FYI Daily

To Live Longer, Make Changes Big and Small

Last updated: Nov 19, 2011

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Want to live longer? Surround yourself with healthy people. More than 3,000 experts in gerontology heard little new to them about longevity -- yet everything important, boiled down to its essence -- when National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner, author of the bestselling Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest, delivered the keynote address to the Gerontological Society of America's 64th annual scientific meeting in Boston on Saturday.

Working with the National Institutes on Aging and leading longevity experts, Buettner identified five populations with the world's highest life expectancy and then isolated the common denominators to explain these concentrations of vital 80-, 90- and 100-plussers. (The blue zones include areas of Okinawa and Sardinia, but also Loma Linda, California -- thanks to its Seventh-Day Adventist population.)

Each location has its own unique influences, but what they share:

1) Physical activity (not exercise or workouts, just constant low intensity physical activity, like gardening or walking);
2) A positive outlook fed by built-in outlets to shed everyday stress, such as prayer, naps, venerating elders, and a sense of purpose to each day;
3) Wise eating -- which happily includes a little alcohol with a plant-based (though not exclusively vegetarian) diet and approaches to meals like "hari hachi bu" -- stopping at 80 percent full; and, especially,
4) The right kind of social connections -- investing in family, kids, and spouse more than work, and surrounding yourself with people who follow healthful habits. Social-contagion research shows that if you have close friends who are obese, smoke, do drugs, or are lonely and depressed, you're more likely to be like that, too.

"The average American can live 12 years longer if he optimizes his lifestyle," Buettner said, citing data from this longevity work. And that's regardless of whether you've got the lucky long-lived genes scientists know exist and are working to identify.

The researchers and clinicians at the gerontology conference live this turf, but still sat riveted as Buettner then pointed to new projects that show how other communities can be transformed. The key: Not by hectoring individuals, not by government mandate, but by "optimizing the life radius," the key 20 miles around where people live, in a million small ways. He now works with communities to get them to systematically make many changes -- policies about where you can't smoke, banning eating in school classrooms (giving kids 6-8 snack-free hours a day), connecting neighborhoods with sidewalks, creating safe parks or smarter building designs, and getting people involved in voluntarism. ("Altruism stimulates the same reward pathways as crack or sugar," he pointed out).

Each bit sounds minor, yet taken together, real change seems to take place. Solving problems of obesity, depression, and other contributors to mortality isn't a question of finding a silver bullet, he says, but of using "silver buckshot."

Which is, to mix metaphors, just what the silver tsunami and its attendant problems seem to need.

The assembled gerontologists (aging experts), by their loud applause, seemed to agree.