What Chinese Centenarians Can Teach Us About Living Well

05/02/2015 10:24 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015


By Jennifer J. Brown, Ph.D.

At 115, Boxin Huang is the oldest resident of China’s Bapan Village, also called Longevity Village. But he's not extraordinary there, where many live long past 100 years.

Cardiologist John Day, MD, of Intermountain Healthcare in Murray, Utah, visited Bapan and the Chinese centenarians and learned fascinating lessons about healthy living and healthy hearts, ones he shares with his own patients.

“Most people think it’s their genes, but the data don’t support it,” Dr. Day says about the Bapan centenarians. Research on about 3,000 pairs of twins who had identical DNA -- the same genes -- but as adults had different home environments and life choices, showed that only 25 percent of their longevity was due to genes. The other 75 percent was affected by lifestyle. Things within your control can make all the difference in lifespan.

I'll Have Vegetables With That

“In Longevity Village, the fascinating thing is that they eat vegetables as part of all three meals, even breakfast,” Day noticed. The food groups consistently associated with a healthy heart and long life are fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes and fish, Day says. He found that in Bapan, vegetables were always a main course. They ate a lot of fruits, nuts and legumes as well.

“The diet we eat is absolutely critical,” says Day. He points to data from the California Seventh-Day Adventist study. Researchers tracked an extra seven years of life for men and four years for women, among more than 34,000 people who maintained a healthy diet, were active and didn’t smoke.

Legumes -- a food group that include beans, peas and lentils -- are a central part of the Bapan diet. “The longest-lived cultures use beans as a regular part of their diet,” Day observes. In Okinawa, Japan, for example -- among the countries with the highest longevity rates -- legumes are a regular part of the diet. Average life expectancy for people born today in Japan is the highest in the world, currently 84 years, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, it's 81 years for women and 76 for men, according to an October 2014 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Exercise? No. Movement? Yes!

The rural area of Bapan has no exercise culture, Day says. In fact, in Longevity Village, the elders laughed at him when he asked if they exercised, because “they were outside, moving their bodies all day.” On his visits to the area, most recently in 2013, he found people of all ages engaged in physical activities like farming. Everything was done by hand because this remote area had no access to mechanical equipment like power tools until very recently and, Day adds, no televisions or computers.

Research data also show that people who stay physically active get extra years of life. In a Taiwan study of more than 400,000 people, researchers found active people enjoyed an extra three years of life. They needed only a bare minimum of physical activity to prolong life -- 15 minutes each day. The reason relates, in part, to heart health.

“It’s often said in the cardiology community that you are only as old as your arteries. If your arteries age, it wears out your brain, heart and even kidneys,” Day explains. This is because by being physically active, you can slow the buildup of plaque in your arteries -- and keep your heart and body healthy a lot longer.

Connect More, Stress Less, Live Longer

If you look at countries where people live longest, most are places where elders are revered. “In Longevity Village, 74 percent of the centenarians in the county lived in four- to five-generation homes, all under the same roof,” says Day. “They always ask the oldest person for advice; always serve them first at every meal.” Grandparents are very involved with the family and especially with child rearing. This social support has tremendous health benefits.

“Study after study shows the more social support, the longer people live. People have better survival when they are socially connected,” says Day. “Having a sense of purpose can significantly increase your longevity.” Research shows that men and women with stronger social relationships have a 50 percent higher likelihood of surviving longer, according to a review of studies including 308,000 participants.

In contrast to the U.S. experience, where youth is prized and prominent in advertising images, in Longevity Village, advertisements featured the oldest people. “They become a celebrity when they reach the 100-year mark,” says Day.

Stress is becoming increasingly challenging in our society, says Day. In his experience, “80 percent of emergency room visits are stress triggered.” Life is stressful, but it’s how you deal with it that matters. Too often we live isolated lives and even our diet causes a buildup of stress we need to diffuse, he explains.

Connection matters. In Longevity Village he found a connection to nature, to the earth, to family and friends, community and food. Day says, “Even their food was connected and in a natural state. The fish they caught in the stream they ate later that same day; the vegetables they harvested in their garden they ate that day.”

Simple Secrets to a Long Life

The people living in Longevity Village are a five-hour bus ride away from the rest of civilization, so air pollution is not a problem there, at least not yet. But even here, you can take steps to ensure your air is as clean as possible. If you smoke, stop. And invest in an air filter if you need to, says Day.

“I cannot overstate the importance of breathing clean air,” he adds. This is on the top of his list, along with five more directives:

  • Be physically active
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Get restorative sleep
  • Manage your stress
  • Be socially connected

Day believes you can have the best of both worlds, by making conscious choices that are healthy for your heart and beneficial for a long life. He and his family have learned a lot from Longevity Village, says Day: “We’re definitely going back.”

100 Years of Healthy Habits: Secrets of Chinese Centenarians originally appeared on Everyday Health.

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