There are a lot of ‘super agers’ around the world. You may know someone yourself. That inspiring elderly person you see running around like they are middle-aged may seem like an anomaly, but they aren’t.
More and more people are living into their 90s and 100s nowadays. Super ageing isn’t limited to one place. While Japan has the highest concentration of super agers per capita, when it comes to super ageing, we need to look to what are known as the ‘Blue Zones’ – areas where there are higher concentrations of centenarians throughout the world.
People living in Blue Zones seem to live longer than people in other parts of the world. They have low levels of dementia, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. These places also have a lot of people who live to be over 100 years old. Blue Zone locations include:
- Ikaria, Greece
- Okinawa, Japan
- The province of Ogliastra in Sardinia, Italy
- The community of Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California
- The Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica
What makes someone a ‘super ager’?
A super ager is someone in their 80s or older who exhibits cognitive function that is comparable to that of an average middle-aged individual. Additionally, this group has been shown to exhibit less brain volume loss. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists measured the thickness of the cortex in 24 super agers and 12 members of a control group. Normally ageing adults lose roughly 2.24 percent in brain volume per year, but the super agers lost around 1.06 percent. Because super agers lose brain volume more slowly than their peers, they may be better protected from dementia.
In the UK, our average life expectancy is 81 and we have soaring rates of age-related diseases. What can we learn more from these communities of super agers so that we too can prolong our longevity and live happily with a spring in our step well into our 80s and beyond ?
Super agers eat to live; they do not live to eat!
Let’s take a closer look at what can be found on the plates of the super agers. Research shows that these communities eat lots of anti-inflammatory herbs and spices that are rich in anti-oxidants; herbs also contain compounds that promote good joint health and mental clarity. They eat lots of starchy carbs like squash, yams and purple sweet potatoes, and limit meat to five times per month, and hardly any dairy, perhaps just a little cheese to add flavour to dishes. Fasting is also a common practice in Blue Zone countries. In Okinawa, and the rest of Japan, people grow up being taught to practise ‘hara hachi bu’, meaning they stop eating when they feel about 80% full. Surprisingly, the Blue Zone octogenarians still enjoy a glass or two of alcohol which they tend to brew themselves; they love to drink when they are singing, dancing and telling stories. They shun processed food, and eat plenty of high fibre, low fat beans to help keep their gut bacteria well fed and they also eat lots of olives, olive oil, oily fish, and nuts.
Here’s what else these communities have in common:
They embrace opportunities for natural movement, like walking, herding, and gardening; they grow much of their own food which keeps them active and healthy.
Having a sense of purpose – in Japan, they follow a philosophy known as ‘ikigai’, used synonymously with purpose, passion, meaning, mission, vocation, and drive. If you brew all those notions together and distil its contents, you get ‘ikigai’. Purpose has always played a major role in wellbeing and the resulting extreme longevity. It’s also believed that the strong sense of purpose possessed by older Okinawans may act as a buffer against stress and help reduce overall inflammation, in turn lowering chances of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and stroke.
Finding your sense of purpose doesn’t necessarily have to be through your career. It could be found in your hobbies, the volunteer organisations to which you donate your time, your garden, or watching your grandchildren grow up.
Belonging to a faith-based community – research shows that those who regularly attend religious or spiritual services and are part of a faith-based community appear to live longer. For many people, religion or spirituality is largely about connection. Whether at religious services, communal groups, or community services to help others, these individuals tend to maintain stronger social networks, which is an excellent predictor of health and longevity.
Taking a daily nap or finding some other way to ‘downshift’ daily – time and again, we hear about how sleep is important for our overall health and wellbeing, and in Blue Zone communities, napping is a common practice. I often have an afternoon nap and have done so since I was a young woman; when I have the opportunity, I spend just 15 or 20 minutes lying with my feet slightly elevated. I don’t always fall asleep, but I still feel very refreshed. Lying down promotes muscle relaxation, stress relief and a slower heartbeat. I don’t feel lazy or guilty even. This time of quiet repose does me the world of good.
Research has shown that taking a nap can not only decrease cortisol (thereby mitigating feelings of stress) but may also increase positive mood, improve emotional control (making you less impulsive and more tolerant of frustration) and boost focus, alongside naturally helping reduce tiredness. Any of the above napping benefits could have downstream positive effects for your day-to-day functioning and, in turn, your longevity. You can read more about the research here.
I hope you’ve found this information interesting. It’s certainly food for thought – perhaps you can incorporate a few tips from the ‘super agers’ to enable you to live a longer, fuller, more productive life.