In my Live to 100 series I’ve examined various places around the world (the Greek island of Ikaria, the Japanese island of Okinawa, Andorra, Spain, Australia and Iceland) where the population enjoys exceptional longevity and good health into old age, and for each place I extracted a list of rules for healthy living. Now I’m pulling these together to find out what’s common to all or most of these locations. In short, I am about to reveal to you the secret of longevity.
OK, here is the list:
1. Most importantly, live in a small, isolated community with traditional values. Ideally this would be the place you were born and where your family still lives. This seems to be the most common feature. I suggest three reasons for this:
- In small, isolated communities, people live less stressful lives. Strong family groupings provide support for the elderly.
- Lack of communicative disease. It’s well known that new towns, or cities with high population influx have much higher incidence of all kinds of diseases, including cancer.
- Small, homogeneous groupings are much more likely to create statistical blips. A large, diverse group of people will be unlikely to eat the same diet, follow the same kind of lifestyle, etc, and so they will tend to live an average lifespan, not an exceptional one.
2. Live in a hot, sunny climate. Spend a lot of time outdoors, playing sport, exercising, walking or gardening. Prefer physical activities to sedentary ones.
3. Drink a glass of wine every day. Drink two! Drink three! Not more than that though.
4. Drink a lot of tea and coffee. You really can’t drink too much of it.
5. Eat a lot of fruit and vegetables and fish or seafood. Avoid meat, dairy and processed food. A Mediterranean or Japanese diet would be a good place to start. Add in extra vegetables, especially green ones.
6. Take a relaxed attitude to life. Get up when you want to, go to bed when you feel tired, take a siesta after lunch. Don’t work too hard.
7. Stay active and work in old age. If you have to retire, work in your garden.
Factors that don’t seem to matter include:
1. Health spending doesn’t seem to be a relevant factor. Neither do employment rates, income or education levels.
2. Smoking rates also don’t seem to be a big factor. Surprisingly, in 4 of the 7 countries with the highest life expectancy, smoking rates are above average and in some cases very high. Andorra is both the smoking capital of the world and also its longevity capital. Odd.
3. Clean air and water. Some of the countries on the list have high levels of pollution. I’m not talking about cholera in the water, but high levels of pollution from traffic and other sources.
So that’s 7 factors that seem to be important, and 3 that don’t. But this is hardly science. I’ve just looked at a few countries and discovered anecdotal evidence.
The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development) has identified the following five factors as contributing to life expectancy:
- Alcohol consumption
- Physical activity
- Per capita health spending
But the OECD’s own data doesn’t necessarily back this up. Here are some graphs I created from the OECD’s own data.
First up, smoking. This shows how life expectancy depends on the percentage of the population that smokes:
Can you see any pattern here? Because I can’t. This tallies with the anecdotal evidence that smoking has no observable effect on life expectancy. I am not seeing anything that suggests that smoking shortens life expectancy.
What to make of this? There’s abundant evidence that smoking increases the risk of all kinds of diseases. Some research indicates that smoking reduces life expectancy by 10 years. But it doesn’t show up at all in these OECD statistics. I just don’t know why that is. Tip – play safe, don’t smoke.
Next, drinking. Medical wisdom says that moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of heart disease but increases the risk of cancer. High alcohol consumption increases both risks. Since heart disease is the biggest killer, moderate alcohol consumption would be expected to increase life expectancy. Here’s what the OECD data shows:
I don’t see a very strong correlation, but there’s possibly a decline in life expectancy for very high and very low levels of alcohol consumption.
I also plotted a graph of wine consumption (as opposed to total alcohol):
This seems to indicate that wine is more beneficial than beer or spirits. In fact, it looks like the more wine you drink the longer you live. But caution is required here. High wine consumption is correlated with a Mediterranean diet, so it’s perhaps not just the wine that’s improving health. Tip – drink wine, but not to excess.
Obesity. Easy one. Live fat, die young. But the OECD data isn’t as compelling as you might think:
This next one’s interesting. Per capita health spend:
If the spend is less than around $2,500 per person per year, then increasing health spending has a dramatic effect on life expectancy. But beyond this point, increased health spending seems to have little or no effect. It might make your stay in hospital more pleasant, but you won’t necessarily live any longer.
I also checked the effect of hours of sunshine on longevity. Here’s the graph:
I can’t see any correlation here.
Summary – how to live to 100
- Live in a small, traditional community, ideally an island, where you were born and where your family lives.
- Enjoy an outdoor lifestyle with plenty of exercise and as much physical activity as possible. A hot, sunny climate will help with this.
- Continue to work and stay active as you get older.
- Drink a moderate amount of wine – perhaps a glass or two every day.
- Drink plenty of tea and coffee – several cups of each every day.
- Eat a lot of fruit and vegetables (especially greens) and fish or seafood. Avoid meat, dairy and processed food. Grow your own food if possible.
- Don’t smoke. Despite the lack of evidence here, I’m absolutely sure that smoking is not beneficial!
- Ensure that you have access to adequate healthcare.
- Relax and enjoy life!