By Dr. Mercola
At a time when half the population in the U.S. is struggling with chronic illness and life expectancy is on the decline, the idea of living to 100 may seem like a pipedream to most. Yet, in many other areas, life expectancy is actually rising, and centenarians are far more commonplace than you might imagine.
In 2015, there were 679 people at or over the age of 100 living in Wales. Sardinia, which boasts the highest number of centenarians anywhere in the world, has 6 centenarians for every 3,000 people. That is literally 10 times more than in the U.S., where the ratio is 1 centenarian per 5,000.1
While you'd think most centenarians — people who have lived a century or longer — would advocate a certain diet, their longevity secrets typically center around social and emotional factors, such as expressing love, nurturing strong family and social ties, and being involved in your community. Centenarians also overwhelmingly cite stress as the most important thing to manage.
Centenarians Age Slower — But Why?
As previously noted by Israeli physician Dr. Nir Barzilai of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine:2
"The usual recommendations for a healthy life — not smoking, not drinking, plenty of exercise, a well-balanced diet, keeping your weight down — they apply to us average people. But not to them. Centenarians are in a class of their own."
The majority of centenarians do not feel their chronological age; on average, they report feeling 20 years younger. They also tend to have positive attitudes, optimism, a zest for life and a good sense of humor. As cheerfully noted by a centenarian in Sardinia, the secret to living to 100 is to "not die before then."
Or as Doris, 105, says, "Living is easy — if you're willing to do it. People [say] life is awful to live. I don't think so. It's what you make it. If you want to make it a good life, it's up to you." Could it be that personality characteristics and world views play a more significant role than genetics, diet or exercise? Based on years of data from studying centenarians, Barzilai reports that when analyzing the data from his particular pool of centenarians, at age 70:
- 37 percent were overweight; 8 percent were obese
- 37 percent were smokers (for an average of 31 years)
- 44 percent reported only moderate exercise and 20 percent never exercised at all
Despite this, centenarians as a population have lower rates of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure. Depression and other psychiatric illnesses are almost nonexistent. Barzalai is quick to emphasize you should not disregard the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices (such as keeping your insulin level low). He explains:
"Today's changes in lifestyle do in fact contribute to whether someone dies at the age of 85 or before age 75. But in order to reach the age of 100, you need a special genetic makeup. These people age differently. Slower. They end up dying of the same diseases that we do — but 30 years later and usually quicker, without languishing for long periods."
Food Then, and Now
It's well worth noting that our diet has undergone enormous changes just in the past 50 years or so. An individual celebrating their 100th birthday today was raised on a very different diet than a child born now, or even a few decades ago. I believe these differences are a major reason why people in their 30s and 40s are struggling to stay alive today while centenarians seem more or less impervious to health issues that plague the rest of us.
Public dietary guidelines, issued for the first time in the U.S. in 1980,3 have also done a great deal of harm by leading the entire population down the wrong path, diet-wise. The guidelines have even had international ramifications, as nations that don't have the resources and scientific expertise to duplicate the process simply model their own guidance after the U.S.
In 1965, Americans ate about 40 percent of their calories as carbohydrates, and another 40 percent of their calories came from fat.4 The first edition guidelines issued in 1980 called for a diet lower in fat and higher in carbohydrates, and by 2010, Americans had brought their fat consumption below 35 percent, and increased carbohydrates to 55 to 65 percent. The advice to eat a carb-based diet low in saturated fats has been followed ever since, and the results have been devastating.
Skyrocketing obesity and type 2 diabetes rates are a direct result of following these recommendations, as are rising rates of heart disease. Today, overwhelming amounts of evidence show sugar, especially fructose, and hydrogenated vegetable oils are primary drivers of metabolic dysfunction and disease — the very ingredients we've been told to load up on for the past 37 years.
What Are You Eating, Really?
To that you also have to add the rise of genetically engineered (GE) food, which started with the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994.5 The first insecticide-producing crop was approved in 1995, followed by the first herbicide-resistant crops in 1996,6 after which pesticide use skyrocketed and health statistics took a nosedive.
In terms of diet, today's centenarians have had a clear and distinct advantage. To put it bluntly, they were not raised on artificial crap. For the first 50 or 60 years of their life — the majority of a lifetime for most of us — they ate real food, and when it comes to creating a foundation for health, I can think of little that can compete with a whole food, unadulterated, non-GMO diet.
Perhaps this is why so few commonalities in terms of specific food choices can be found among centenarians. As noted in the documentary, most say they eat a bit of everything, including home-baked sweets and foods commonly shunned, like cheese and eggs (which are actually really healthy for you).
In Sardinia, which has the highest percentage of centenarians in the world, there are to this day no major grocery stores selling processed food and no takeout or fast food restaurants. Households grow their own fruits and vegetables, and food is always prepared fresh, from scratch.
This is what you would call a major clue. Another clue: The locale forces daily walking, and lots of it, up and down steep, sloping cobbled streets and hills. The Sardinian culture also favors socializing, which is another major, if not the most important, longevity factor.
What About Limiting Animal Protein?
Although the above video does not go into this, Dr. Steven Gundry's new book, "The Plant Paradox," has some compelling information about the value of limiting your animal protein intake to 2 to 3 ounces a few times a week to increase longevity. I believe this is solid advice and this is my typical strategy. I am convinced most of us eat far too much protein and it's wise to replace most animal protein with safe fish like sardines and anchovies, and even then limit total protein to 30 to 60 grams depending on your lean body mass.
Gundry reviews how cattle, pigs and sheep all carry a sugar called Neu5Gc, which your immune system recognizes as foreign when you eat their meat. There is significant data suggesting that when your immune system is exposed to the foreign sugar molecule Neu5Gc from red meat, you develop an antibody to the lining of your own blood vessels. A radically reduced intake of animal protein could explain some of the longevity advantages.
An Active Life and Social Support — Keys to Longevity Gleaned From Centenarians
Failing to find any specific dietary influence (aside from the fact they've been eating real food for most of their life), what have researchers found when mining the minds of centenarians for clues to their longevity? In interviews and surveys with centenarians, including the ones interviewed in "How to Live to 100," the following themes dominate:7
Keeping a positive attitude and a sense of humor
Strong social network of family and friends
Exercising moderately but regularly (walking, biking, gardening and swimming, for example)
Clean living (such as not smoking or drinking excessively)
Faith/spirituality/having a sense of purpose in life
Staying mentally active and always learning something new
An active lifestyle with (often hard) physical work and/or lots of walking
Indeed, the importance of social support, which most centenarians give credit to for their longevity, has been scientifically verified. As noted in the documentary, an American meta-analysis of published studies found strong social support is the No. 1 factor that determines longevity and survival. The influence of social support on mortality is so great, it surpasses the influence of weight and even eclipses the influence of smoking!
Rx for a Long Life: Joy
Happiness is another factor. Research confirms happy people live longer8,9 — about 35 percent longer, according to one study.10 So it's no surprise that centenarians are a happy and optimistic lot. Positive thoughts and attitudes seem to somehow do things in your body that strengthen your immune system, boost positive emotions, decrease pain and provide stress relief.
In fact, it's been scientifically shown that happiness can affect your genetic expression. A team of researchers at UCLA showed that people with a deep sense of happiness and well-being had lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and stronger antiviral and antibody responses.11
Indeed, while part of your longevity may depend on the DNA you were born with, an even larger part depends on epigenetics, over which you have a great deal of control. Your diet, physical activity, environmental exposures, thoughts and emotions all exert epigenetic influences every minute of the day, playing a central role in aging and disease.12
What Does Money Have to Do With It?
As noted by Chiappa, a common belief is that money has an influence on longevity. If you're more affluent, you can afford to buy all the things that bring you health, right? Wrong. There's not a shred of evidence to suggest this is true. On the contrary, living a "hard" life, meaning a life of physical activity, if not hard labor, preferably outdoors, is something most centenarians have in common.
Growing and/or eating fresh food, socializing with family and friends, appreciating life in general and cultivating a sense of purpose — a reason to get up every morning — are other commonalities that centenarians share, no matter where they live.
For many, the 21st century lifestyle is working against us, which means if you want to live to 100, you have to take proactive steps to not always take the easy way out, because "convenience" is largely what's killing us — from processed foods that (presumably) cut our time in the kitchen to elevators that let us skip the stairs, to cars that transport us from point A to point B, even if the latter is mere minutes away, to social media that gives us the illusion of socializing while ignoring the person sitting right in front of us.
The tools to live to 100 are available to everyone, everywhere, and they're really not complicated. But as Chiappa says, you have to implement them.