant-based diets to all of their patients.


Didn’t know plant-based diets are good for your health and longevity?  Check out all the benefits (and risks!) of a plant-based diet in detail in Miranda’s article: The Truth About Meatless Diets


 

So, it may be of little surprise to you to learn that people in the Blue Zones also tend to consume plant-based diets.  Buettner found, after conducting a meta-analysis of 154 dietary surveys in the Blue Zones, that 95% of 100-year olds ate plant-based diets — especially a lot of beans and lentils.

And if you look at the data, these findings make sense.  People who eat plant-based diets have, statistically speaking at least, lower body-mass indices, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and have a lower risk of heart disease — all factors that reduce the risk of dying prematurely.

To reap the benefits of plant-based diets for longevity, you can limit yourself to eating no more than a single 3-4 oz serving of meat or other animal-based food five times a month.

They Take Time to De-stress

Brown Boots of Man Relaxing By A River

It’s impossible to imagine a community without stress.  All people experience stress, even people in Blue Zones.  Taking time to shift away from the stress is the key to reducing mortality.

The stress you experience is only short-lived.  But chronic stress — caused by the inability to down-shift from that stress — causes inflammation.  And chronic inflammation, in turn, is associated with every major age-related disease.

People from areas that live longer lives tend to adopt practices that help them refocus and de-stress, including praying, meditating, or even taking naps.

They Treat Themselves to a Glass of Wine

While the USDA would disagree with starting to drink if you don’t already, Buettner’s study shows a connection between alcohol consumption and longevity.  His study found that people in the Blue Zones, except for Adventists, drink alcohol, preferably wine, moderately and regularly.

This isn’t an excuse for binge-drinking, however, since excessive alcohol intake is definitely bad for your health.

They Have a Sense of Belonging

Four People Watching A Sunset

Though their denominations varied wildly, a common element of life in the Blue Zones was belonging to a faith-based community

Several theories have arisen to explain how belonging to a religious community might play a role in the long lives of those in the Blue Zones.

One researcher, Dr. Jeff Levin, has proposed a model by which faith has the power to heal from a psychological perspective, drawing on the theories of psychoneuroimmunology and the placebo effect.  Levin argues that many of the elements within faith-based structures, including personal connection, hope, and feelings of optimism could have a direct positive effect on people’s health and, therefore, on their lifespan.

Take Home Message

You don’t need a magic pill, or a map to the fountain of youth, to achieve longevity.  Lessons from Buettner’s Blue Zone paradigm, which examines the lifestyle of people who live significantly longer than the rest of the world, give you clear messages about how to prolong your life, naturally.

If you want to live a longer, happier life:

  • Keep moving throughout the day, without necessarily exercising
  • Avoid overeating
  • Eat a plant-based diet
  • Take time to destress through praying, napping, or meditating
  • Drink a glass or two of wine most days
  • Cultivate a strong sense of belonging

For the most part, these practices can still be beneficial to helping you live longer, no matter your age right now.  Start slowly, choosing one practice to integrate into your regular activities, and do your best to keep them up as you move through the rest of your 9 stages of life!

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