The lessons we can learn from 100-year-olds

8 July 2012
The Times and The Sunday Times

Are we living in the age of the “oldie”? Recently, many “old people” seem to be thriving. This is particularly striking in the entertainment world. At 76, film-maker and comedian Woody Allen is enjoying his biggest commercial success, 74-year-old Ridley Scott has just directed one of the summer’s most expensive blockbusters, Prometheus, and, in the art world, 79-year-old Yoko Ono is enjoying more critical acclaim for her art than ever with a new show at the Serpentine Gallery. Even in the sporting arena, the old are still competing; this month, Arthur Gilbert (no relation) became the oldest athlete to complete a triathlon at the age of 91. In other spheres, it’s clear that old people like Warren Buffet and Nelson Mandela playing pivotal roles in the worlds of business and politics.

This said, old people get a largely negative press; scarcely a day goes by without some dreary headline about our “ageing population”. When I’ve canvassed people about whether they want to live to a hundred, many of them have reacted with horror, saying they couldn’t think of anything worse. Being old in our culture is tantamount to being “diseased”. For all the success of some high-profile pensioners, we’re largely a youth-obsessed nation, yearning for all the perceived benefits of being young.

That was why it was so refreshing to encounter an American-based movement, Blue Zones which promotes the benefits of growing old. Based on the best-selling book, Blue Zones – Lessons for Living Longer From People Who’ve Lived the Longest by National Geographic writer Dan Buettner, the movement is popular because it reassures us that we shouldn’t be frightened of growing old. Buettner’s research took him to what he dubs “Blue Zones”, areas in the world where people live disproportionately longer than others. He travelled all over the globe with a team of researchers: from Sardinia, Italy to Okinawa, Japan; from Loma Linda, California to the Nicoya Penisula in Costa Rica. Here Buettner and his team, using a mixture of scientific and anthropological observation, explored the reasons how these cultures promoted happy, healthy longevity. His findings make fascinating reading. For example, in the mountainous Barbagia region of Sardinia, 47 men and 44 women lived past their 100th birthdays in a population of 17, 864 born between 1880 and 1900 – a rate of centenarians which exceeds America’s by a factor of 30. It appears that their mountain walking, their largely plant-based diet supplemented by goat’s milk and red wine, and their respectful, family-based communities all contribute to longevity.

Similar stories emerge from Nicoya and Okinawa; healthy habits have been passed on from generation to generation which have meant people live much longer than in much richer areas. The Okinawans, for example, have an “eighty percent” rule which means that they stop eating before they are full; this has meant there are very few obese people. Sadly, the younger Okinawans who have embraced Americanised, sedentary lifestyles are suffering from health problems such as diabetes — which none of their elders have. The comparison between the older and younger Okinawans is hard proof, if we needed any, that Westernised life-styles do not foster long, happy lives. There are some communities, though, that buck the trend. The most notable of these are the Seventh-Day Adventists, an evangelical Christian sect, living in Loma Linda California. Their teetotal, largely vegetarian and community-based life-styles are particularly conducive to longevity. There’s no doubt that their strong faith plays a part, but it appears that it doesn’t have to be religious faith that sustains you, it could be your family or a way of life that might be your source of comfort.

For all the “Blue Zones” self-help tone – which inevitably leads to some simplistic sounding advice – the overwhelming message that comes through is that it’s a complex interplay of factors which leads to certain cultures fostering happy, long lives. Some common threads, however, can be drawn out: environments which make exercise compulsory and a part of daily life and promote healthy, largely plant-based diets go a long way towards creating the conditions for disease-free, active old people. But above all, societies which give old people a very firm sense of identity, which celebrate rather than denigrate old age, and have in-built structures which mean old people socialise give people a real incentive to live longer.

The book made me re-evaluate my life. As a middle-aged person in a highly-stressful occupation, teaching, who enjoys rather too many bacon sarnies and buns and gets much of his sense of identity from his job, I’m not exactly in line for a long life. The book made me think again; I decided to take a step back from work, eat a bit more healthily and to socialise more. I would love to have the spirit and body of the cheery goat farmers in Sardinia or the smiley-faced 100-year-old gardeners in Okinawa when I’m older.


The Blue Zones website offers all sorts of tips – some of which are hotly contested, such as an instruction to drink two glasses of wine a day. But I found the book complex enough to draw out my own “tips”. These are things that struck me:

Blue Zones, details of the book here.


  1. Blue Zones was a drink of fresh water when I first read it and I haven’t stopped since. I WILL live a long, happy life because I “willed” it when a little girl. At 71 I do have health issues but for the most part, am healthier and happier than most. At 67 was certified as an Exercise Instructor and re up every year. It is my responsability to be “happier and healthier”. P.S. Many good lessons in THRIVE also.

    from Lonna Barker
  2. Thanks for this. I’ll look at THRIVE as well.

    from francisgilbert
  3. AT age 80, I am still working part time and volunteer at 5 different groups and love every minute of it. I go to the gym 4 days a week and walk the dog at least two miles a day. I have a few aches and pains, but I don’t dwell on them. I put one foot in front of the other, stay positive. It’s all in the way one looks at the world.

    from Marjorie Sewell
  4. That’s great to hear Marjorie! You’re an inspiration for me!

    from francisgilbert
  5. […] The lessons we can learn from 100-year-olds | Francis GilbertJul 8, 2012 … It is my responsability to be “happier and healthier”. P.S. Many good lessons in THRIVE also. from Lonna Barker. July 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm … […]

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