Experts Unpack Longevity Secrets From 5 Different Cultures Around the Globe
What's the secret to living a healthy, long life? It was the big question on Daniel Kennedy's mind when he set out to direct and produce his (aptly named) docu-series, Healthy Long Life. Besides wanting to know to inform his own personal habits, he had a stake in finding the answer for professional reasons too: As the CEO of Oasis of Hope Hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, helping people live well into old age is one of his great missions.
Kennedy decided to travel all over the world (this was pre-pandemic) to see if he could find the answer by learning from the world's leading longevity experts. "I was interested in going to the longevity capitals of the world," Kennedy says. "Of course the research on Blue Zones caught my attention, but there are many other places where [living to be over 100 in good health] is common so I wanted to go other places too."
As of January 2020, life expectancy in the U.S. was 78.7 years, and is projected to increase to 85.6 by the year 2060 (although the ongoing coronavirus pandemic may affect that estimate). "We have modern medicine to thank for this, but what modern medicine has failed to do is add more healthy years to life," Kennedy says. "We are living longer because we are able to overcome infections and treat disease, but what modern medicine doesn't do as well is prevent disease." With that in mind, Kennedy says he wanted to learn from cultures outside the U.S. that value other healing traditions.
While he did visit a few Blue Zones regions—specifically Sardinia, Italy and Okinawa, Japan—he traveled far and wide to unsung longevity hotspots too. So, did he discover the secret to living a healthy, long life? Kennedy says he definitely came back from the trip wiser. Here are some highlights of what he learned about longevity from five different countries around the globe.
Kennedy traveled to India to learn more about Ayurveda, a holistic medicine practice that has been around for over 5,000 years, and its potential to increase longevity. He spoke with some of the country's leading health experts, including non-invasive cardiology pioneer Bimal Chhajer, MD, and spice expert Deepa Krishnan, to learn about how Ayurvedic principles play primary roles in many Indian people's lives.
Traditionally, Ayurvedic practices are used to bring balance to the body based on each person's individual dosha (their emotional and physical constitution). Ayurvedic physicians and healers use your dosha to help identify, customize, and prescribe lifestyle changes and remedies that aim to balance your energies, prevent disease, and preserve health. In this way, doshas are used to personalize medicine. For example, a pitta dosha is linked to premature aging more than those with a kapha dosha. Ayurvedic healers in India use information like this to inform their health advice.
Kennedy also experienced the benefits first-hand of the pungent spices so prominent in Indian food (and in many cases, important to Ayurvedic remedies). Turmeric, ginger, nutmeg, and saffron, are just a few of the common spices used in Indian cooking that are linked to lowering inflammation, the root cause of chronic diseases and cognitive decline. In this way, what you eat can be directly tied to disease prevention and living a longer, healthy life.
"What I learned from Dr. Chahhajer is how food is being used to promote healing," Kennedy says. "He also works with patients in areas of anger management, forgiveness, and stress management." All of these ways, he says, inspire more balance, which he believes is essential to longevity.
Watch the video below to learn more about how turmeric is good for longevity:
Since Kennedy is the CEO of a hospital in Mexico (and he himself has Mexican roots), he decided to see what he could learn in his own country, too. In Mexico, he spoke with Mayan shaman Bartolome Poot Nahuat, Pedro Batiz, the co-founder of Divine Flavor, and various centenarians about their lives and practices.
Like in India, Kennedy says living a life of balance was something the experts he encountered spoke of, even if they didn't use Ayurvedic principles to inspire it. Kennedy says what he learned in Mexico was to be present. "[Many of the people I met] don't focus on yesterday or tomorrow, they focus on today," he says. For many, being part of a close-knit extended family and community are key; life is lived together, not alone. To this point, a 2019 United Nations report found that living with a child or extended family members was the most common living arrangement for elderly adults in Latin America.
Like Indian cuisine, Mexican cuisine traditionally uses lots of health-promoting spices. Cayenne pepper, garlic, cilantro, chipotle powder, and cinnamon are all common spices in Mexican cuisine that are linked to warding off chronic disease by lowering inflammation.
Watch the video below to learn more about the health benefits of garlic:
"When you look at Israel on a map, it's right in the middle between Africa, Asia, and Europe, so all the traders from these regions crossed through Israel and brought their healing traditions along," Kennedy says. "Because of this, Israel is really a melting pot of wisdom from all three of these continents."
Kennedy says the biggest longevity lesson he learned from Israel was using food as medicine. (Yep, food, once again!) "The food in Israel is so incredibly fresh. Fresh vegetables, fruit, and fish are a huge part of the culture." He learned first-hand about the longevity-boosting properties of the Mediterranean diet from experts including Ronit Endevelt, Ph.D., the director of the nutrition division for the Israeli Ministry of Health & School of Public Health and Haifa University, Ayala Noy Meir (a professional olive oil taster), and Uzieli Hazay, who runs the Etrogman juice bar in Tel-Aviv that sells many natural remedies.
Hundreds of studies have linked the Mediterranean diet—which advocates for lean proteins, whole grains, seafood, and plenty of vegetables—to longevity. “There have been studies upon studies that have shown that the Mediterranean diet can lower the incidence of heart disease by as much as 70 percent,” Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, a cardiologist and the director of women’s cardiovascular prevention, health, and wellness at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, previously told Well+Good. It's why the eating style popular in Israel (and other parts of the Mediterranean) is so often recommended by doctors here in the U.S.
Watch the video below to learn more about why the Mediterranean diet is linked to longevity:
The infamous China Study, one of the largest comprehensive studies of human nutrition ever conducted, is what drew Kennedy to China. The study, which collected data from 6,500 adults in 65 prefectures in China over the course of 20 years, was a partnership between Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine. Kennedy spoke directly with lead researcher T. Colin Campbell, PhD, who wrote the book The China Study ($15) to learn more about its findings.
Once again, Kennedy says one of the biggest lessons he learned was through food. Dr. Campbell shared with him that one of the major takeaways of the China Study is how plant-based eating can protect against chronic diseases, including cancer and heart disease. "I saw first-hand what plant-based eating looks like in China by visiting the market," Kennedy says. "I was amazed at the incredibly vast variety of vegetables there were. In the U.S., you might find three or four different types of apples and a few different types of mushrooms, but in China, I had seven different mushrooms in one meal and they have many more different types of apples. I saw carrots in a huge variety of colors!" (Gastroenterologist Will Bulsiewicz, MD, previously told Well+Good that eating a wide variety of plants was the number one best thing you can do for your gut, which in turn affects your health as a whole.)
Kennedy also learned about how Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is ingrained in many people's daily lives in China. Similar to Ayurveda, TCM focuses on bringing balance to the body. One principle of TCM is qi, which is life energy that runs through the body. TCM doctors and healers often focus on ways to maintain qi through herbs, acupuncture, meditation, and movement. TCM is used prominently to prevent and treat disease and is a cornerstone of longevity in China.
Japan is home to one of the seven Blue Zones—Okinawa—but Kennedy also spent time in Tokoyo and Kyoto meeting experts including Akitsugu Moriyama, the president of the Cancer Control Society of Japan; Mikako Harada, MD, an oncologist and expert in anti-inflammatory nutrition; and Takafumi Kawakami, a mindfulness expert and the deputy head priest of Shukoin Temple in Kyoto, Japan.
Kennedy says that the importance of mindfulness was a lesson he took home from Japan, something he saw through the elaborate matcha tea ceremonies that are held as well as in the types of exercises that are commonly practiced in the country. "Japan is also a culture that really celebrates growing older as opposed to in the West where it's something that's often viewed as a negative," he adds. (Just take Respect for the Aged Day, a national holiday in Japan where the elderly are given gifts from their local government and families gather together to honor their older loved ones.) "Age-specific terminology is used to address older people. This complex of linguistic and social practices contributes to the acceptance and appreciation of old age," the paper reads. Feeling appreciated and valued can lead to feeling happy, which is directly linked to longevity.
While all the places Kennedy visited while filming Healthy Long Life have their own unique ways of life, there are a few commonalities. Living a balanced life and finding ways to manage stress is key. So is eating lots of plants and flavorful herbs. Being connected to others is another way of living each culture valued. So maybe there isn't One Big Secret to living a healthy, long life—but rather a few habits and traditions to cultivate daily.
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