The Centenarian's Secret to Life

   By: Danielle Spino

   2011-09-16 04:00 PM

Living to the age of 100 is an honored rarity today. In order to discover the secret of how to reach 100 + years, a number of researchers have been closely examining centenarians. There appear to be two approaches to the research: the biological versus the environmental effects, or more commonly known as ‘nature versus nurture.” The first methodology involves examining centenarians’ genetics to determine whether lifespan is inherited. The second methodology involves examining how centenarians’ lifestyle affects their lifespan. Basically, the question is; are there choices that we can make/lifestyle changes that we can implement to prolong our lives? Or do our genes determine our number of years on this earth?

In the “nurture” corner is Journalist Dan Buettner. Buettner visited the 4 communities that have the highest rate of centenarians worldwide, which he dubbed the Blue Zones. With a team of researchers, Buettner travelled to Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; and the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Following Buettner’s reasoning, if whole communities, rather than families, are living a longer than average life, lifestyle/environment must predict lifespan as opposed to genetics. Thus, Buettner along with his team of researchers thoroughly examined the lifestyles of each of the 5 Blue Zones by interviews and observation. His results revealed 9 ways of life that were common throughout the Blue Zones, which he entitles the Power 9TM. On a very basic level, the lifestyle components of the Blue Zones Centenarians consist of:

1. Being active in everyday life

a. Such as incorporating walking into your daily routine

2. Living with a purpose

a. A reason to wake up in the morning protects against the negative effects of stress and keeps the mind active

3. Meditation

a. Whether through prayer or other practices, taking time to slow down and relax protects against the negative effects of stress

4. Only eat until you're 80% full

a. Restricting caloric intake leads to a leaner body weight, protecting against low blood pressure and high cholesterol and ultimately thereby protecting against heart disease

5. Maintain a plant-based diet with meat less than twice weekly

a. While protein is an important component of each meal, meat has traditionally been saved for times of celebrations

6. Drink one or two glasses of wine each day

a. In moderation, drinking wine is linked to lower rates of heart disease

b. Preferably red wine as it contains polyphenols, which help to keep arteries clear of clogging

7. Put your family first

a. Elders cared for by their family live longer than those in nursing homes

8. Belong to a spiritually based community

a. Worship, attending religious meetings, and a strong community adds both health and years on to a life

9. Maintain healthy friendships

a. Those that we spend time with have a large impact on our life choices

b. Social connectedness is correlated with longevity

According the Blue Zones research, each of these practices can add quantifiable years onto your life.

In the “nature” corner is Dr. Nir Barzilai, the Director of the Institute for Aging Research, taking a genetic approach to his research on centenarians. Barzilai’s Longevity Gene Project, examined 500 Ashkenazi Jews that have reached or almost reached 100 + years. The Ashkenazi Jews have been noted to have a nearly homogenous genetic make-up, as they have generally reproductively segregated themselves from other ethnicities. Along with his fellow researchers, Barzilai found a few genetic variations between the Ashkenazi centenarians and their controls, which he believes to be the key components to the longevity of his subjects. The Longevity Gene Project records the following biomarkers of their centenarian subjects:

  1. Longevity appears to be inherited
  2. Significantly correlated to high HDL, or “good” cholesterol as it transports cholesterol back to the liver for re-utilization or excretion
  3. Inversely correlated to high LDL, or “bad” cholesterol as it is correlated with cardiovascular disease
  4. Correlated to larger HDL and LDL molecule sizes, allowing for easier transport of cholesterol

Aside from longevity being inherited, these biomarkers share a common theme in that they all relate to a lower incidence of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). Since CVD is one of the leading killers of our generation, if centenarians have a lower risk of CVD this may be the secret to their longevity.

At first glance these biomarkers of longevity seem to coincide with the Blue Zones findings, only described on a biological level. For example, in the Blue Zones communities, a number of the suggested practices have been shown to protect against cholesterol related disease: drinking red wine, eating until you’re 80% full and maintaining a plant-based diet may all protect against the build up of cholesterol in the arteries.  Yet, the Longevity Gene Project’s findings report that the study’s centenarian subjects were as likely as their controls to smoke, drink and be overweight. Since the centenarians’ lifestyle reflected known predictors of CVD, Barzilai and his colleagues concluded that genetics must be the stronger predictor of lifespan. The incongruity between the subjects’ genetics and their lifestyle is the cornerstone of the case for genetics determining lifespan.

Before declaring “nature” as the winner, there are more parallels between the two analyses that need to be addressed. Despite knowledge of their diet, in theory the Ashkenazi Jews are a fitting example of the Power 9TM. By cultural values, the Ashkenazi Jews belong to a spiritually based community and presumably put family first, meditate, know their purpose, and have strong connections/friendships. Blue Zones research has shown that each of these practices can add years onto one’s life. It is possible that Barzilai and his colleagues made an oversight in not accounting for these environmental influences on lifespan.

Is lifespan only inherited in as much as environment is inherited? Furthermore, could the genetic differences reported be a result of genetic adaptation from lifestyle as opposed to a lucky group of people?

Without clarification between the methodologies, it is impossible to determine whether nature or nurture wins. The influence of lifestyle on biology and vice versa appears to be intertwined and inseparable.

The question remains: can we add years on to our lives, or do our genes seal our fates? Both streams of research have provided options on how to prolong our lives. Through the compilation of their research, the Longevity Gene Project’s absolute goal is to develop pharmaceuticals that will act as these ‘longevity genes’ in order to extend people’s lives. In the mean time, there are several lifestyle changes (such as suggested by the Power 9TM) that people can implement to ensure the quality as well as the quantity of their lives.



For further information on the Blue Zones please visit

For further information on the Longevity Gene Project please visit

Buy The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest By Dan Buettner

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