In 2005, National Geographic magazine had a fascinating article by Dan Buettner, about the “Blue Zones”, areas where people live to the ages of 90, 100, and older. These areas included Loma Linda, CA, Sardinia Italy, Okinawa Japan, and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.
He followed up his trip to Costa Rica with a more extensive visit, including a team of researchers, in 2007.
One of the pitfalls of studies of this sort is the verification of claims of age. For instance, a claim that made a big splash in the media several years ago concerned Bulgarian villagers who claimed that their secret to longevity is eating yogurt. A craze of yogurt swept the U.S. following publication of this story, which I am not sure has completely disappeared. That “study” was discredited because of the lack of age documentation and the exaggerated claims of extreme age because of the social benefits it provided. But in the case of Buettner’s expedition in Costa Rica, birth certificates, as well as records of the University of San José C.R. were used to verify the claims of age.
What they found
Actually, nothing extraordinary, their findings strengthened findings of other studies:
- Have a strong sense of purpose. Costa Rican centenarians have a clear mission in life, what they call plan de vida. They feel needed and want to contribute to a greater good. Interestingly, this was the salient finding in the Okinawan centenarians as well.
- Drink hard water. Nicoyan water has the country’s highest calcium content. We know from other studies that calcium is important not only for maintaining strong bones, but also for maintenance of cardiac health. There is also accumulating evidence that calcium is important in reducing the risk of colon cancer.
- Keep a focus on the family. Nicoyan centenarians tend to live with their families, and children or grandchildren provide support and a sense of purpose and belonging. Again, identical to the Okinawan centenarians.
- Eat a light dinner. Eating fewer calories appear to be one of the surest ways to add years to your life. Nicoyans eat a light dinner early in the evening. Many studies in animals amply documented the effect of caloric restriction on longevity. Their traditional diet of fortified maize and beans may be the best nutritional combination for longevity the world has ever known.
- Maintain social networks. Nicoyan centenarians get frequent visits from neighbors. They know how to listen, laugh, and appreciate what they have.
- Work hard, physically. Centenarians seem to have enjoyed physical work all their lives. They find joy in everyday physical chores.
- Get some sensible sun. Nicoyans regularly take in the sunshine, which helps production of vitamin D. This vitamin is crucial for maintenance of strong bones, a healthy heart, and reduced risk of GI cancers. Of course, you’ve got to be sensible about it; stay too long in the sun and your risk of developing skin cancers, including melanoma, goes up significantly.
- Embrace a common history. Nicoyans are aware of their roots and their spiritual traditions. This is another factor in maintaining their low-stress life.
So there you have it. Don’t overeat, exercise, and don’t worry—be happy.
Oh yes, one more thing which the Nicoyans did not tell us: Choose your parents very carefully.