Long-Lived Costa Ricans Offer Secrets to Reaching 100

Anne Casselman
for National Geographic News
April 14, 2008
At the age of 102, Abuela Panchita is still a social butterfly.

The centenarian, who lives on Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula, has a solid support network of friends and family, which includes a son in his eighties who visits her every morning on his bicycle.

Her age and sociability are no coincidence, said Dan Buettner, an explorer and book author who has studied Panchita and other elderly Costa Ricans.

"We know that people who make it to a hundred tend to be nice," he said.

"They … drink from the fountain of life by being likeable and drawing people to them."

Buettner has explored and studied the world's centenarian hot spots—which he calls blue zones—over the past several years. The findings appear in a new book, The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest.

(Buettner has also received funding from the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

After scouring the globe, Buettner has found several basic threads that connect the longest-lived: a plant-based diet; regular, low-intensity activity; an investment in family; a sense of faith; and purpose.

(Read about Buettner's work in National Geographic Magazine.)

Blue Zones

Nowhere is a strong sense of purpose more acute, he said, than in Japan, where the concept has its own name: ikigai.

Okinawa, Japan, boasts the longest-lived women in the world and has the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world.

"You see it over and over again: People who are living a long time have a reason to get up in the morning," Buettner said.

The other hot spots include Sardinia in Italy, which has the highest concentration of centenarians—most of which are men—and the Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda in California. An Adventist man lives 11 years longer than the average American male.

Abuela Panchita's hometown also makes it onto the list. Nicoya Peninsula has the lowest middle-age mortality in the world, Buettner said.

"A 60-year-old in Costa Rica has more than a fourfold better chance of making it to 90 than a 60-year-old in America," he said.

"They spend one-fifteenth the amount we do on public health, but they spend it in the right places."

This statistic factors out infant mortality, which can skew life expectancy numbers downward.

(Related: "Discoveries May Help Unlock Secrets of Long Life" [October 30, 2003].)

Small Genetic Impact

Robert Kane directs the University of Minnesota Center on Aging and the Minnesota Geriatric Education Center in Minneapolis.

"If indeed one can identify characteristics which reliably distinguish centenarians from other people, then we might get some clues into what is involved in achieving a longer life expectancy," Kane said.

"What [Buettner's] done is to identify clusters of people who live to old ages and describe some of the phenomena that are associated with those people."

Studies indicate that the genetic component of aging is relatively small, varying between 6 and 25 percent. How we can influence the remaining percentage of our longevity is still not completely clear.

To Buettner, what is clear is that people can take control of improving their longevity.

"Set up your life, your home environment, your social environment, and your workplace so that you're constantly nudged into behaviors that favor longevity," he said.

Habits of the Long-Lived

For example, many centenarians eat less and avoid meat.

"You look in the blue zone in Okinawa, these people are consistently eating off of small plates," Buettner said.

One of the cues for fullness is an empty plate, so stock your cupboard with smaller plates, Buettner advised.

Investing in family and faith also apparently keeps centenarians going.

"The research is really quite overwhelming in showing the longevity and health benefits in reconnecting with your religion … and investing in your family," he said.

S. Jay Olshansky is a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"Dan is trying to encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles and that in and of itself is the greatest value," Olshansky said.

But he cautioned that no matter how attractive the prospect, there is no secret to the fountain of youth.

(Related: "Happy 120th? Science Pushes Human Longevity" [October 20, 2005].)

"It has been very tempting for many people in this area to try and sell longevity, which is a commodity that cannot yet be bought or sold," Olshansky said.

More Blue Zones?

Buettner's work on sussing out blue zones is ongoing.

There may be one in Canada, Buettner said. If confirmed, this blue zone probably has the lowest middle-age mortality in the world—beating out even the Nicoya Peninsula.

But in the United States, the life expectancy is 77.8 years—a figure that might actually drop in coming decades due to the impact of obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"As rich as we are as a nation, we don't do a great job," Buettner said.

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