Cultural impacts on longevity
We all dream of a miracle cure for longevity but the sad reality is that there isn’t one, despite anti-aging being a multi million dollar industry. Some communities, though, live a in a healthier way and experience increased longevity, which is believed to stem directly from certain lifestyle factors. It seems that your death date is not predetermined; studies have found that life expectancy is only 10% genetically related, with the remaining 90% down to lifestyle.
What’s interesting is that longevity, and attitudes to aging, vary dramatically across cultures. Dan Buettner, author, explorer and founder of the website bluezones.com, has built on an existing theory about ‘blue zones’, or regions of the world where certain pockets of the population live healthily to extreme old age, and identified cultural influences on the longevity of these communities.
The original ‘blue zones’ are in Sardinia, Okinawa, Costa Rica, California and Greece, although Buettner’s organization is using these as blueprints to develop far more. Members of all the original communities studied enjoy a mainly plant-based diet and a good level of exercise (natural exercise, like walking, wild swimming or gardening, not pounding a treadmill). Older people keep active, often because they are from farming or herding communities and have spent a lifetime being active, herding animals, or fishing, or cultivating their own produce. But what about the social factors?
Social factors impacting longevity
- Social network: In Okinawa, people have a moai, or a social security blanket. People in these friendship groups support one another and grow old together. In Loma Linda, California, another of Dan Buettner’s ‘blue zones’, members of the Seventh Day Adventist community tend to mingle with people of similar faith, creating a wide support network. Sardinians, in their isolated mountain communities, have very strong family values and members of each family support one another across generations. In any community, a village mindset, where multiple generations live under one roof and neighbors are friends, creates a valuable social support network. This reduces isolation and depression in old age, both factors contributing to a shorter life.
- Having a purpose: Okinawans call their purpose ikigai – a reason to get up in the morning. In many western cultures, retirement means a sudden slump into lethargy and anonymity but these Japanese nonagenarians have a reason to live: family, interests, a continuation of activities like fishing and gardening. In Loma Linda, members of the Seventh Day Adventist community are encouraged to do volunteering work, whatever their age, which brings with it a sense of meaning. Older people in the community in Costa Rica’s ‘blue zone’, Nicoya, meanwhile, typically have a plan de vida, or a life plan, which keeps them motivated.
- Faith: On the island of Ikaria, in Greece, the community, many of whom live healthily into their nineties, come from a devout Greek Orthodox Christian background. The mental benefits of having a faith aside, they fast according to the religious calendar – and fasting has been proven to keep obesity at bay and slow the ageing process. In Loma Linda, California, the community are strict Seventh Day Adventists who dedicate one day a week to prayer, family and contemplation, creating a break from the pressures of everyday life.
- Laughter: All the ‘blue zone’ communities have a sense of humor – being able to relax and laugh with friends, laugh at grandchildren and laugh at oneself. Laughter reduces stress levels, which can take years off growing old. The ability to laugh is often lubricated by moderate amounts of alcohol, too. The Seventh Day Adventists in California are teetotal, but long-lived communities in Greece and Sardinia certainly enjoy a daily glass or two of red wine. Deprivation is not necessarily a key to living longer.
- Attitude to age: In Western cultures, old age is treated disparagingly, with older people negatively stereotyped. All over Greece, though, age is honored and celebrated. In Japan (as well as other Asian countries, like Korea and China), individuals are taught to respect their parents and to care for the elderly. In India, elders are the head of family units and their wisdom and advice are valued. Many cultures celebrate age. In Japan, one’s 60th birthday marks the rite of passage into old age. In Hindi, the suffix of –ji indicates respect for an older person. The word mzee in Kiswahili is used to emphasise respect for older people. There is no equivalent in English, needless to say.
- Priorities: In all the ‘blue zone’ communities and in several others around the world, people focus on family, faith and social interaction rather than trying to acquire status or wealth. None of the original ‘blue zone’ communities is especially wealthy; in fact, the mountain-dwelling Sardinians and the Greeks on Ikaria are relatively poor, financially speaking. Money, it seems, can’t necessarily buy you a longer life.