I was inspired recently at a presentation by National Geographic writer and explorer Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones – Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Lived the Longest. Buettner’s research identified five places around the globe where people lived significantly longer than most populations and, more importantly, lived happier. The five locations were Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California. Each culture had its own special attributes that extended quality lives for elders. Buettner and his research team of demographers, anthropologists, and epidemiologists identified a number of evidence-based common denominators for all of these places and people. Briefly, what these people had in common are:
- Staying Active – Their environment encourages regular activity and movement in a natural way.
- Living with Purpose – The Okinawans call it “ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy
- Down Shifting – Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress, which leads to chronic inflammation associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines that shed stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap, and Sardinians have a happy hour.
- Plant-Slanted Diets – Beans, including fava, black, soy, and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month.
- Belonging – All but five of the 263 centenarians interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4 to 14 years of life expectancy.
- Right Tribe – The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.
After hearing Buettner’s talk, I thought about our community at Horizon House and reflected on whether we have a “Blue Zone” environment here. We certainly have a disproportionate share of centenarians (seven people who are 100 years old or older and 117 people over the age of 90).
If you wander around our 1,000,000-square-foot space and engage with our 600 residents, there is a vitality and graciousness. Recently, a guest mentioned, “You know, I have been to a number of local retirement communities, and I have never experienced the vitality and engaging spirit I witnessed in your lobby today.” She went on to say, “It was palpable. I could feel the warmth and the heart of the people living and working here as they moved in and through the lobby area.”
Underlying our community of active and caring seniors is a set of values that has attracted this “tribe” for over five decades: people who learn to stay active, naturally; live their lives with purpose and commitment; manage their own stresses and strains by relying on each other and incorporating healthy habits into their daily routines. Many show up three times a week for morning stretch classes in the gym and then convene at the Coffee Bar in the Fireside Lounge for a discussion of the issues of the day. Horizon House residents are intentional about their nutrition and diets, caring about organic foods and balanced meals, and they support each other and the larger community in a variety of ways.
I would contend that Horizon House has created a Blue Zone for Seattle’s older adults, a place where people thrive on living independently, creatively, connectedly, intentionally, and with a grace and vitality that you just can’t miss, even if you sit in our lobby for only a few minutes.