‘Supercentenarians’ and ‘Blue Zones’
From my living room window, I can see my 78-year-old neighbor (I’ll call her Betty) working in her yard accompanied by her 7-year-old white terrier. Although she lives by herself, Betty thrives on tackling most of the chores required to maintain her three-bedroom, ranch-style house in a Midwestern city in the United States. Watching Betty’s slender figure clean out her gutters while perched on a ladder, or maneuver her lawnmower back and forth around her lawn during the summer, one is hard-pressed to guess that she’s pushing 80. Her hair is almost completely white, but she still strides with sure steps as she marches for two miles around the neighborhood on her daily walks. In the winter, she beats everyone on my street in clearing the snow off her driveway either with a snow blower or a shovel, depending on how much snow has collected on her blacktop.
Betty is among the majority of 35 million Americans over 65 who live healthy and productive lives and whose numbers will double to about 72 million by 2030. This segment of the older American population has grown so much that new categories of “old” had to be devised to accommodate their numbers. The group aged 65-74 is known as the “Young Old,” 74-84 comprises the “Old,” and those past 85 make up the “Oldest old.” The Gerontology Research Group (GRG), founded in 1990, has even coined the word “supercentenarian” to describe those who are at least 110 years old.
Based in the University of California in Los Angeles, the GRG is only one of several groups studying the phenomenon of people living longer; its specific goal is to search for ways to slow and ultimately reverse the process of aging. It keeps track of this older population worldwide, which, according to Wikipedia, numbers 77 female and two male supercentenarians as of July 2015. Japan has the biggest number of supercentenarians at 21, followed by the United States (eight), and Italy and France, (four each).
The phenomenon has also piqued the curiosity of the National Geographic, and in 1990 it sponsored the “Blue Zone” project to explore the factors found worldwide that contribute to the supercentenarians’ long life. Is it genes? Environment? Diet? Exercise? Explorer, researcher and popular TED speaker Dan Buettner led a group of scientists to the areas with a significant number of supercentenarians: Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Loma Linda in California, and Ikaria in Greece. (The label “Blue Zone” comes from the color of the pencil the scientists used when they were identifying these areas on the globe.) The study revealed that in these “hotspots of human health and vitality,” the populations practice a kind of lifestyle that revolved around a plant-based diet, spirituality, social connections, movement, relaxation and having a life’s purpose.
Broken down into more specific practices, these age-delaying habits consist of:
- Moving naturally (not necessarily running marathons or spending hours in the gym but working around the house, gardening, walking, standing rather than sitting, etc.).
- Eating less (getting up from the table when one is 80 percent full).
- Eating less meat and more legumes.
- Drinking in moderation, like the Sardinians who enjoy red wine with their meals.
- Managing stress with meditation and relaxing.
- Pursuing a hobby.
- Enjoying a nap.
- Having a purpose in life so that one has a reason to wake up every day.
- Believing in some higher power and attending one’s church.
- Cultivating the love and loyalty of one’s family.
- Maintaining a network of supportive friends.
In Wikipedia’s list of countries by life expectancy, the Philippines is No. 122, compared to Japan (1), Vietnam (55), Thailand 67), Indonesia (110), and South Korea (117). We are ahead of war-torn Syria (127) by only seven points.
A glance at the list of the Blue Zone habits shows that Filipinos practice some of them. Most of us are religious and attend church regularly, we hold our families dear to us, and we nurture friendships with loyalty and pakikisama. Our traditional cuisine has dishes like bulanglang, pinakbet and ginisang ampalaya that are rich in vegetables. Among our favorites are dishes like escabeche, sinigang and kilawin that feature fish. We have a local red wine made from duhat, so we can encourage the Sicilian practice of drinking red wine. Perhaps the Department of Science and Technology can subsidize experiments with other local fruits like mangosteen, and the Department of Health can promote drinking red wine instead of soft drinks. All we need is the element of more movement (for example, more stairs and fewer elevators, and standing instead of sitting). If we incorporate these practices into our daily lives, our youngsters will have role models from whom they will learn to lead healthier lives.
Several US cities like Albert Lea in Minnesota and the Beach Cities (Hermosa, Redondo and Manhattan Beach) in California that have committed to transform themselves into Blue Zones have improved their quality of life. The residents of Albert Lea lost 12,000 pounds together, added three years to their life expectancy, and lowered the cost of their healthcare. They achieved this goal by harnessing the energies of the entire community, not only private citizens but also politicians, schools, employers, restaurants and grocery stores—to craft the policies and programs that would promote and enhance their common wellbeing. As stakeholders, they adapted a systems approach and committed themselves to healthier, and therefore longer, lives the Blue Zone way.
Violy Hughes, 76, is a “balikbayan” who lives in Ohio in the United States and San Pablo City in the Philippines. She retired from The Ohio State University in Columbus.
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