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Some Habits For Living A Longer and Healthier Life

There is tremendous interest in how to live a long and healthy life. This means trying to avoid getting diseases that so many suffer from as they age, such as diabetes, heart disease, and dementia. What diets are best? What kind of lifestyle?

NPR published a recent article about 7 daily habits linked to living a longer, healthier life, using information from Dan Buettner's work on blue zones. Scientific research supports the importance of these habits, especially good nutrition (for example, the Mediterranean diet) and physical activity.

The blue zones are communities throughout the world in which there are a lot of centenarians (people living to 100 years or more). What is important is that the people in these communities are aging with good health, and leading active and fulfilling lives - without dementia, and not in nursing homes.

The diets vary from place to place, but all avoid fast foods and highly processed foods. Instead, a lot of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes (beans), and nuts are eaten. Little meat. Food is cooked at home. By the way, this type of diet is associated with a good gut microbiome, and generally a good gut microbiome goes with good health.

Unfortunately, these blue zone areas are now fading, due to changes in lifestyles  - fast food, etc. But a few other places are stepping up, trying to make living spaces healthier and incorporating what has been learned about health and longevity - for example, Singapore.

Bottom line: Research shows a diet rich in plant-based foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes), plenty of sleep, lots of movement (physical activity), and a sense of purpose in life are all important in aging well.

Excerpts from correspondent Allison Aubrey article at NPR: 7 habits to live a healthier life, inspired by the world's longest-lived communities

At a time when life expectancy in the U.S. has dipped and diet-related disease is a leading cause of death, it's no wonder that Dan Buettner's decades-long exploration of centenarians who thrive in the longest-lived communities on Earth is attracting lots of attention.

"People in blue zones, they're not thinking about their health or a diet or an exercise program. They're not doing anything except living their lives," Buettner says. They are living longer without intentionally setting out to do so. He says they have unwittingly created an environment — through their habits, rituals and cultural norms — that promote health and longevity.

Swap 1: Trade the La-Z-Boy for a mat and a garden

Build movement into your day. For those of you who don't like the gym, you may be inspired by the way people in the blue zones incorporate movement into their everyday routines. "Plant a garden in your backyard," Buettner says. "A garden nudges you to weed and water and harvest almost every day," and that keeps you moving, he says.

Swap 2: Ditch DoorDash and eat like a peasant

Buettner describes meeting the oldest family in the world, whose collective age of nine siblings was 860 years (about a 95-year average). Their daily staple was a traditional Sardinian minestrone soup made from leftover garden vegetables, beans, a little barley, some tomatoes and a bit of olive oil. The Sardinians also eat a lot of whole-grain sourdough. "People in the blue zones are eating the cheapest peasant foods," Buettner says.

And while the blue zones he visits are distinct geographically, their diets are similar. The top five pillars of the blue zones' diets are whole grains, vegetables, greens, beans and tubers, such as sweet potatoes.

"A cup of beans a day is associated with an extra four years of life expectancy," Buettner says of his analysis. And people mostly cook their own meals. "There's no DoorDash in the blue zones," Buettner jokes.

Swap 3: Reduce meat and aim for a plant-forward approach

Buettner reviewed about 150 dietary surveys conducted in the blue zones over the last 80 years. "If you average them, more than 90% of their dietary intake comes from complex carbohydrates — whole plant-based foods," he says. For instance, Okinawans eat a lot of sweet potatoes, which are rich in vitamin A. And in the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, carotenoid-rich squash is a staple.

The typical diet in the U.S. includes about 220 pounds of meat per year, per person. In the blue zones, it's about 20 pounds a year: "About 1/10th of what we eat," Buettner says. There's just a little bit of cheese and a small amount of fish. In Okinawa, tofu is a staple and is often eaten twice a day, mixed with vegetables and herbs. And a key principle of eating there is to stop when you're 80% full.

Swap 4: Give loneliness the boot — become a joiner

Swap 5: Revamp social media to cultivate friends and a sense of purpose

Over the years, I've written a lot about research that shows just how contagious our habits are. If you're happy and engaged, positive emotions can spread. If you aim to live a healthier life, your odds improve if those around you are committed too. So, try this blue zone principle of human behavior to help align yourself with people who can serve as a sounding board to help you live with purpose.

Swap 6: In lieu of an afternoon espresso, take a nap

The siesta is an age-old tradition, of course. And though modern life has pushed it to near extinction, the most recent science shows that a 20-minute nap can make up for an hour of lost sleep and helps keep you sharp later in the day.

Swap 7: Trade big-city rents for an affordable home (and maybe keep your parent nearby)

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