Man has always been interested in living longer.

All cultures and spiritual traditions make some provision to extend life. We are guaranteed immortality by following the moral guidelines of numerous religious teachings. We construct symbols of immortality like the Great Wall, the pyramids, the Eiffel tower, Mona Lisa or Declaration of Independence to continue our lives infinitely into the future.

Over the last 100 years there has been a 30-year improvement in life expectancy in the developed world.

15,000 years ago, our hunter-gathering ancestors lived about 25 years, and by 1800 this had only improved to about 40 years. By 1900 the average person could expect to live to age 50. This 10-year improvement from 1800 occurred because of (1) better nutrition due to improved farming techniques that increased agricultural and dairy production, and (2) early public health initiatives, specifically cleaner food and water.

The amazing increase in life expectancy from 1900 (it now stands over 80 for women and over 75 for men) can be attributed to improvements in healthcare. This occurred in 2 distinct phases–the first being the continuing reduction, and now treatment of infectious disease. By the early 1800’s Edward Jenner had shown that smallpox could be prevented by variolization–a primitive form of vaccination. In the 1860’s Louis Pasteur proved there were microorganisms in the air that could be killed by sterilization. Around the same time Joseph Lister introduced the concept of chemical antisepsis. These discoveries presaged the coming advances in surgery.

With light shed on the cause of infectious disease, numerous vaccines were developed against rabies (1885), plague (1897), diphtheria (1923), pertussis (1926), tuberculosis (1927), yellow fever (1935), polio (1955), measles (1964), mumps (1967), rubella (1970), hepatitis B (1981), H1N1 influenza (2009) as well as the seasonal flu vaccines. After the discovery of antibiotics in the 1930’s and 1940’s, mortality from infectious diseases rapidly declined to its current levels by 1960.

The second improvement in lifespan caused by healthcare occurred more recently. This phase has been characterized by intensive, and very expensive medical therapies. Since 1960, deaths from heart disease have dropped by over 50%, accounting for 70% of the seven-year increase in life expectancy between 1960 and 2000. An additional 19% of the increase is the result of infant mortality reductions through improved neonatal medical care for low birth weight infants.

The remaining 10% of the increase in lifespan is the reduction of mortality by improving trauma care–specifically by treating within the “golden hour” learned in the Vietnam War, through fewer deaths from pneumonia and influenza with the use of powerful antibiotics and vaccination, pre-emptive critical care and artificial ventilation, and through a slight decrease in cancer mortality.

The 50% reduction in deaths from heart disease is consistent in the most of western world. Researchers in the U.S. have attributed about 47% of this reduction to specific medical therapies, Re-vascularization by coronary artery bypass or stenting makes a surprisingly small contribution. A decrease in the prevalence of major risk-factors was responsible for two-thirds of the total decline in mortality. It is estimated that 80% of premature deaths from cardiovascular disease are preventable. While cholesterol and blood pressure lowering drugs are beneficial, lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation, eating healthy, losing weight and increasing physical activity remain the keys.

What do centenarians tell us?

Unfortunately we have all seen individuals who are living longer through modern health advances, but not living well. Processes that extend life often decrease the quality of life. So the real question of longevity goes beyond life span to how we remain optimally healthy and actively involved in life. By analyzing populations that have a lot of active, elderly people (often over 100 years old), a few common denominators of longevity have been identified.

Heredity or genetics

One of the oldest populations lives on the island of Okinawa where 29% of the people live to 100 years. The ongoing Okinawa Centenarian Study (watch video below) has discovered “human longevity genes” in the families of centenarians. These genes seem to give them a lower risk for inflammatory and auto-immune diseases, and actually slow the aging process. The study has found that those blessed with the genes live almost 12 years longer than those without.It is now believed that genetics is responsible for 30 to 50% of longevity. Unfortunately this means that some of the determinants of long life are not under an individual person’s control. Unless of course you pick your parents.


Obviously diet has a huge effect. The nutritional and dietary patterns of the populations with a large number of centenarians have been studied: the Vilcabamba in the Ecuadorian Andes, the Hunza in the Himalayas of northern Pakistan, the Abkhazians in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia and the Okinawans. They yield interesting results:
The Vilcabambas were exclusively an agricultural community that raised their own vegetables and grains. Their diet provided only 1,200 calories daily, and it was completely vegetarian, with small amounts of  protein and fat.
The Hunzas ate 1,923 calories daily, and animal protein and fat constituted less than 1% of the daily energy intake.
The Abkhazians, who raised herds of cows, goats and sheep, consumed animal products almost daily. They drank milk (raw, unpasteurized goat or sheep milk), ate cheese and yogurt three times a day, and often ate meat. Their average daily calories were 1,800.
The Okinawans eat a varied diet: 72% comes from complex carbohydrates mainly from sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables, grains, and fruits. Soy and seaweed provide another 14%. Fish accounts for 11% with meat, poultry, and eggs filling the last 3%.

The diets of all these populations are composed of unprocessed foods, are low in animal and saturated fats, and provide less than 2,000 calories daily.

Alcohol consumption

Each of the communities with a large number of centenarians makes its own, local alcoholic beverage. The Vilcabambas distill a potent rum from sugar cane, the Abkhazians drink wine and vodka made from their own grapes, the Hunza drink a red wine called “Hunzapana,” and the Okinawans enjoy awamori, a liquor from distilled rice.Alcoholism was never found to be a problem in these communities, even though it was consumed daily. Alcohol in moderation is the key. It has a protective effect from all-cause mortality, and especially from cardiovascular disease.

Physical activity

Physical activity may be the most important determinant of longevity and optimal health. All the communities of centenarians performed physical activity that was well-integrated into their daily lives. They were farmers or herders who walked everywhere, often climbing rugged terrain, and they enjoyed folk dancing at their many festivals.
Physical activity was not confined to specific exercise periods, as one Okinawan elder admitted, “we sing, dance, play, exercise.” Besides being a potent preventer of cardiovascular disease, physical activity helps prevent osteoporosis and decrease arthritis and depression.

Sexual activity

The elderly communities that have been studied all demonstrate the importance of a healthy and active  sex-life. The Okinawans have higher levels of sex hormones, including natural DHEA, estrogen, and testosterone than similarly aged Americans. Okinawan women have a very high intake of natural estrogens through their diet, mainly from the large quantities of soy they consume. Soy contains phytoestrogens, or plant estrogens called flavonoids.

Social environment

It is difficult to determine the role that human consciousness has on longevity. Attitude is all. Albert Einstein noted, “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle or you can live as if everything is a miracle.”
The modern world so overvalues youth, it enforces mandatory retirement age and eventually locks away and forgets the elderly. The centenarians studied had prolonged and productive involvement in family and  community affairs. As “elders” they had acquired a sense of dignity and wisdom, and an enduring sense of meaning  and purpose of life itself.
One researcher wrote:”I am now convinced that when the social environment encourages one to feel socially useful and needed in the economy, and to be looked up to and revered as a wise figure, the extremely elderly  keep their mental faculties and physical abilities so that they can respond appropriately. This is quite contrary to prevailing trends in modern industrial societies, which tend to emphasize youth and regard old people as useless and standing in the way of progress.”

Physical environment

The centenarians studied all lived in areas that forced them to exert themselves when performing their daily activities. Because these societies were isolated, they were not subject to carcinogens caused by pollution and radiation. Their soils had not been stripped of trace elements and minerals characteristic of modern farmlands that require hyper-fertilization.
They also were not bombarded by electromagnetic waves from home appliances, computers, video games, power lines, radio and TV stations, GPS satellites and cell-phone towers. No one wants to admit that electromagnetic and microwave radiation has affected every organ system studied. Because of their subliminal affect on the stress response, they influence the immune system. They also affect the central nervous, cardiovascular, endocrine and growth control systems. Shangri la no longer exists.
These communities lived either at altitude or surrounded by water (the ocean). This is where concentration of negative ions is greatest. Negative ions bind onto contaminants and remove them from the air. Negative ion concentration is directly proportional to one’s mood by decreasing serotonin in the brain. This is why sunning at the beach or walking through a high-mountain meadow is so invigorating. Next time after a brisk shower, when the sun is back shining, step outside and breathe/feel how clean the air is.
The lowest concentrations of negative ions are found in dirty cities, closed vehicles in traffic-jams, windowless rooms and large offices with artificial lighting. Sound familiar?

Spiritual environment

The most often neglected aspect of longevity is the elders’ spiritual environment. Most readers will limit thinking to some religious belief, but spiritual health comes from one’s mental attitude or way of thinking. On Okinawa they practice nankuru naisa or roughly translated: don’t worry, be happy. Another Okinawan practice is ikigai, a reason to get out of bed. The elders firmly believe they have a purpose, a reason to be alive.