A little over a century ago, life expectancy in the USA was 48 years for women and 46 for men. In 2004, it was 80 and 75, respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Life expectancy rates vary widely internationally, but most nations have shown dramatic increases, some more than the USA. Japanese women, for example, were expected to live 85.6 years and men, 78.6 years in 2004, according to the United Nations Demographic Yearbook. The CDC attributes higher life expectancy rates to better sanitation, improved access to health care, advances in medicine, healthier life styles and better health before age 65.
There’s a lot of controversy about why life expectancy in the USA is lower than Japan and many other nations, when our cost of health care is so much higher. The United Nations rated the USA #38 between 2005- 2010, behind Cuba and the CIA ranked the USA #50 in 2011, right behind Portugal.
Many attribute the problem in the USA to preventable lifestyle-related chronic diseases, like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In my last article on longevity, I talked about how stress shortens cell life. Stress also contributes to metabolic syndrome, which is defined as 3 or more of 5 risk factors for chronic diseases: high glucose, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDL, and large waist to hip ratio.
Lifestyle changes can be the most difficult for people to make, especially when they have become longstanding habits. Often it takes a health crisis before we realize that if we want to live longer, we have to make some changes. It can help to know some of the secrets to living longer, so we can start with changes that are easiest to make first. This can vary for different people. Let’s look at some of these secrets.
Secrets of the Blue Zones
In his international best seller, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, author Dan Buettner writes about select geographic locations where people seem to be outliving the rest of the world. Buettner says they’re healthier as well, suffering fatal diseases affecting the rest of the world at remarkably lower rates. Among these blue zones are Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and yes, even one place in the USA, Loma Linda, California.
Buettner notes the following lifestyle characteristics shared by these people, who have a higher rate of centenarians than other areas of the world:
• Family first.
• Typically they don’t smoke.
• Food comes primarily from plants.
• Constant moderate physical activity.
• Socially active.
• Eat legumes regularly – soybeans, peanuts, peas, lentils, etc.
The Centenarian Studies
There have been “centenarian studies” in several countries trying to determine the secrets of living to 100. One centenarian study site observed the following about the oldest Americans: “Consistent with our hypothesis that centenarians markedly delay or even escape age-associated diseases (e.g. heart attack, stroke, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease), we noted that 90 percent of them were functionally independent the vast majority of their lives up until the average age of 92 years and 75 percent were the same at an average age of 95 years.”
In today’s world, many people in their 90s and beyond commonly use the internet, e-mail, cell phone, and even smartphones and iPads. Staying independent and keeping up with the world is very typical of those who live long lives, say experts.
Although many characteristics of centenarian study participants vary widely, including education, wealth, religion, ethnicity and diet, others are shared:
• Few are obese. Men are usually lean.
• Substantial smoking history is rare.
• A preliminary study suggests they handle stress better than the majority of people.
• 30 percent had no significant changes in thinking abilities.
• Exceptional longevity runs strongly in their families.
Although some sources give a higher figure for the number of people 100 years or older in the U.S., the highly regarded and ongoing New England Centenarian Study last put it at approximately 40,000 – 85 percent of them women and 15 percent men. The study notes that centenarians comprise the fastest growing age group in the United States.
Then there’s the venerable group of people known as supercentenarians. “Supercentenarians, people age 110 years old and older, are extremely rare individuals,” the study’s Web site notes. “There are likely 60 or so in the United States and 200-300 worldwide.”
Can Living More From the Heart Help?
I often noted while growing up that many elderly people became sweeter and kinder as they aged. I used to enjoy being with them as they were genuinely interested in me and appreciative of life. Even if they’d lived through wars and lost children, they seemed to take the ups and downs of life less seriously than adults my parents’ age. As a child, I instinctively withdrew from grumpy and complaining elderly people. I thought something terrible must have happened in their lives, and they must be very depressed and lonely. I hoped that I would be kind and appreciative when I was older.
A longitudinal study on Alzheimer’s disease and the aging process, called the Nun Study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, looked at positive emotions in early life and longevity. The autobiographies of 180 nuns were assessed for emotional content and related to survival during the ages of 75 to 95. The study found that, “Positive emotional content in early life autobiographies was strongly associated with longevity 6 decades later.”
Increasingly, experts are finding that positive emotions do a lot more than simply make us feel good or get along better with others. In fact, having more positive emotions can help us gain new perspectives and change habits we simply don’t have the optimism or energy to change when we’re feeling stressed.
Significant success also has been achieved when people with a range of medical issues, including some types of diabetes and heart problems, depression, sleeplessness and obesity, intentionally practice increasing positive emotions, according to case studies.
HeartMath has conducted numerous scientific studies using heart-rate variability analysis to assess the effects of positive emotions, such as appreciation, caring and love, and found that increasing the amount of time that we experience these emotions has a significant positive impact on health, well-being and cognitive function. At a biological level the process of experiencing an emotion is both biochemical and neurological. It involves the heart, brain, nervous and hormonal systems.
We developed techniques at HeartMath to help people bring the heart, brain and nervous system into alignment, which makes shifting into a positive emotional state easier. With a little practice using the HeartMath techniques, you can to learn how to engage the power of your heart and change how you are feeling. You change your own internal pharmacy, feeling better more often, which can increase your motivation to live healthier and live longer.