Live to 100 – health secrets of centenarians

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Most people would like to live to 100 years old, especially if they can continue being healthy and active. Physicians from antiquity to present days had ideas on how to keep us healthy and slow down aging. And for centuries we’ve used diets for longevity. In the last century with the advancement of science we made many discoveries in animal models, learning what makes animals live longer. We have some insights from studies of the longest living people or centenarians. And now we are learning from research at the cellular and DNA level. This article gives you an overview of what we know about longevity and how to use food to our advantage.

Longevity advice from the first physicians

Since Hippocrates medical professionals noticed that “gluttony leads to disease”. In addition, they noticed that obesity contributes to premature aging. So the appropriate treatment was pretty obvious. For centuries physicians promoted low body weight in order to delay the aging process. They also recommended gradual reduction in the amount of food in old age. From antiquity until the 20th century doctors and scientists had many theories of aging however, the main approach to longevity remained the same. They emphasized the danger of overeating for premature aging and disease. 

Observations of the centenarians

Dan Buettner spent 10 year traveling around the world and studying areas with the highest concentration of people who live to 100. He then published the results of his study focusing on five locations that he called the “Blue Zones”. His team interviewed people from Ikaria island in Greece, Okinawa – Japan, Sardinia – Italy, Loma Linda – California, and Nicoya Peninsula – Costa Rica. They studied the lifestyle and the diet of people who live the longest and are also free from diseases.

What do people who live to 100 do differently? 

There are actually many practices and daily activities that unite the centenarians from the 5 different Blue Zone regions. First, they tend to be physically active. Not that they go to the gym or pump iron. No, instead, they walk, garden and do household chores. Second, they are socially connected. Whether it’s a faith-based community they belong to, family circle or friends, they spend a lot of time together with others. Third, they engage in activities that help them stay positive, relaxed and happy. For example, spending time outdoors, napping, meditation, or happy hour. 

What do centenarians eat?

Although the diets differ depending on the region, there are some similarities as well. First of all, centenarians eat mostly unprocessed foods. They cook their meals with fresh plants and herbs from the garden or the forest. Animal protein intake is relatively low and vegetable and bean intake is high. They don’t shy away from alcohol. However, the key to drinking seems to be in moderation – 1-2 glasses per day. The wine drinkers in Sardinia live longer than non-drinkers. And most importantly they don’t overeat. The majority of the longest living people stop eating before they are completely full. Which seems to be well alined with the recommendations of Hippocrates.

Average life expectancy around the world

There are many more regions in the world in addition to the 5 areas from the Blue Zone research where people live and thrive well into their golden years. Average life expectancy in Monaco for example is 89.4 years, Japan and Singapore 85.3, Hong Kong and Iceland 83, Korea, Israel, Switzerland, Australia, Canada and Italy 82.5, France, Sweden and Norway around 82, and US 78.6 years.

Animal studies confirm the benefits of eating less

In the last 100 years we have studied the effect of caloric restriction on longevity of all kinds of animals. Form fruit flies to fish, rodents and monkeys – the research shows not only an increase in life duration but also the reduction of age related degenerative diseases. What we learned is that 30% caloric restriction increases longevity in animals compared to animals who eat to their heart’s content. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to conduct similar research in humans. We can’t really put people on a calorie reduced diet for the duration of their life, can we?

Biochemistry of anti-aging for humans and animals

As the development of science marches on we can now look at changes in all kinds of blood markers and gene expressions in response to calorie restriction. E.M. Mercken and his team did exactly that in both rats and humans and then compared the results. What they learned is that long-term caloric restriction makes our cells more efficient at maintenance and repair activities in both humans and rats. And that many other positive biochemical changes that are associated with the slowdown of aging are present in rats and humans. They saw similar improvements in inflammatory markers, modifications in “longevity genes” that are responsible for stress resilience, antioxidants, DNA repair etc. Oxidative stress – the hallmark of inflammation and many chronic diseases – is higher in old age. Restricted food intake can counteract the damaging effect of oxidation. As a result, it also reduces cancer risks.

Live to 100 guide for everyone 

Getting healthy, slowing down aging and living to 100 is a great goal to have. And there are many different steps we can take to get to that goal. As we saw it’s a constellation of lifestyle practices that will take us there. And you might already have many of them in place. 

From the dietary changes stand point, one of the steps can be reducing overall caloric intake and avoiding overeating. The evidence of the health benefits of this is mounting. Why not just simply eat less food, especially processed foods? I know, it sounds very simple but might not be as easy to implement. However, there are many strategies that can help us . For example, we can try fasting. Fasting overall is not a new concept, is it? Humans actually evolved as a specie fasting periodically. Maybe not by choice but never the less fasting. 

Intermittent fasting is a subtype of fasting that is short-term and fairly frequent. And there are many ways to do it. You could start by reducing the window of your food intake. Let’s say, you fast 14 hours over night and eat within a 10-hour window. Alternatively, you can have a day or two a week when you eat about 25% of what you typically eat. As a nutritionist I can help you find the style of intermittent fasting that best suits your needs.