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Lifestyle Changes Promote Longevity

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am worried about a close friend, age 67, who has suffered a number of ailments over the past few years including arthritis, a hip replacement and cancer.  Fortunately she has recovered well but, in the meantime, is physically inactive and gained about 75 pounds.  It’s the latter that worries me.  How can I be a good friend and address her weight problem without being a “pain?” 

Answer: It is difficult to watch a good friend engage in behaviors that are potentially self-destructive, such as smoking, drinking, being sedentary and, yes, even eating.

The first premise is that we can’t make people change their lifestyles if they don’t want to.  For a first round, however, try a conversation.

A recent study on disability and aging by Teresa E. Seeman, professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and her colleagues found that for those in their 60s, a two-decade trend in which people seemed to function better in old age than those who lived before them has ended.

The measures of disability were how well a person could walk up a flight of stairs, manage personal finances and perform household chores.  The increase in disability rates was restricted to groups that were overweight and obese.  This data has serious implications for aging boomers, the oldest of whom will turn 64 in January 2010, with 78 million to follow.

On a larger scale, obesity is a societal issue. The Framingham Heart Study found that if three of your friends are obese, there is a 50 percent chance that you are, or will be, obese.

I recently spoke at, and attended, a conference on Positive Aging, held in Florida. Among the many intriguing presentations, one that stood out related to obesity and lifestyle. The subject was Blue Zones – five places in the world where people live longer and healthier lives than anywhere else on the planet.

The zones were identified by Dan Buettner in partnership with National Geographic, during more than five years of on-site investigations.  In the Blue Zones, Buettner’s research team found people reached age 100 at a rate 10 times greater than in the U.S.

Their secrets of longevity were not related to technology, supplements, treadmills or genes. Rather, they consisted of a healthy diet, daily exercise, and a low-stress life that included family, purpose, religion and meaning.

The five Blue Zones are the Italian island of Sardinia; the islands of Okinawa, Japan; Costa Rica’s isolated Nicoya Peninsula; the isolated Greek island of Ikaria; and in our own Southern California city of Loma Linda.

According to Buettner, the key to getting the 10 years we are missing from our lives is to follow the lessons from the world’s longest-living people and learn from their environments of health.
Here are the shared messages and characteristics that boosted longevity in the Blue Zones. They also are referred to as the “The Power of Nine.”

  1. Move naturally: Find ways to move naturally such as gardening and walking.
  2. Find your purpose: Those with a sense of purpose tend to live longer.
  3. Downshift: Meditate, take vacations, work a little less and take naps.
  4. Stop eating: Stop when you are 80 percent full and remember that it takes your brain about 20 minutes to tell your stomach that it has had enough.
  5. Have a plant-based diet: Eat less red meat and more vegetables. Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying to eat meat “as a condiment to vegetables.”
  6. Drink red wine: One glass a day should do it.
  7. Put loved ones first: Make sure your give high priority to your family
  8. Faith matters: Feed your soul and participate in spiritual activities.
  9. Friends matter: Having healthy social relationships is important.

Weight gain is not only a personal issue, but a societal concern. We read about the serious problems of youth and obesity, but little about the implications of obesity among older adults.

Teresa E. Seeman, professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, conducted a study on disability and aging. She and her colleagues found that disability rates for those in their 60s were higher than in previous generations (a trend reversal) and were restricted to groups who were overweight or obese.

Reaching older age is one thing; reaching older age with a disability that could have been prevented is another. Obesity, health and lifestyle are connected. Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” (National Geographic, 2008), identified five societies, or Blue Zones, where people live the longest and healthiest lives.

Based on what was learned about these Blue Zones, the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality project was launched in Albert Lea, Minn., a community of 18,000. Its mission was to add healthy years to people’s lives by embracing the Blue Zone principles and incorporating them into every aspect of the residents’ lives that involved restaurants, businesses, schools, homes and daily living.

Individuals and businesses made pledges for change and acted on those pledges. Here are some, presented by Joel Spoonheim, Director of Health Initiatives at Blue Zones:

  • One thousand Albert Lea residents participated in a workshop led by Richard Leider, author of “The Power of Purpose: Creating Meaning in Your Life and Work” (Berrett-Koehler, 2004), to encourage participants to pursue their talents and passions.
  • Owners of restaurants pledged to use 9- to 10-inch plates, offer salads as an alternative, develop at least two new healthy menu items and offer half-size portions at a cost of 75 percent of the full-size portions.
  • Thirty-five employers pledged to eliminate snacks during meetings or to offer healthy ones, substituting fruit for doughnuts; have standing or walking meetings with a sign “meeting in progress;” eliminate candy on desks; increase healthy choices in vending machines; prohibit tobacco; and make stairwells and lunchrooms inviting.
  • Walking groups were established. Residents spent 10 weeks walking together, and the number of steps was recorded. Participants only got credit for those steps if they walked with someone.
  • Walking School Bus groups were launched. Parents and grandparents, about 40, met at a certain spot and strolled with children to school.
  • A sidewalk was built around a large lake, the town’s centerpiece. Sidewalks in the town were repaired and more community gardens were developed.

A total of 3,464 residents of all ages participated in the project. In October 2009, after just 10 months, the results were astounding:

  • Average life expectancy increased by 2.9 years for the 786 residents who took the Vitality Compass questionnaire, based on the work of Dr. Robert Kane at the University of Minnesota.
  • Weight loss was an average of 2 pounds.
  • Two-thirds of locally owned restaurants added life-extending foods such as broccoli and berries to their menus.
  • Residents participated in 15 Vitality Project initiatives, including walking dogs at the Humane Society, taking healthy-cooking classes, forming groups to discuss their accomplishments, and encouraging others to trade french fries for fruit.
  • Grocery stores identified certain foods with a label of “longevity food.”
  • Participants increased their consumption of vegetables.
  • Rate of depression decreased.

People reported their bodies, spirits and lives were re-energized.

Here is the dream: What would happen if each of our communities launched a Blue Zone project? What if we engaged mayors, city councils, Rotary clubs, chambers of commerce, restaurants, school boards and PTAs to launch our own Blue Zones?

Yes, funding is a concern, particularly in this economy. But if they think of the stakeholders, perhaps these groups will step forward.

My wish for the New Year? That we all – at some point – have the opportunity to live in a Blue Zone for a life that is long, healthy and meaningful, filled with joy for ourselves and those we love. Happy New Year!

Copyright Helen Dennis 2010. All rights reserved.

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