My goal in life is to live to the ripe old age of 103.
Why, you might ask? Very simple.
I was born on December 31st, 1996, I’m still a 90s kid on paper. That means my 103rd birthday would be on December 31st, 2099. If I live just a couple of days more, I’ll be in the year 2100.
That means I will have lived in two millennia, three centuries, and twelve decades. That certainly has a nice ring to it.
Yes, I’m petty and childish like that.
Thing is, it might be a viable motivation for longevity. And with the right lifestyle, it might even be attainable.
The Longevity Diet by Dr. Valter Longo showcases a comprehensive study of the so-called blue zones: areas of the world known to have the highest prevalence of centenarians—Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; small towns in Calabria and Sardinia, Italy; and in Costa Rica and Greece.
He dissected the lifestyles, diets, and habits of these regions in an attempt to reverse-engineer the secret to a long (and above all) healthy life.
However, if you take 100 centenarians, you get 100 different elixirs of longevity. Some might make it to 110, happily smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. But most wont. So Dr. Longo compiled general, actionable advice for our day-to-day life.
Now, to address the elephant in the room: of course there’s a genetic aspect to it. According to his research, having just one parent who lives past the age of 87 reduces your chances of getting cancer by 24 percent. Individuals with a family history of longevity tend to be long-lived themselves.
Longo was able to identify a handful of factors that overwhelmingly affect longevity and health at old age:
You are what you eat. And when it comes to longevity, that might be more true than we previously thought
Among the factors you control, your diet is the will make the largest impact in whether you live to 60, 80, 100, or 110—and whether you will get there in good health.
Contrary to popular belief, high-protein and high-fat diets like paleo or the ketogenic diet not be best for us. High-protein, high-saturated-fat, and low-carbs diet tend to consistently perform the worst in clinical studies on longevity and aging. While there is a marked increase in short-term fat loss and cardiovascular performance (especially on the ketogenic diet), it does not lend itself to aging gracefully. Case in point: populations with the greatest longevity do not eat this way. In general, a low-protein diet is associated with low cancer and overall mortality rates in the US population.
Because everyone eats, everyone feels like he or she is qualified enough give food and health advice. You wouldn’t fly on an airplane that you had personally designed, right?
Exactly. Leave it to the experts.
The longevity diet in a nutshell:
Even small changes can have a huge impact: having a waist circumference of more than 40 inches in men and 35 inches in women doubled the risk of premature death, compared with having a waist circumference of less than 33 inches in men and 27 inches in women.
Newton’s first law of motion is: “An object that is in motion tends to stay in motion”. And it just so happens to apply to humans as well.
We’re made to move around. We’ve evolved for millions of years to have some of the most efficient bodies in the animal kingdom. Hell, our ancestors used to chase antelope around until it dropped dead from exhaustion. And yet most of us spend the majority of our lives desk-bound.
No health life is complete without exercise.
Mind you, this is just the bare minimum. A large number of case studies living in the blue zones spend every waking moment on their feet, doing stuff. An object in motion stays in motion.
Ah yes, fasting. The favorite past-time of Silicon Valley tech execs, gurus, crackheads, and apparently centenarians.
You wouldn’t think it, but fasting used to be more prevalent than it is today. Before the age of supermarkets, Instacart deliveries, and industrial farming, fasting used to be more commonly practiced. Sure, not all of it was voluntary. But still.
It even pops up in many religions: from Islam and Judaism to Christianity and Hinduism. The mere fact that fasting is historically common to most religions supports the idea that fasting is not a fad diet, but part of our history and evolution.
In general, a good rule of thumb is that if something has persisted for thousands of years, there’s probably a good reason for it. Time tends to do away with waste and leave only the essentials.
Dr. Longo advocates longer fasts. He’s not a fan of intermittent-fasting, which he claims are not fasts at all, simply a long break between meals. His Fast-Mimicking Diet (FMD) tries to do just that: impart all the benefits of extended (5/7-day) water-only fasts but dramatically increasing the completion rate. (As someone who’s done a 5-day water-only fast: it’s pure hell)
With the FMD, you’re allowed to have anywhere between 700-800 calories per day while still getting 90% of the benefits of extended fasting.
Don’t be an idiot. Don’t smoke.
I know quitting is hard. Trust me, I’ve been there. It takes time but it’s not impossible.
You’re stronger than any nicotine urge.
Please for the love of God, don’t smoke.
We are nothing without our tribe. In fact, there's an ongoing crisis where old people become socially isolated and die very quickly afterwards. We're social creatures at heart. We need a community, people to take care of and people to take care of us.
And whereas the Western world has slowly lost its sense of community, the blue zones seem to be exceptions to this trend. Where most people are glued in front of the television and their phones in the West, the lives of most centenarians in the blue zones are intrinsically linked to the wider community.
Whether it's going to church every Sunday or working in the communal vegetable patch, driving taxis or manning a market stall, being involved in a community helps keep us alive. (To say nothing of the physical benefits of these activities) It gives us purpose.
Having a tribe to call home appeals to a primal part of us, the one that helped set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. According to some, being an integral part of a community signals our brains that our lives are furthering the procreation of our species and will therefore try to postpone senescence for as long as possible.
We've become out of touch with our wider communities and families. Multi-generational living used to be the norm. Children and grandparents all lived under one roof and were expected to take care of each other. Child rearing and elderly care was not something to outsource to a daycare or retirement home.
And while community is an integral part of living a happy and fulfilled life, it need not be the only way to longevity. Sometimes, it can be something petty, such as living in a total of three centuries (like yours truly) or competition. In his postscript, Dr Longo shares:
Making it to 110 in good health is less about social connections and great friendships and more about simple things, like that long-forbidden chocolate bar. In the case of Salvatore Caruso (an Italian centenarian), who watched my father grow up, it was about competition.
He wanted to be the oldest man in the world. When I informed him that someone in Sicily was older, he said: “I have to beat him.”
And he eventually did.
More than anything else, living a long and healthy life starts with your lifestyle. It's not about elixirs of youth made out of baby tears or some heretofore unknown magical plant out of the Amazon rainforest.
To our ancestors, a lot of the points laid out above would've been plain common sense and —in a lot of cases— unavoidable. High meat consumption was out of reach for most, exercise was a constant daily companion, fasting was a simple part of religion, and sequestering yourself from your community was simply impossible. It's in the last 100 years that we've become too used to the luxuries of modern life. We binge on processed foods, spend little to no time on our feet, and nestle ourselves in front of a TV.
Is it any wonder then that global obesity rates are at record highs, social isolation is rampant, and millions are self-curing dozens of minor ailments with ever-stronger painkillers and medicine? Are we that surprised that diabetes, suicide, cardiovascular disease, and cancer all rank in the top 10 leading causes of death in the USA? Above all, is it any wonder that life expectancy hasn't increased in large leaps and bounds, despite the ingredients for longevity being more abundant than ever before?
The blueprint for a happy and long life is out there. Depending on where you go, the specifics might differ. Whatever the case, the Western diet and lifestyle is not the answer. So don't mind the specifics. Focus on a few high-impact decisions you can make to change your lifestyle and make it into something healthier. More often than not though, we're best off following our ancestor's habits. After all, humanity has made it this far following their lead.
As of writing this, I'm only 23. And if everything goes well, I've got another 80 years left. There are a lot of ways I can yet improve my lifestyle, but I'm making progress.
If you make it that far as well, consider this a standing invitation to come and visit me on December 31st 2099.
I do so love sharing cake.