Conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age contribute to longevity, says Catherine Taylor, executive director of Age-Friendly Rhode Island.
"Years ago, a researcher named Dan Buettner, with support from the National Geographic, organized a study of the places where people live longest. He found communities in Okinawa, Costa Rica, California and Ikaria. He was fascinated by the phenomenon that there are these pockets of societies where people routinely live into their 90s and 100s, and quite healthily. He spent several months living in each of these societies to try to find out what the commonalities were that produced their incredible longevity and good health," says Catherine Taylor, executive director of Age-Friendly Rhode Island at Rhode Island College.
Buettner's study revealed a number of social determinants of health – conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age – that contribute to longevity.
"In all of these societies, which Buettner termed 'Blue Zones,' exercise is integrated into daily life," says Taylor. For instance, on the island of Ikaria in Greece, people walk for miles each day over hilly terrain simply to get from one place to the other.
"These societies eat mostly a plant-based diet rich in vegetables and low in dairy and meat, with moderate amounts of alcohol. The people believe in some form of higher power and set aside time, either daily or weekly, for worship or meditation," she says. "And they socialize on a daily basis."
Every day at sunset, Ikarians visit neighbors or receive neighbors to gossip, drink wine and share in laughter. After dinner, tables may be pushed aside and the dining room converted to a dance floor, "with people locking arms and kick-dancing to Greek music," reports Buettner. They attend church together, check in on each other and everyone knows everyone else's business.
Social connectedness is extremely important to health and longevity, Taylor says. The lack of it actually has serious physiological effects. Research has found that lonely people are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely and that loneliness reduces immunity and increases inflammation in the body, which can contribute to heart disease and other chronic health conditions.
"Loneliness and isolation have always been a problem for older people in America," Taylor says, "but with the pandemic, it has become a public health crisis. That is why we at Age-Friendly Rhode Island have been focusing intensively on social isolation and coming up with creative ways for older adults to stay connected to a community."
To that end, Age-Friendly Rhode Island created a Virtual Community Center that allows older adults to go online and engage in exercise, yoga, mindfulness and cooking classes as well as attend virtual tours and information sessions on health and finance, among other activities.
"This Virtual Community Center will continue to be important even after the pandemic passes," says Taylor, "particularly for those living in long-term care facilities and when in-person experiences aren't possible."
Taylor notes that loneliness is not a problem in Blue Zone societies because older members never lose their function or importance in society.
"In these societies, older adults have a sense of purpose," she says. "They are either in charge of caring for the children or transmitting their skills to the next generation."
"Another key – and this is the most powerful for me," she says, "is that the oldest members of the society are the most important members. They are revered and looked up to. As a result, young people don't fear getting old. They look forward to it, knowing that they will be looked up to and revered, as well. In America, we recoil from the idea of getting old, and we look upon those who are old as "the other.'"
But "they" will be "us" someday. For us to live healthful lives, perhaps we can begin by living in ways that honor the aged and the aging process. Healthy attitudes and behaviors, Buettner says, must be embedded in the culture if we wish to lay a foundation for longevity over the long term.
For more on Blue Zones, see the article "The Island Where People Forget to Die."