What we can learn from the world's centenarians


One of the daunting challenges of changing our lifestyle to a healthier one is our motivation. Do we care about our own health? Do we want a better quality of life, both physically and mentally? Do we want to live to enjoy our children and their children? Or do we want to be part what we see happening all around us: a slow decline into unhealthiness for a decade or so, living daily with a cane, a wheelchair, an oxygen tank, tons of medication, cloudy thinking and unwell feelings? Of course, we may already be experiencing some of the symptoms of failing health. Don’t be depressed; there is hope!

The only lifestyle that has been proven to reverse and cure heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, arthritis and, actually, all of the top-15 killer diseases in the United States is a whole-foods, plant-based diet. (See Dr. Michael Greger’s book, “How Not to Die,” and his website, nutritionfacts.org.) Other lifestyles cannot claim to reverse and cure disease. They can sometimes make you feel better, simply because you are cutting out processed foods and excess sugar, but they do not reverse or cure any of these ailments. Many times, they will even make your ailments much worse over a short period of time.

But if you are lucky, and you feel good now, it may be that you have lived a life similar to those living in the “blue zones.” In the National Geographic-produced book “The Blue Zones,” author Dan Buettner identifies five areas of the world—the Italian island of Sardinia; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, Calif.; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and the Greek isle Ikaria—that have upwards of 30 times more centenarians than do other parts of the world. 

He found that, across the board, these people’s diets were predominately plant-based. He also identified six additional common traits they shared: social connections, rest, herbal tea and wine consumption, religion, and low stress. He also found that the biggest changes to lifespan were taking place in these areas because diets were changing—primarily with the consumption of more processed foods, fats, oils, sodium and animal protein. At one point, the author was warned by a colleague that he needed to work quickly because the conditions surrounding longevity were rapidly changing.

In research studies conducted from the ’70s through the ’90s, Dr. Dean Ornish corroborated the concept of the blue zone groups by showing how stress management, exercise, a whole-foods and plant-based diet, and smoking cessation all play a significant role in reversing heart disease and prostate cancer. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn showed in his 1995 article “Arresting and Reversing Coronary Artery Disease—A 5-Year Study” in The Journal of Family Practice, Vol. 41, No. 6 how a whole-foods, plant-based diet reverses disease and is essential to our health.

The blue zones show us that diet is just one of the seven factors affecting our longevity. It is within this total environment that a judicious consumption of animal products—two small servings a week, or some goat milk—along with a glass of high-quality red wine a day does not seem to affect the centenarians’ health or longevity. 

The problem most of us face is the absence of these seven factors. Most of us are lucky to have two or three. So how can we accomplish a longer and healthy life? The first thing we can do is attempt to duplicate some of these factors as best we can: get more rest, meditate, reconnect with family and friends, go to church, get lots of exercise, drink a little high-quality red wine, stop eating processed foods and large amounts of animal products, and drink herbal teas.

But probably the biggest factor is associating with like-minded people. This is why the lifespan of the Seventh-Day Adventists of the Loma Linda blue zone is 10 years longer than the rest of the United States. 

Buettner writes, “They take their diet directly from the Bible—Genesis 1:29. ‘And God said: Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed…and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed, to you it shall be for food.’ The key insight the Adventists offer us has to do with how they maintain their diet over the long term. For most people, diets fail within two years. But Adventists eat biblically for decades. How? They hang out with other Adventists. When you go to an Adventist picnic, there’s no steak grilling on the barbecue. No one is swilling Jim Beam or sparking up a joint.”

The bottom line is that if you want to be successful in changing your lifestyle and improving your health, find others who are on the same quest. Get together, have a healthy, plant-based meal with a glass of red wine, and talk!  


Dave Osborn is a semi-retired contractor and moisture and mold consultant. He has lived in Point Reyes Station for 31 years.