Nine lessons for living longer: the social science bit

A review of ‘The Blue Zone – 9 Lessons for Living Longer, from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest’ 

Businesses and brands are often criticised for failing to meet the needs of the UK’s ageing population, usually by me.  But it’s not all their fault – older people themselves also have to take some responsibility. Wake up Grandad, the world’s changing and so must you.

The economic and social aspects of our increasing longevity are covered in the excellent ‘The 100-Year Life’ (Gratton and Scott). You should read it. But today, we’re interested in how to live not just longer, but also as healthily and happily as possible.  The medical and pharmaceutical industries can now keep us going for years. But why not enjoy the ride, rather than endure years of ill health and misery?

There are many articles, books and self-appointed experts who tell us how to do this. But why should we believe them? What are their credentials, beyond their personal experience or unfounded self-confidence? Where’s the science?

So here’s the science bit.  The social science bit, in fact. This book draws upon a robust analysis of the societies that are home to some of the world’s oldest people – what the author terms ‘Blue Zones’ – to give some lessons on how to live longer.

A little bit about the book

Dan Buettner is the founder of Blue Zones, an organisation that researches and publicises the world’s best practices in health, longevity, and happiness.

He led teams of researchers across the globe, leading to the identification of five regions as “Blue Zones”. These are: Okinawa (Japan); Sardinia (Italy); Nicoya (Costa Rica); Icaria (Greece); and, somewhat bizarrely, the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. The recipe for longevity, he found,  is a combination of community, lifestyle, and spirituality:  diet, outlook, and stress-coping practices that will empower readers to live longer, healthier, more fulfilling lives

Here are his nine lessons, in summary.

1. Move Naturally

The important learning here is that physical fitness comes from being active as a matter of course, as part of your everyday life, not as something special. That is not to denigrate organised exercise or gyms – but then, why not.

Even if you are not a goatherd or farmer, there are everyday things we can all do, he urges. Take the inconvenient route, take the stairs, take the long way home, walk to the shops.

Above all, walk. Every day. Whenever you can. Do it with other people – it’s a great way to talk. And if you’re outdoors, there are also proven emotional and mental benefits that flow from being close to nature, that you just don’t get in a gym.  Gardening and Yoga also get honourable mentions.

 2. Eat less: cut calories by 20%

This is easy to say, but harder to do – and like the next two ‘lessons’ , it sounds strangely familiar. Some useful hacks are given – use  smaller food containers, plates and glasses to make them (and you) seem full, for example. I also took note of the need to fill your plate and put food away, before eating, and seeking to make food look ‘bigger’, by how it’s arranged on the plate and bulking it out with salad and vegetables. And of course, being nice well brought-up types, we already avoid snacks, eat slowly and sit down to eat. Don’t we?

3. Plant Slant

Limit meat and eat more fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, Tofu. Nuts in particular seem to be related to longevity,  but probably not those salted ones in the pub. This is what the people who live the longest do, remember.

4. Drink – but in moderation

This is a clear and powerful message. Red wine is the weapon of choice – but no more than one glass a day. Of course, we all knew this already – and just how difficult it is. But having tried it for some months now, after a long alcohol-related  adult life, I can vouch for the benefits.

5. Have Purpose

Why do you get up in the morning? What is the big picture? Take time to think about this and if you come up short, learn something new.

6. Downshift – take it easy

Take time to relieve stress, to sniff the roses, to smell the coffee, to stand and stare. Take time out of your usual routine to enjoy life at least one day a week.

And slow down – yoga and meditation are particularly good at  slowing the mind and getting rid of all the incessant chatter. Did someone mention mindfulness? Shame.

7. Spirituality and Faith

The lesson here is that it’s not what you believe, or if you believe at all, that matter. It’s the act of being involved, slowing down, being part of a group, thinking about something that isn’t you. And churches are designed to be spiritual and sensory places. I recommend the sort of church that has an old building, a good choir and incense. Other religions are also available.

8. Loved ones first

Here the priority is to spend more time with your family, to the extent of living in a smaller house and honouring your ancestors.  The importance of family ‘rituals’, meals and visits is stressed.

9. The right tribe

Here, the lesson is to spend time with people like you and to avoid the ‘wrong’ people. Presumably, you just know who these people are.  A social support network of the ‘right’ people is important and of course, to be in one requires you to be likeable and not grumpy. At least I now know where I’m going wrong. That and the drinking.

A lot of this may remind you of Max Ehrmann’s 1927 poem, Desiderata. ‘Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit’, ‘be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be’, and best of all, ‘with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.’

But what did he know?

Mark Beasley. (e)

The Blue Zone – 9 Lessons for Living Longer, from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest – Dan Buettner. You can buy the book here –

I would like to thank Moti Bari Barmherzig, whose advice on this subject is always well worth listening to, for bringing this book to my attention.

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