New perspective on living to triple digits

At my last book club gathering, one member said she wants to live to be 120.

“I’ll be dead,” I replied, knowing she’s about 20 years older than I am.

I couldn’t understand why she would want to live that long. But then I went to a presentation at the Hinsdale Public Library last week and learned all about the secrets to living to 100.

Adult service librarian Doug Nye told us about five Blue Zones, or places with a high concentration of centenarians.

They are Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Icaria, Greece; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, Calif.

The life expectancy in these locations ranges from 80 to 90, compared to 76 in this country. Several factors come into play.

“There’s no one way to live this long,” Nye said.

But the communities have many things in common. They eat a diet filled with whole grains, greens, tubers, nuts and beans (and no processed food). They are physically active, primarily through walking and gardening (not exercising). They enjoy attending festivals that celebrate their history, religion and culture. Many live in multi-generational households. And all have a strong sense of belonging — to their family and to the place they call home.

Nye began by telling us about Sardinia, a large Mediterranean island where the life expectancy is 92. He discussed the “grandmother effect” in multigenerational households, which translates to less disease and a lower mortality rate for the younger generations as well.

Nicoya is an 80-mile peninsula just south of the Nicaraguan border, where the life expectancy is 85 years. The area has a mix of indigenous and colonial heritage and natural water springs that many believe have health benefits.

Icaria is an island in the Aegean Sea, whose 8,000 residents can expect to live to 80. It shares many characteristics of the other Blue Zones, along with an appreciation for napping.

“We go, go, go,” Nye said. “I think taking some time to rest is incredibly important.”

The only U.S. location on the list is Loma Linda, a city of about 25,000 people in the San Bernadino Valley with a life expectancy of 90. The town is home to a population of Adventists who follow a vegetarian diet, abstain from drinking alcohol and smoking and focus on volunteering.

I found Okinawa to be most fascinating of the five. The chain of 161 small islands are home to 1.4 million people with a life expectancy of 87.

Residents have 1/5 the rate of breast and colon cancer as Americans and 1/6 the rate of cardiovascular disease. The tradition of sitting on the floor means people get up and down 30 or more times a day, building strength and balance, Nye said.

They have a saying there, “Hara hachi bu,” which literally means 8/10 and is a reminder to stop eating when you are 80 percent full.

They also have a strong sense of “ikigai,” similar to the French “raison d’être” or reason for being. Interestingly enough, they have no word for retirement.

“They stay incredibly active and it’s really inspiring,” Nye said.

I have to say I left Nye’s talk intrigued. I plan to continue watching “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones,” on Netflix. The show is hosted by Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones Secrets for Living Longer,” and other titles, most of which can be borrowed from the library.

I am going to subscribe to the “Pasta Grannies” YouTube channel Nye introduced us to when telling us about Sardinia. I plan to try some new recipes from the channel, Nye’s presentation and Buettner’s cookbooks.

And the next time my book club friend talks about living to 120, I just might have a different response.

— Pamela Lannom is editor

of The Hinsdalean.

Readers can email her at

[email protected].

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean