How to live to be 100
At 117 years old, Violet Brown is the oldest living person in the world. She attributes her good fortune and longevity to varying degrees of moderation, spirituality and the closeness of her Jamaican family.
Brown was born on 10 March 1900, according to the Gerontology Research Group’s record of the oldest living people, some 62 years before her native Jamaica attained independence from Great Britain. She is also the very last living former subject of Queen Victoria. For more than 80 years, she was a music teacher and the organist at her church before becoming the record keeper for her local cemetery in rural Trelawny Parish, not far from Montego Bay.
Brown was one of four children born to John Mosse and Elizabeth Riley, who died at the age of 96. Elizabeth married Augustus Gaynor Brown with whom she had one daughter. Violet has six children, four of whom are still living. Her first child, Harold Fairweather, who died on 19 April 2017 at the age of 97, was believed to be the oldest person with a living parent.
“I live by the grace of God and I am proud of my age,” Brown says. When asked how she’s managed to live so long, she cites a tenet found in the Old Testament of the Bible: “Honor your mother and father, so your days may be long.”
“Really and truly, when people ask what I eat and drink to live so long, I say to them that I eat everything except pork and chicken and I don’t drink rum and them things,” she says.
In those essential points, she shares much with other supercentenarians, or people living to 110 years or older.
For them, the key to longevity is a lifestyle that includes:
- Family involvement
- No smoking
- Moderate physical activity
- Social engagement
- A healthy social circle
- No time urgency
- Whole grains
In southern Sweden, the town of Vittsjö, with its roughly 2,000 residents, has chalked up an impressive 22 people who have lived to the age of 100 years or older over the past 100 years. Health expert Henrik Ennart doesn’t have a simple answer to explain this, but says that old age can often be attributed to dietary habits.
“It’s often poorer and more arid areas where people have had natural access to healthy food without indulging. They haven’t eaten a lot, but they’ve eaten well,” he says.
Across the border in Norway, Elisabeth Julie Ekenæs made it to 112 years old, according to the Gerontology Research Group, before dying on 4 January 2017.
Ekenæs’ niece, 83-year-old Eva Kristiansen Skjelin, said her aunt had likely made it to such an advanced age because, “she had never taken a smoke, never taken a drink and stayed away from men.”
According to Henrik Ennart, the Vittsjö area could be listed among the world’s “Blue Zones” – a term first used in a November 2005 National Geographic Magazine cover story called The Secrets of a Long Life by Dan Buettner. Later, in his book The Blue Zone Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, Buettner identified five geographic areas where people statistically live the longest – Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Ikaria (Greece) and a group of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.
Buettner’s concept was developed from earlier demographic work done by Gianni Pes and Michael Poulain, outlined in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology. The researchers discovered that Sardinia’s Nuoro province was the region with the highest number of males over the age of 100 in the world. When the authors zeroed in on the cluster of villages with the highest longevity, they drew concentric blue circles on the map and began referring to the area inside the circle as the Blue Zone.
“Nobody in these areas was trying to reach 100. They lived normal lives and ate locally-sourced food, mostly from their own gardens,” says Buettner. “They don’t count calories, take vitamins, weigh protein grams or even read labels. They don’t restrict their intake – in fact, they all celebrate with food.”
According to Buettner, the long lives of people in these areas begins with their choice of foods. Most Blue Zone residents have easy access to locally-sourced fruits and vegetables – largely pesticide-free and organically raised. If they aren’t growing these items in their own gardens, they have found places where they can purchase them.
“It’s not really a choice, it’s a default for them. It’s around, so that’s what they eat and they learn how to make that food taste good, because if it doesn’t taste good, they won’t eat it for long,” says Buettner.
As much as possible, he suggests, we should stick to the old saying, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.” In other words, try not to snack too much and stick to three meals a day. The routine is the same in almost all of the areas. Residents may occasionally grab a mid-morning piece of fruit or a mid-afternoon handful of nuts, but most don’t make a habit of snacking. According to the book, the average meal should contain about 650 calories.
Recent research also supports the idea of front-loading calories during the early part of the day. An Israeli study found that dieting women who ate half of their daily calories at breakfast, about a third at lunch, and the rest during dinner, saw a drop in triglycerides, glucose, insulin and the hormones that trigger hunger.
Knowing which foods to eat – and in what quantities – is the first step towards eating and living to 100. But there’s more we can learn from people in the Blue Zones about the role of food in the larger spheres of life. For them, growing, preparing, serving and eating are all sacred practices with the power to bring their families, their homes, their communities, their beliefs and the natural world together in daily rhythms and harmonies, according to Buettner. Most of his research shows that centenarians living in Blue Zones tend to follow daily rituals around food and meals and these rituals help them stay the course for the long run. In fact, practicing them is one of the keys to their longevity and sustained happiness.
So, the takeaway for us living outside of the Blue Zones is that the success of these centenarians is not the result of discipline – it’s because they live in environments where it is easy for them to live healthily. For us, the message is that we should be curating a group of friends who are leading a healthy lifestyle. Don’t try to change your behavior, change your environment and your social network. “But don’t dump your old friends, that’s also not healthy,” adds Buettner.
Cooking meals at home is also important and eating at restaurants should be saved for celebrations, according to the book. Preparing meals where you live allows you to control the ingredients – choose those that are fresh and of the highest quality and avoid consuming the cheap fillers and flavor enhancers that end up in restaurant food. Even high-end restaurants typically pile on the butter and salt. Cooking can also be physical, because it nudges you into action by forcing you to stand, stir, mix, knead, chop and lift. All of this work counts more than you may realize, especially when compared to sitting down at a restaurant.
In Blue Zone Solutions, Buettner tells the story of how he watched 80-year-old Eleni Kohilas of Raches Christos on the Greek island of Ikaria.
“I had the pleasure of watching her make bread one afternoon and realized that I might have been witnessing the true explanation of how Ikarian sourdough bread contributes to longevity.
“The process started the night before baking day, when Kohilas walked to her neighbor’s house to procure a small piece of dough. This exchange, of course, involved a half-hour conversation. After walking home, Kohilas mixed water, flour and salt with the starter and kneaded the new dough for about a half hour – a full-body workout that engaged shoulder, arm and core muscles.
“The following day, Kohilas cut wood, stoked a fire in the outdoor oven and tended the fire until it reached baking temperature. By lunchtime, she had six steaming loaves of delicious, healthy bread – and a two-hour workout under her belt. She’d burned enough calories to equal her first four slices.
“For an 80-year-old woman, the workout was not to be overlooked,” says Buettner.
Meanwhile, it’s also important to elevate the act of eating to a social event that helps you enjoy and digest your food better by making your meals a time of sharing and being together with friends and family.
“I’ve eaten countless meals with people in the Blue Zones and they were often three-hour affairs with a succession of many small dishes punctuated by toasts, stories, jokes and conversation. Mealtimes are celebrations, a time to give thanks, share stories, talk out problems and bond as a family,” says Buettner. “Eating as a family forces you to slow down, which makes it less likely that you will over-indulge.”
How you eat can also be as important as what you eat, according to the book. If you eat on your feet and on the run, or while driving, stress hormones can interfere with your digestion and degrade food metabolism. Eating quickly promotes over-eating, which, studies show, can double the risk of obesity. But at the same time, Buettner urges a balanced approach.
“If it makes you happy, then you shouldn’t give up that slice of pie at Thanksgiving, that piece of birthday cake or even that weekly steak. It may not be optimally healthy for you, but as residents of the Blue Zones have shown us, the body has some capacity to equalize after an occasional indulgence. The trick is painlessly finding that happy balance between.”
Text: J.H Ewing