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Here are some life-enhancing habits from communities where people live the longest


A new Netflix series brings to life a decadeslong exploration of longevity. The highest concentration of people who live to 100 are found in some of the most far-flung parts of the Earth, on islands and in mountain villages. And as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, at a time when life expectancy in the U.S. has taken a dip, there's a lot we can learn from the habits of these centenarians.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: One of the most counterintuitive things about the men and women who thrive into their 90s and beyond is that they're not really trying to be healthy. Here's National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner, who identified five places around the globe with the highest concentration of centenarians. He calls them blue zones.

DAN BUETTNER: People in blue zones - they're not thinking about their diet or an exercise program. They're not doing anything except living their lives.

AUBREY: Lots of blue zoners live on islands. There's Sardinia off the coast of Italy, Ikaria, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, and Okinawa, a chain of islands a thousand miles from Tokyo. One of the things they all have in common is the way they eat - simple foods they tend to cook at home.

BUETTNER: The five pillars of any longevity diet in the world are whole grains, greens, regarding vegetables, tubers like sweet potatoes, nuts as a snack and then beans. About a cup of beans a day is associated with an extra four years of life expectancy.

AUBREY: They're not vegetarians, but they eat about 1/10 the amount of meat found in the typical American diet. There's a little cheese, a little fish, and they cook with lots of aromatic herbs and plants, often from their own gardens.

BUETTNER: It's the peasant food, but the important thing is they know how to make that peasant food taste delicious. And that's the secret.

AUBREY: When it comes to exercise, they don't go to the gym. They build movement into their daily lives. Take their gardens. Food isn't just a source of nourishment. The act of gardening keeps them bending and squatting and using their muscles.

BUETTNER: You have a garden. It nudges you to weed and water and harvest almost every day.

AUBREY: Now, most of us don't have the luxury of living in temperate climates amid turquoise waters and sugar sand beaches. But there are some insights we can borrow - for example, how blue zoners maintain strength as they age.

BUETTNER: In Okinawa, people sit on the floor. They sit on tatami mats, on very low tables. I sat for two days with a 104-year-old woman who got up and down off the floor 30 times. Those are squats. That makes stronger, lower bodies. It makes for better balance. It makes for more open hips and flexibility, probably healthier backs and much fewer falls.

AUBREY: Another insight - people in blue zones tend to form tight social bonds. They stick together and have a slower pace of life. In Okinawa, their social circles, called Moais, are small. And on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, the foundation is the church.

BUETTNER: They tend to be Catholic, so they show up to church. Festivals are a priority. And they rely on each other still. People aren't alone in blue zones. I met a 109-year-old woman named Conchita (ph) who - every day, her 85-year-old son biked over to her house, and the children came by and helped her with their chickens. In return, she cooked them some beans and some rice. And there's this beautiful symbiosis.

AUBREY: That keeps communities woven together. Part of it is out of necessity. These villages are isolated and far removed from the connectivity and convenience of modern life. Now, this way of life in these remote communities will fade as populations dwindle. But before they do, Buettner says, there are a lot of elements we can emulate.

BUETTNER: Walking instead of driving, making the effort to get off of Facebook and getting real face time with other people, taking the time to know your sense of purpose and put it into action, either as volunteering or helping your family out, taking the time to cook your own food. These are time-honored patterns that we see in five blue zones across the world measurably yielding longer lives.

AUBREY: And it's not just years. It's health span, too, when the goal is to live better, not just longer. This combination of good food, good friends, physical activity and a sense of purpose - it's a recipe within our reach. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAC MILLER SONG, "DANG!") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey
Allison Aubrey is a Washington-based correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She has reported extensively on the coronavirus pandemic since it began, providing near-daily coverage of new developments and effects. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.