I lost one of my childhood friends last month. In addition to the sense of grief, this is one of those events, like the death of a close relative, that force you to accept your own mortality.
I am also now at the age when I need to carefully evaluate my Social Security options. I always thought that this was simple, but now realize that I have dozens of somewhat confusing possibilities. There is much to consider in the decision, but perhaps the most critical variable is simply knowing how long you’re going to live. Like most of us, not only do I not know the answer to that question, I also don’t know how long I hope to live. I do know, though, that quality of life is far more important to me than quantity of life.
Over the last century, life expectancy in the United States has grown dramatically from 50 years to nearly 80 years. Improvements in medical care account for only a fraction of this increase, as public health advances, like sanitation and immunization, have contributed the most. This absolute difference may seem significant, but, because of the growth in chronic diseases, too many of these extra years are not good ones. What’s even more surprising, though, is that there exist some obscure places in the world where average lives are both longer and healthier than in our “modern” society.
In his book “The Blue Zones”, author Dan Buettner describes a few of these far flung areas of extreme longevity. Examples include a small corner of northwestern Sardinia, the Pacific island of Okinawa, and the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. These are obviously not regions where high tech health care and 21st-century culture are deeply embedded, but people in these diverse locations are much more likely to live an active life into their 90s and past 100 than anywhere else in the world. Although the genetic makeup of these populations may be partially responsible, it’s obvious that there is still much to learn from their behaviors that can help us enhance the length and meaning of our lives.
For instance, most residents in these “Blue Zones” engage in regular low-intensity physical activity, often as part of a daily work routine. Rather than exercising for the sake of exercising, they make their lifestyle active. They have also learned to stop eating when they are no longer hungry, rather than waiting until they “feel full.” This simple concept equates to taking in approximately 20 percent fewer calories in diets that consist primarily of fruits, vegetables and other unprocessed foods.
Another constant within these societies is the regular use of alcohol in moderation. A daily drink of beer or wine (preferably red) seems to confer health benefits and may create an “event” at meals, such that eating slowly and consuming less become the norm.
In general, these folks have found a sense of purpose and have a companion with whom to share that vision. They seem able to find serenity, have specific outlets to reduce stress, routinely give thanks for their good fortune, and literally do “stop and smell the roses.” They also know that learning something new has the potential to improve mental sharpness.
Finally, the combination of spirituality and closeness to family are common elements in all of these cultures. Together these qualities can serve to heighten connections to the present environment as well as mold perception of the afterlife and provide ongoing comfort, particularly during the twilight years.
Personally, I have no desire to live forever, but I also have no doubt that I will take more than a passing interest in these observations. When my time comes, as it just did for my old friend, I’m now confident that I won’t wish that I had gone into the office more often, but, rather, that I had done more to master life, like the “Blue Zoners,” by experiencing an abundance of simple pleasures and frequently performing quiet acts of service.
Dan Foster is a Charleston surgeon, a former state senator and a Gazette contributing columnist.