Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Week 3: How to Live to be 100+ (just kidding)

Week 3 is going out a litte early given the upcoming ski weekend!

Distribution Source:
Content Source: Dan Buettner (National Geographic), Dean Ornish (USCF)
Format: Video
Length: 19 minutes, 39 seconds & 3 minutes, 14 seconds
Dan Buettner: How to Live to be 100+
Dean Ornish: Your Genes are not your Fate

The first two posts have stemmed from lectures and interviews posted to iTunesU. This week's source is; if you haven't visited TED I would highly recommend it. TED consists of a series of phenomenally interesting video lectures and in my opinion the tagline says it all - "TED: Ideas Worth Spreading." If I somehow manage to keep your attention for another few months I'm sure you will hear more from TED through this site.

When I hear titles similar to the one of this blog post, I think of either hokey "cure-all" pills for which you get weird email solicitations or crazy futurists like Ray Kurzweill who, while brilliant, don't exactly inspire me to take up their cause. So I was much more receptive to Dan Buettner's approach, who began his talk by telling us why you won't live to 100 and gave some common myths about aging. He basically said that we are not wired for aging, but rather for "procreative success." In other words, once you have children and your children have children, the effect of evolution dissipates and, well, we all know what happens next...

He counters this, however, by saying something that shocked me: his research suggests that 90% of longevity is not genetic! With the right approach and barring a freak accident, we could very much control our own longevity maximization. Of course this doesn't mean we all live to 100 (the overwhelming majority of us cannot), but it does mean that whatever our capacity is can be realized by the right choices - i.e., our fates are not written on the proverbial wall.

Here are two myths he gave on aging:

- If you try hard to live to 100, you can. He claims you have to live a very good lifestyle and hit the genetic lottery to accomplish this. But don't completely give up hope: he also notes that the 100 demographic is the fastest growing demographic in the US.

- Treatments exist to stop or slow aging. To this he says our bodies have 35 trillion cells (this is unfathomable to me), each of which turns itself over once every eight years. Every time there is a cell turnover degenaration occurs, and the rate of degeneration gets higher. In fact, someone who is 65 is aging at a rate that is 125 times faster than a 12 year old person! (apologies to the 60+ crowd; don't shoot the messenger...)

So given the morbid realization that we age at an increasingly faster rate and that most of us can't live to be 100, why should you keep reading? Because we can do much better than we currently are! According to Buettner, the average capacity of a human body is 90 years. But we all know that life expectancy is only 78 years... Why are we leaving 12 good years on the table? One approach is to look at areas around the world where people are living to be 100 years and older at up to a 20x greater rate than we are and where life expectancy is up to 12 years higher. Buettner calls these "Blue Zones" and identifies three of them:

The highlands of the Italian island of Sardinia has 10x more centurians than America. (sidebar: the video opens to an AWESOME clip in which one of the super old Italian guys crushes one of the camera staff in arm wrestling!) In general the residents of this area live on a plant-based diet. A key point seems to be how they treat their elders. Unlike in America, where finding a nursing home for your parents is treated the same as choosing your child's grade school (or if you live in Manhattan, pre-school), in Sardinia the older you are, the more respect you engender.

The Japanese island of Okinawa, 800 miles south of Tokyo is what Buettner calls the "ground zero" for longevity. This represents the longest disability-free lifestyle on the planet - on average seven years longer than Americans, with five times as many centurians. They also follow a mostly plant-based diet, and eat eight times as much tofu as Americans. Interestingly, he cites their strategic anti-binge eating culture as a major reason for longevity. Not only do they have smaller plates than Americans, they say our equivalent of a blessing before each meal which urges them to stop eating when they are 80% full. It is laughable to even consider this - or anything close to it - happening in my hometown of Houston, Texas. The culture also dictates a group of close, lifelong friends called a "moi." Some mois have average ages of 102, and have been together for decades. Another key difference from Americans relates to our focus on working incredibly hard and then retiring. In Okinawa there is literally no word for retirement. The Japanese culture also dictates that everyone has a "ikigai," translated as "something important one lives for." Of the centurians Buettner interviewed, one woman's ikigai was her great, great, great granddaughter. Another caught fish for his family each day.

Buettner's team also found an American blue zone, which, surprisngly to me was a large, 70,000 person Seventh Day Adventist congregation in southern California. The average age of women in the congregation is 89 (vs. 80 in the general US population), while the average age of males was 87 (vs. 76 in the general US population). The congregation is heterogeneous, so what they share is not genetic, but rather their process and lifestyle. The Church recognizes Friday night to Saturday night as the Sabbath, giving the congregation 24 hours of sanctuary time per week. They look to the Bible for their diet, take many nature walks, and do not use any drugs or drink alcohol.

So what were the similarities between the three Blue Zones? Buettner's team found a few:

- They all move naturally - none of them "exercise" the way we think of exercising (going to the gym, buying a treadmill, etc.), but all have activities in their regular lives that involve movement. Most do not have many conveniences and choose to do their own chores; many also keep their own gardens.

- Each group has a positive outlook - all have a method for down-shifting thir lives or "de-stressing." Slowing down for even 15 minutes per day can apparently turn back inflammatory responses induced by stress.

- All have and use language related to a purpose-driven life.

- All eat wisely, but have no real diet. Many drink wine, most have a plant-based slant, and most prevent overeating.

- Each values meaningful, regular connection with others. Family and friends come first; these are faith based communities where people belong to a tribe of similar people.

After watching this video, I was fascinated but wanted to learn more, particularly about the impact of your genetics vs. your choices in life. I came upon Dean Ornish's video, which in fact claims that your genes are not your fate. His message was simple: when you eat healthier, manage stress, exercise and love more, your brain gets more blood flow and oxygen. This is not particularly new or interesting. What is incredible to me is his claim that your brain also gets measurably bigger! His studies found that walking for three hours per week for only three months caused so many new neurons go grow it actually increased the size of people's brains! He then put a list of those inputs that increase - and decrease - brain cell count.

Those that increase include, fortunately, things I like (with the exception of the last one, of course... hey, it's a family blog):

- chocolate
- tea
- blueberries
- alcohol (moderate)
- stress management
- cannabinoids

Those that decrease brain cells include:

- saturated fat
- sugar
- nicotine
- opiates
- cocaine
- alcohol (excess)
- chronic stress

Dean Ornish concludes by saying that when you are healthier it isn't just your brain that benefits, your skin gets more blood flow (causing less aging), your heart gets more blood flow (actually reversing heart disease) and tumor growth is inhibited.

It's clear to me after watching these videos and writing this summary that I don't live as healthy a lifestyle as I can and should. Incidentally, my other new year's resolution (the first being the writing of this blog) is to on the margin pick the healthier option on the menu in 2010. Maybe I'll also work up the guts to send my boss a link to this post the next time I want to go to the gym but have too much work...


  1. Counterargument:

    You're not really alive to begin with if you aren't living with:

    -saturated fat
    -alcohol (excess)
    -chronic stress

  2. You should start a blog...