While geneticists and biohackers are increasingly trying to crack the code for a long life and develop medical innovations to keep you healthy and happy into your 90s (and beyond), it’s important to keep in mind: Some populations around the world have already been doing this for a long time. In fact, some have been living long, robustly healthy lives—and experiencing fewer preventable diseases—with far less money and resources than we use to keep people alive in the United States, where the average lifespan is around 79 years.
You may have heard of some of these hot spots for longevity, which have been dubbed Blue Zones. They’re the five geographic regions on the planet where people live the longest, as defined by having the highest concentration of people to reach age 100, and they include: Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and the Seventh-Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California.
These regions were designated Blue Zones in the early 2000s, after Dan Buettner—an explorer, journalist, and National Geographic fellow—set out with a team of scientists hoping to identify the longest-living populations. Their ultimate goal? To identify the lifestyle habits of these people so that we might somehow “reverse engineer longevity.” Their research, which was funded by the National Institutes of Aging (NIH), provides a fascinating look at the ways anyone can tweak their lifestyle to promote healthy aging.
Beyond the Blue Zones, there are other countries that have been gaining attention for average lifespans stretching well into the 80s and even 90s, including Iceland—which, despite its frigid temperatures and rugged terrain, recently held the record for longest average lifespan for men.
So what is it about these seemingly disparate cultures that result in such long, healthy lives? What secrets can we learn from them? Surprisingly, there are a lot of common denominators. “To make it to age 100, you have to have won the genetic lottery,” says Buettner. “But most of us have the capacity to make it well into our early 90s and largely without chronic disease.” In fact, Buettner believes that the average person’s life expectancy could increase by as much as 10-12 years by making a consistent effort to shift your lifestyle.
Here, we explore Buettner’s key findings from the Blue Zones—and we dig into key characteristics of other long-living populations, like Icelanders—to present you with eight longevity-boosting habits you can start adopting today.
1. Eat a wide variety of plant foods.
While every country’s diet is unique, Blue Zone regions tend to have one major thing in common: A strong emphasis on local plant-based foods and far less of an emphasis on animal proteins. This should come as no surprise since, time and again, research has shown that greater vegetable and fruit consumption is associated with increased life expectancy.
In Nicoya, these foods traditionally include black beans, corn tortillas, squash, and tropical fruits, while in Okinawa, plant-based dietary staples include tofu and nutrient-dense bitter melon. Sardinia and Ikaria follow variations on the Mediterranean diet, abundant in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, herbs, herbal teas, and olive oil. And people in Loma Linda—the one U.S.-based Blue Zone—actually derive inspiration for their vegetarian diet from the Bible, putting a heavy emphasis on things like leafy greens, nuts, legumes, and whole grains.
Many of these foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and an impressive array of phytochemicals—bioactive plant compounds with antioxidant and other properties that have been shown to promote cardiovascular and cognitive health, and help neutralize threats in the body by reducing inflammation, countering free radicals, and protecting against microbes and toxins. In Ikaria, for example—where people live 8-10 years longer than the average American and dementia is almost unheard of—their diet includes around 120 different types of greens, which are absolutely packed with beneficial phytochemicals. And in Sardinia, their traditional cannonau wine is made from the grenache grape, which is particularly high in antioxidants.
Clearly, there are many ways to spin a healthy, plant-rich diet. To ensure you’re consuming a wide range of health-promoting compounds, aim for variety and check out your local farmer’s market for seasonal veggies. If you come across something you haven’t tried yet, don’t be afraid to look up a new recipe and experiment.
2. When you eat meat, make it high quality.
The Blue Zones and other countries with the longest life expectancy are not necessarily solely plant-based. Depending on the specific region, fish may be consumed semi-regularly, which can provide key nutrients such as anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and a variety of vitamins and minerals that can be difficult to obtain from plant foods alone.
Even meat makes it onto the menu several times per month, or more, in some of these locations—although it’s generally not the star of the plate. The difference, however, tends to be the quality. Compared to the grain-fed, factory-farmed animals that make up the majority of meat that ends up on Americans’ plates, many of these regions take more of a traditional approach to animal agriculture—with farmers and shepherds raising animals such as cows, sheep, and goats similarly to how they’ve been raising them for generations. And this is thought to contribute to a higher quality, more nutritionally complex product.
Sardinia, for example, is home to many shepherds who, for centuries, have been raising sheep—that often roam the hilly, idyllic countryside where they feed on grasses and roughage—for milk and meat. And in Iceland, free-range lamb and beef that live their lives noshing on natural grasses, moss, berries, and other forage are frequently on the menu. All of which is to say, animal proteins can be a part of a healthy diet that promotes longevity, but the key may be to keep portions small (plant foods should still predominate) and focus on the highest quality options you can get, such as grass-fed beef.
3. Stop eating when you’re about 80% full.
In Okinawa, there’s a 2,500-year-old mantra, hara hachi bu, that’s often said before meals. Basically, it’s meant to remind someone to stop eating when their stomachs are roughly 80% full—so they are never stuffing themselves, which can be the difference between maintaining a healthy weight and gaining weight. Because obesity is associated with a range of chronic health conditions (from diabetes to heart disease to various cancers), this could be a simple strategy to promote a longer life.
This won’t necessarily be easy at first, but a good place to start is by simply being more mindful when you consume your meals and slow down. Periodically tune into your body as you’re eating and assess how you’re feeling, how the food tastes, and how satisfied you are. When you stop eating while watching TV or mindlessly scrolling your phone, you’ll most likely find that you feel content much sooner than you expected.
Typically, people living in the Blue Zones also eat their largest meal of the day in the late afternoon or early evening and a smaller meal at night. This may help support more restful sleep and stable energy levels (by supporting optimal circadian rhythms), and promote balanced blood sugar and a healthy metabolism.
4. Focus on functional movement
Movement is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for a longer, healthier life—but that doesn’t necessarily mean hitting the gym. In the Blue Zones and other countries with long life expectancies, the common factor is a lot of natural, functional movement sprinkled throughout the day. What does this mean? Basically, these people don’t exercise for the sake of exercising but, rather, they live in environments or have professions that encourage them to move without having to think much about it.
For example, to get from point A to point B, walking is often the main mode of transportation; and in most Blue Zone communities, maintaining a garden well into old age is incredibly common. In Sardinia, it’s actually not uncommon for shepherds to walk five miles per day over uneven terrain, which provides a range of cardiovascular and joint benefits.
But even if you don’t live in an idyllic, pedestrian-friendly village or spend your days tending sheep, there are still ways to incorporate regular movement into your life. Consider biking or walking to work, or at least getting off the bus or subway a few stops early to walk the rest of the way; using a push mower instead of a riding lawn mower; planting and regularly weeding your own garden; taking your dog on more walks (find some hills, too!); or even just parking in the farthest parking spot at the grocery store so you can get in some extra steps.
5. Find strategic ways to de-stress.
Chronic stress can promote inflammation and hormonal imbalances that drive a range of chronic health conditions that could shorten lifespan. But the key isn’t necessarily to avoid stress altogether—after all, that’s sort of impossible, even in the Blue Zones. Rather, you want to adopt some type of daily practice that helps you counteract stress. According to Buettner’s research, “Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap, and Sardinians do happy hour.”
In Iceland, regularly soaking in heated public pools, baths, and geothermal hot springs is a big part of their culture—providing refuge from frigid temperatures and a soothing way to relax after a long day. Interestingly, these heated soaks may be good for your heart, too. Research has found that taking regular baths could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease since the heat from the water increases blood flow and may improve long-term vascular function.
Your relaxation ritual can be whatever you choose—from reading to taking a walk with a friend to soaking in the tub—but just make it something you can stick with over the long-term for maximum physical and mental benefits.
6. Prioritize your family
In many places where people live the longest, it’s not uncommon to find families living in multigenerational homes, where elder relatives are not only cared for but actually contribute to the care of young children, too. This not only gives older relatives a sense of purpose, which is a key predictor of lifespan, but it allows them to pass along wisdom that might otherwise be lost.
Interestingly, multigenerational households seem to benefit children’s health, too. Buettner recently wrote about what he calls the “grandmother effect,” which refers to the fact that in households with a grandparent, children tend to have less disease and do better in life. “It’s this virtuous circle that explains at least some of Sardinia’s extraordinary longevity,” he wrote.
Everyone’s circumstances are different, which may mean living in a multigenerational household isn’t realistic for you, but taking whatever steps you can to prioritize relationships and foster meaningful connections between the members of your family can potentially benefit all.
7. Surround yourself with good friends.
Having a go-to support system may be one of the most underrated ways to support health and longevity. Loneliness has a similar impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, making it even more dangerous than being obese, research suggests. Friendships, on the other hand, can reduce the risk of death and even speed recovery if you get sick.
The world’s longest-living people tend to have tight-knit social circles that support healthy behaviors. Okinawans, for example, create moais, which are groups of five friends that are committed to each other for life; and, as mentioned above, Sardinians love a good happy hour with friends for some laughs and (of course) a few glasses of cannonau wine.
Research shows that behaviors and traits like smoking, obesity, and happiness can be “contagious” (they can essentially rub off on you), so ideally, you want to surround yourself with people who bring out your best qualities, who make you laugh, and who generally enhance life. Fun fact: Laughter is associated with reduced stress, improved heart health, and improved immune function.
8. Tap into your purpose.
Feeling lost and aimless in life is a recipe for psychological distress, which, over time can have negative physical manifestations, too. Having a sense of purpose (what people living in Nicoya call plan de vida), on the other hand, may add up to seven extra years to your life. Sometimes this sense of purpose is related to family, religion, a profession, or a group people are a part of.
If the idea of identifying your life’s purpose only stresses you out more, take a deep breath! You don’t have to think that big. Try creating a “purpose of the day,” which can be more of a short-term goal you work toward; or slot some new activities onto the calendar, like going kayaking or hiking with friends or a local meet-up group. Committing to smaller tasks or goals on a regular basis will help you find the things (people or activities) that really make your heart sing and that, over time, make you excited to get out of bed in the morning.
The Bottom Line
There’s no magic bullet for living longer, but together, the habits above are one powerful recipe for promoting physical and mental vitality over the long haul—which, in turn, sets you up for healthy aging. As you can tell, fad diets and intense exercise regimens don’t make the list either. This means that healthy aging is within nearly everyone’s reach, and it doesn’t have to feel like work.
So go ahead, add an extra serving of phytochemical-rich veggies and herbs to your dinner, reach out to a friend and go for a walk, take a nice long soak in the tub with some Epsom salts and a book, or give yourself permission to ponder how you can tap into your life’s purpose—all of these things really do add up and could even add years to your life, and better life to your years.