7 Secrets to Living a Long, Fulfilling Life, According to People in Their 80s, 90s, and 100s

Photo: Getty Images/Tara Moore
Wouldn't it be great if we could just know how to be the healthiest, happiest, and most fulfilled versions of ourselves? Of course, there's something to be said for embracing the trial-and-error journey of finding what works for you, but we also have an untapped resource for discovering which healthy habits maximize longevity. People are living longer than ever, especially in parts of the world known as the Blue Zones—so, wouldn't it be wise to simply ask these long-living people their secrets for how to live a long life?

That's exactly what the nine-part documentary series The Human Longevity Project sought to do by visiting more than 50 locations worldwide—including the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, the small island of Guernsey in the English Channel, and Okinawa, Japan—to interview locals of the longest-living and healthiest populations on the planet in addition to experts, healers, and doctors.

“I always suggest to listen to the elders. The elders have plenty of experience, and they know how things work.” —Salvatore Scanu, 94

Below, find seven insights that folks in their eighties, nineties, and beyond share in the documentary that point to how to live a long life that's happy, healthy, and fulfilling. Because, as Salvatore Scanu, 94, from Italy, points in the doc, we stand to learn a lot. “I always suggest to listen to the elders. The elders have plenty of experience, and they know how things work,” he says.

1. Work hard and lead an active lifestyle

“Do what you can to stay healthy, and work hard without slacking off,” says Hideko Kamida, 97, of Japan. Joe Rignola, co-producer and the director of marketing for The Human Longevity Project, tells Well+Good the physical aspect of staying healthy isn't about fulfilling a resolution or subscribing to the latest fitness trend for a period of time. Rather, it's about adopting a healthy lifestyle that factors into your everyday life. “No one talked about exercise the way we talk about it. Their exercise was working hard and walking a lot,” he says.

Rignola says many subjects interviewed still walk or ride bicycles to get around, including Italy's Giulio Podda, 104, who is still cycling. It's a notable suggestion since 99-year-old Michelino Scudu from Italy says “today, everyone just drives everywhere.”

2. Eat a whole food, mostly plant-based diet

Fad diets and processed foods simply weren't in the subjects' nutrition vocabulary, says Rignola. Rather, they reap what they sow, meaning they eat what they grow. “They would mostly eat what they produced, grew, foraged, and raised themselves," he says. "Water was often from a local spring. They also drank tea, usually from herbs they grew or foraged.” Sure, it's healthy, but a natural, whole-food diet is also all that many of them have ever known. To that point, says Marta Congia, 92, from Italy, "there were no supermarkets [when I was young]."

While Rignola notes that “almost all spoke about eating at least some meat, certainly most of what they ate were plants,” adhering, loosely, to the principles of the Mediterranean diet. "Not a lot of meat and not a lot of alcohol is generally what we call a healthy diet,” says George Stenos, 92, from Greece.

3. Foster deep, meaningful connections

All the interviewees agreed that solid, loving relationships are crucial aspects of how to live a long life, says Rignola. And while being part of a community is important, it's certainly possible to be a member without feeling connected. That’s why true connection is key. “They all seem to have deep and meaningful connections to family and friends.”

“There has always been something special about our island; there is compassion, solidarity, and all these things that are able to connect people in order to avoid fights with each other. My principle is to be content and get along with everybody,” says Orestis Portelos, 97, Greece.

4. Rely less on artificial lighting

In a time when we’re so attached to our phones, reducing screen time is no small ask. But that may be one strategy for clocking better, deeper, and less-interrupted sleep, which is a crucial component for better health. “For a large part of their lives, many of the elders didn’t have electricity. Many cite that they just got electricity in the past 40 or 50 years," Rignola says. "They say they actually used to sleep better since ‘modern’ artificial light can send a message to the body that it’s daytime even when it’s 11 p.m. Before, when the sun went down, they would use candlelight to see and then go to sleep relatively early.”

5. Stress less

The onset of stress is connected to so many negative health implications, so it makes sense that being able to keep that in check can be a successful strategy for living a long life. “I suggest to have peace for a peaceful life—most importantly, no stress,” says Stenos. Easier said than done, sure, but Joe Santos Castillo Carillo, 91, from Costa Rica says being able to calm his mind and stop it from wandering is helpful, even in the face of troubling personal and global stressors. “'Pura vida' means to feel good—feel good in everything, and not have any problems. I feel pura vida,” he says.

6. Practice gratitude

Beyond their value in doing hard work providing a sense of fulfillment, Rignola says he noticed gratitude for the Earth itself and the ability to do their work period. "Too many people seem to forget how to appreciate things,” says Ayako Toguchi, 83, from Japan.

7. Accept death for what it is

It's impossible to know how to live a long life without still understanding that death is inevitable. Many of those interviewed say death isn't an ominous deadline so much as a universally accepted truth within their culture. “I have never thought of death, but I know I can’t avoid it,” says Yannoula Kratzas, 90, from Greece.

So without relying on any quick fixes, but rather strong habits and healthy states of mind, it seems these long-living people of the world have it all figured out—and, theoretically, now you do, too. Just take it from Maria Aresti from Italy: “How old am I? I’m 105. I am young. I feel young,” she says.

Good news on the nutrition front: This dessert is on the menu for longevity, experts say. And if you're curious about how your longevity connects to that of others, take this quiz.

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