x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Long, happy life

Do centenarians have a secret? Recent research shows the habits and attitudes that older-than-average communities have in common.

New research shows why some communities tend to have longer life span than others.
New research shows why some communities tend to have longer life span than others.

Do centenarians have a secret? Laura Dixon looks at recent research showing the habits and attitudes that older-than-average communities have in common "It's all about family," says Rene Linley-Shaw, who turns 90 in August. "They always come to the rescue and have been there for me. Having them there is important. We hadn't much money when our children were small but it was OK. We all supported each other. The world is different now, though."

I have been asking Linley-Shaw - the oldest and most cheerful person I know - what she thinks the key to a long and happy life is. It's all very well following scientists' and dieticians' advice, but I want to find out from someone who has successfully led one. It might be in the genes. And since I had one grandmother who mellowed with grace and another who raged miserably for years, I want to improve my chances of emulating the former.

"You have to keep going," Linley-Shaw says. "Not smoking helps, too. Being interested in life is important. I was Prince Charming three years ago in my drama group's play. It's not difficult. It just comes naturally to me." Her advice echoes that of the US writer and researcher Dan Buettner, whose book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest, published in paperback in April, has been riding high on The New York Times best-seller list. He has travelled the world to find communities with an above-average number of people over 100, and analysed their behaviour to discover what exactly makes for a long and happy life.

It is a well-established fact that the world's elderly population is growing, particularly as medical care improves, and it is estimated that by 2025 more than a billion people will be over 60 - officially classed as elderly. In the UAE, five per cent of the population is over 60. Life expectancy for men is 77 years, and for women it is 80 - not too far behind the US and UK averages but some way behind countries such as Japan, where, on average, men live for six years longer and women for eight.

Buettner's research took him to obscure corners of the earth: to a community in Sardinia, where a group of shepherds seemed to live remarkably long and full lives; to Okinawa in Japan, where the elderly community followed a culturally regulated diet; to Loma Linda, California, where a group of Seventh-Day Adventists lived by strict religious principles; to the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, where the longest living group in the Americas dwell, and finally to the island of Ikaria in Greece, inhabited by the largest percentage of 90-year-olds on the planet. On Ikaria, one in 30 men live into their nineties; they have 20 per cent lower cancer rates, 50 per cent less heart disease and almost no cases of dementia.

By studying the combined lifestyle, diet, habits and attitudes of people living in each of these locations, Buettner designed a blueprint for how to possibly live longer and prosper. "The most surprising thing is that there is virtually no mental cognitive decline in these populations. We don't know why yet, but it certainly leads to the effort on our part to mimic their lifestyle to have good, quality years."

Like Linley-Shaw, each group illustrated a strong sense of family or community. The Okinawans had regular get-togethers within their community. In Costa Rica, the Nicoyan population interacted with one other by listening well. Visiting their friends often and appreciating what they had were cited among the key reasons the population lived so long. Social ties and friendship have been investigated in many other studies. A 10-year Australian study showed that older people with large circles of friends were 22 per cent more likely to live longer than those without.

Other factors attributed to the Nicoyans' longevity were more localised: the dry climate led to fewer respiratory diseases, and the high calcium content in the water resulted in stronger bones and fewer hip fractures. In Sardinia, the study of healthy centenarians exposed an interesting genetic trait. Scientists noted that a quarter of those in the study were carriers of thalassaemia, which means they had abnormally small red blood cells. It is a common trait in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. The smaller cells make the blood less hospitable to malaria and possibly play a role in reducing heart disease, as those with it tend to have lower cholesterol and thinner blood, also decreasing the risk of heart attacks.

A plant-based diet that included legumes and a lack of smoking were other notable lifestyle points in each community. Nicoyans eat light dinners early in the evening, and their diet is heavy in corn and rice. In Okinawa, the dietary pattern, called Hara Hachi Bu, involves eating until you are only 80 per cent full. Buettner found that people there also drank a lot of tea made from locally grown wild herbs such as mint, and believes that the diuretic effect of the tea helps lower blood pressure, therefore reducing the risk of dementia and heart disease.

All of the groups engaged in constant moderate physical activity: many of those surveyed, like the shepherds of Sardinia, lived in mountainous zones where leaving the house required physical effort. Crucially, they made the effort. While you would expect that eating well and exercising ought to offer a longer life, it's happiness that I was most concerned about - and Buettner says there's one way to start working on that from any age: "The number one secret to staying happy in old age - besides taking care of your health throughout your life so you can stack the deck in your favour - is to have a sense of purpose.

"The Okinawans call it ikigai, the reason you wake up in the morning. The Nicoyans call it plan de vida, your life plan. In each of the Blue Zone cultures there was a word or phrase meaning that everyone contributes something special to the world. Knowing what that is, articulating it and acting on it can add up to a decade of good life." To stay happy, having something to believe in, family to immerse yourself in and the pleasure of having a reason for being are important above all else.

Buettner's research has resulted in an interesting tool on www.bluezones.com, where, after a short questionnaire, you can find out how long you are likely to live based on your current lifestyle, attitude and state of health. Give it a try and get some tips for staying happy and healthy into your twilight years - and start contemplating your greater purpose in life. After all, the shared attitude of the Blue Zone communities is that life is a gift to be thankful for - and that is transferable to everyone, wherever you live.