My grandmother passed away almost exactly a month ago. She died at the tender age of 93, and she lived a long and full life. Out of my 4 grandparents, she lived the longest. In fact, she was the oldest person I knew. I am amazed that she lived nearly 100 years, and more so that she did not have any chronic conditions and did not have to take any type of medication on a regular basis. Only in the last month and a half did she require medical attention due to a broken hip. Other than that, she was healthy. Given my interest in health and wellness, I wanted to search further into what could have contributed to her being able to live such a long life.
Interesting Statistics on Life Expectancy
I started by looking into statistics on life expectancy. Life expectancy (LE) is defined as “the number of years a person of a given age, gender, race, or ethnic group can expect to live” (Schlenker & Roth, 2011, p. 297). In the past few decades LE has increased due to improvements in healthcare, sanitation, and standards of living, resulting in a larger older population than there has been before (Schlenker & Roth, 2011). In the United States (US) it is expected that the growth rate for people aged 65 and above will be over 3 times higher than that of other age groups (Mahan, Escott-Stump, & Raymond, 2012). The average American lives 78.2 years, although there are over 70,000 Americans who are over 100 years old (Buettner, 2016)
Women tend to live longer than men, and the older population consists of more women than men (Mahan et al., 2012). But, women also tend to report worse health when compared to men. It is believed that since women have longer longevity, they fare worse in their health, and have a lower healthy life expectancy.
Studies on Life Expectancy Reveal More Interesting Statistics
Next, I looked into studies that dealt with longevity and LE. I found a study conducted in Canada in 2010 that looked at the health LE data of 40 European countries, as well as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The data indicated that women had on average a 6.3 year longer LE than men (Luy & Minagawa, 2014). Also, women had 4.7 years longer healthy LE than men. Interestingly, when considering the number of years spent in health and the total number of years spent alive, women spent on average 14.3% of their lives in poor health, compared to 13.3% for men (Luy & Minagawa, 2014). For both genders, those who had a longer LE at birth also had a lower healthy LE and spent a greater portion of their lives in poor health. However, it was evident that women lived longer despite their poorer health.
One possible explanation indicated that women generally suffered from less severe or lethal illnesses when compared to men. For example, women suffered from arthritis and chronic allergies in a higher proportion than men, whereas men suffered more frequently from conditions with higher mortality rates, such as heart disease (Luy & Minagawa, 2014).
Studies on Factors That Impact Longevity
The statistics are interesting, but they did not reveal anything new about my grandmother. She lived longer than my grandfather, and she suffered from osteoporosis, but not any severe or life-threatening conditions. I decided to look into what could have contributed to her longevity.
One study I found looked at the impact of several factors on longevity. The study recognized that lifestyle, dietary habits, and intake of drugs influenced longevity by 40% (Zielinski, 2014). It added that genetic predisposition accounted for 30%, social circumstances for 15%, medical treatment for 10%, and environmental exposure for 5% (Zielinski, 2014). The study argued that although economic status was not cited as an influencer of longevity, it did affect most of the factors, with the exception of genetic predisposition.
This and the other studies I found helped shed some light on conditions of the aging population. It is clear that maintaining healthy lifestyle habits, with proper nutrition and minimal consumption of drugs or other unhealthy substances support increased longevity. But, what exactly is a healthy lifestyle for longevity? And, how did this impact my grandmother?
Are Blue Zones The Key to Longevity?
This took me to one of the modules I took at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, which included a lecture by Dan Buettner. Dan Buettner is a researcher for National Geographic (n.d.) who has spent the last number of years studying longevity and has written a few books on the subject. He founded Blue Zones, an organization that compiles the major highlights of his findings, and helps people, communities, and organizations become healthier.
I visited the website, and found that he lists 9 factors that are common to all the communities he found around the world where people live longer, happier, and healthier, and he calls these factors the Power 9® (Buettner, 2016). Buettner has found 5 communities that have the highest number of people aged 100 or more, and these are in the Barbagia region of Sardinia; in Ikaria, Greece; in the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; amongst a group of Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California in the US; and in Okinawa, Japan.
The Power 9® include to 1) “move naturally”, not through exercise but through daily activity around the house or at work; 2) have a “purpose” that gives you a reason to wake up every morning; 3) “down shift”, which means to have a means to reduce or release stress; 4) follow the “80% rule” and stop eating when you feel 80% full; 5) “plant slant,” where plants are a majority of the protein source in the diet, and animal sources are a minority of the protein source in the diet 6) have “wine at 5” or essentially drink 1-2 servings of alcohol daily (and binge drinking on the weekend does not count); 7) “belong” to a community; 8) put “loved ones first,” and have aging adults living at home, particularly close to children; and 9) have the “right tribe” or a supportive social network (Buettner, 2016).
Coming back to my grandmother, I feel that in her own way she fulfilled most of the Power 9® criteria, and this is why she was able to live as long as she did. She did not live in one of the 5 communities discovered by Buettner, but I do not think that is what matters. What does matter is that, albeit unintentionally, she followed a lot of the same behaviors that centegenerians, or people who live over 100 years have followed. 1) My grandmother moved a lot naturally. She was always active and doing something, yet I do not think she exercised a day in her life. When she was younger, it was hard to get her to rest. Even in her later years, when she had more difficulty walking, to the dismay of those around her, she braved the stairs if her heart desired. 2) My grandmother’s purpose and what got her out of bed every morning was taking care of her family. She took care of my grandfather when he was alive, and raised my mother and my 4 aunts and uncle, as well as one of my cousins. 3) My grandmother had a strong faith and was a devout Hindu. She prayed daily, and I believe this faith and religious practice helped her to down shift and release stress. 4) I am not sure if my grandmother ate until she was 80% full, but what I am certain of is that she ate little. Not only did she fast on a regular basis, but she also put the needs of others before her own. She fed everyone else before she ate herself, and I am certain she did not overeat. 5) My grandmother was a life-long vegetarian, so she absolutely had a plant slant, and perhaps took it further than Buettner’s advice to eat a minimal amount of meat, since she did not eat any meat at all. 6) Having alcohol daily is one criteria my grandmother did not meet. She was a teetotaler. 7) My grandmother was part of a Hindu community, and she prayed daily and participated in religious celebrations. 8) Loved ones definitely came first, and she was lucky to have lived with my cousin, his wife, and his son until she passed. After my aunts and uncle left home to make their own lives, my cousin stayed at home with her and took care of her. Not only was she able to surround herself with the energy of his youth, but later on with his wife’s youth, and for the last 12 years, with her great grandson, my cousin’s 12-year-old son. She was constantly surrounded by youth. 9) Finally, my grandmother received social visits frequently, if not daily, and was supported by the right tribe and social network.
I was not lucky enough to spend too much time with my grandmother. I only saw her during my visits to India, and in fact, the last time I saw here was 2 years ago. When I was a child I was able to be travel to India every year and stay for longer periods of time, often several weeks at a time. But, I was not able to continue to visit for as long or as often as an adult. I loved her dearly and will miss her deeply. All I can do now is cherish her memory. I aspire to live as long and have as healthy a life as she did.
Buettner, D. (2016). Power 9® –reverse engineering longevity. Blue Zones. Retrieved on April 24, 2017 from https://www.bluezones.com/2016/11/power-9/
Luy, M. & Minagawa, Y. (2014). Gender gaps- life expectancy and proportion of life in poor health. Health Reports, 25(12), 12-19. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-003-x/2014012/article/14127-eng.pdf
Mahan, L. K., Escott-Stump, S., & Raymond, J. L. (2012). Krause’s Food and The Nutrition Care Process (13th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders.
National Geographic. (n.d.). Dan Buettner. Explorers. Retrieved on April 24, 2017 from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/dan-buettner/
Schlenker, E. D. & Roth, S. L. (2011). Williams’ Essentials of Nutrition and Diet Therapy- Revised Reprint (10th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby.
Zielinski, A. (2014). Ageing individuals and ageing populations. Przegl Epidemiol, 68(3), 399 – 404. Retrieved from http://www.przeglepidemiol.pzh.gov.pl/pobierz-artykul?id=1802
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