Age has been in the headlines during the COVID-19 pandemic, since older individuals, especially those with chronic conditions, are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus. Rather than feeling powerless to aging, we can instead focus on daily lifestyle choices that may not only add years to our lives, but vibrant, healthy and functional life to the years we live.
Modern medicine has increased life expectancy – over the past 100 years the global life expectancy has more than doubled. But, this has not necessarily been accompanied by an equivalent increase in healthy life expectancy. People are living longer but many of those years are burdened by chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. This is where it’s important to understand the difference between lifespan and healthspan. Lifespan is the total number of years we live whereas healthspan is how many of those years we remain healthy and free from disease.
Studies have shown that what we eat may be one of the most important lifestyle modifications any one of us can make to significantly increase our healthspan and add quality years of enjoyable life as we age.
My fascination with nutrition and healthspan began during my residency training, when I found myself living in Loma Linda, California – one of the world’s Blue Zones. The Blue Zones are five demographically confirmed, geographically defined areas around the world with the highest percentage of centenarians. These are places where people reach the age of 100 at roughly 10 times greater rates than in the United States as a whole. Blue Zone locations include: Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, California.
Genes are Only 20% of the Picture
Here’s the question: is the exceptional longevity in these Blue Zone populations hereditary? Well, it turns out only about 20 percent of how long we live is dictated by our genes, whereas the other 80 percent is dictated by our lifestyles. This means we have incredible power and control over our health in preventing chronic diseases and increasing our longevity.
Interestingly, demographers and researchers found that these populations shared several key lifestyle habits, one of which was a remarkable similarity in their diets. Here are some dietary characteristics shared by the Blue Zone populations:
- Greater than 90 percent plant based diet
- Emphasis on a wide variety of seasonal vegetables, fruits and whole grains
- Daily consumption of legumes – including beans, chickpeas and lentils – black beans in Nicoya, lentils and white beans in the Mediterranean, and soy beans in Okinawa
- Use meat only sparingly – as a small side or at a special occasion
- Avoidance of processed foods and refined sugars
- Water is the beverage of choice, with small amounts of tea, coffee or red wine in moderation
Nutrition as Prevention
These Blue Zones offer us a glimpse into what healthy aging can look like. Staying fit and healthy can help protect against the chronic diseases associated with aging that put us at increased risk for worse outcomes if we are exposed to COVID-19.
And our first step toward healthy aging can be as simple as changing what’s on our plate. Check out these recipes from our HealthSource blog for simple and nutritious ideas:
You can do this and turn back the clock, one bite at a time.
Erin Ostby, MD, is a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the University of Vermont Medical Center. She incorporates lifestyle and nutritional regimens into her treatment recommendations to enhance healthy gene expression and promote long-lasting, natural beauty from within.