Long lives

Thursday, April 22, 2010

April 22, 2010

Dear Julie,

Last week, DC's sister flew in from San Diego and her brother and other sister arrived from elsewhere in Missouri to surprise DC and her father for their birthdays. He turned 87, she was about to trip the 60 wire.

Longevity is in our families. All our parents are mostly healthy into their 80s.

Most people make something of their 21st and 30th and 50th birthday milestones, but 60 might be the big one. Maybe it's because you know without doubt you've crested the hill that represents your life. The valley spreads out before you. How do you want life in the valley to be?

In his book "The Blue Zones," Dan Buettner writes about communities throughout the world where many more people than usual live to be 100. The one in America is the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, 50 miles east of smoggy and traffic-jammed Los Angeles. Like an explorer he also investigated rampant longevity on the Italian island of Sardinia, on Okinawa and on a Costa Rican peninsula called Nicoya.

He found common denominators in all of these communities, which literally or figuratively are islands in the storm of modern life. One is that people who live a long time remain physically active. They don't compete in marathons, but walking and perhaps gardening often are part of their lives.

At meals they don't eat until they're full. They eat until they're no longer hungry. The result is they consume 20 percent fewer calories than otherwise. Their biggest meals are breakfast or lunch. Supper is light.

Because in Genesis 1:29 God said every plant yielding seed and every tree with fruit yielding seed "shall be food for you," strict Adventists are vegetarians. But far from everyone in the Blue Zones is. They just eat much less meat than the average American does and consume "longevity foods" like nuts and tofu instead.

Red wine in moderation, a glass or perhaps two a day, lowers heart-disease rates for people in Blue Zones.

Those are the physical and dietary keys to longevity, but they are not the whole picture. People who live long lives have a reason to get up every morning, a sense of purpose. They remain passionate about something or someone.

They also have found ways to relieve stress. As much as possible they eschew the noisiness of modern life, including the constant blather of television, they arrive for appointments early and they make a space in their home where they can just sit. Call it meditation, call it quiet time.

The final three lessons of "The Blue Zones" are about being part of a community and a family. People who live long lives are connected to other people. They are part of a spiritual community, they put their families first and they surround themselves with like-minded friends.

They're likable. Not a single grouch could be found among the centenarians Buettner interviewed.

As her 60th birthday approached, DC made a list of all the things she doesn't want in her life anymore. She has not revealed them to me yet, but one came up when she wanted to watch a DVD in the living room and couldn't remember the unnecessarily complicated sequence of buttons that must be pushed to start the DVD. She doesn't want to deal with that frustration anymore.

Our friends usually throw each other a birthday party, but DC became tired of the hoopla. She told them all she wanted for her birthday was for her husband to stop discarding his dental floss on the coffee table.

My own longevity could depend on that.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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