Living longer and better: Two approaches

I’m not a big fan of parallel reading; That is, reading two books at one time. (It’s especially problematic with fiction: How come Babs, a happily married mother of three, is suddenly living with a family of anteaters in a South American rainforest?) But I’m finding it insightful in the case of “Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond” and “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.”

Both books look at living long, active lives, and both books come at it from a cultural perspective, albeit considerably different cultural perspectives. “Younger Next Year” says anyone — from bored retiree to stressed-out exec — can live a long, active life provided they do an hour of vigorous exercise a day. “The Blue Zones” visits four cultures around the world that have a disproportionate population of centenarians and where people generally live longer and live more actively late into their long lives. “The Blue Zones” concurs with “Younger Next Year” — stay active, you’ll live longer. Though in the case of the latter, that active living isn’t in the form of contrived exercise, it’s in the form of rigorous vocations — from farming to sheep herding — that force a body to stay active to survive.

“The Blue Zones,” as I’m discovering — I’m only 59 pages into it — looks more into the total lifestyle package. The book is the work of Dan Buettner, who became intrigued by why people in certain geographic regions live longer. With the backing of National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging, he assembled a team that visited four areas where people tend to live long, active lives: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, Calif.; and the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. His team descended on these communities and conducted extensive interviews with centenarians, their families and their friends to determine why these people outlive the average Earthling.

So far, active living has emerged as a key factor. A couple other commonalities among the four cultures have emerged so far as well, ones that people in my position — between permanent employment gigs — can incorporate into their lifestyles fairly easily.

One is that people who live long and prosper share a “sense of social connectedness.” Writes Buettner: “Most people enjoy the company of other people, particularly other people who feel they care about them. That seems to give you a sense of well being, whether that raises your endorphin level or lowers your cortisol level. We don’t know why. People have looked for biological markers, and they haven’t been successful at finding them. But something happens that makes life more worthwhile. The days take on more meaning.”

Think about how even a simple exchange with a cashier that goes beyond your transaction can give a boost to your day, let alone having coffee once a week with your best friend, or lunch every month with favorite former co-worker.

Something else that makes us live longer: Doing something we feel is either interesting or worthwhile. It’s a very individual thing, writes Buettner. Some people are passionate about collecting comic books and feel that preserving the entire collection of “Too Much Coffee Man” comics is a worthy life mission. Others truly are committed to their work, and devoting 12 hours a day to it may not necessarily be a bad thing. For some, suggests “The Blue Zones,” it can add years to their lives.

Something more to think about as you contemplate the future.

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