By: Dr. Selima Hauber
It is 2023, and I find myself in what is undoubtedly the most significant year of my life, marching with my Beloved Bahamas – on our ‘Road to 50’. Although I still feel like a thirty-something-year-old, I cannot deny that the second half of my life is staring me in the face. This is a time that would invite anyone to engage in deep reflection – what does this all mean? What will the next 50 years look like? Are there 50 more years?
What brings assurance is that this milestone has been reached and surpassed by countless others, some of whom have done so gracefully and with as much enthusiasm and gusto as in the first fifty years. Those are the people I want to be like ‘when I grow up’!
In my previous submission to this column, I shared the ‘good news’ of how a healthful, whole-food, plant-strong diet cultivates good health. In my quest to devour as much information as possible to elucidate the science supporting food as medicine, I also came across reassuring research supporting the possibility of aging well.
Not only is it possible to add years to your life, but by making good lifestyle choices, one can also add life to one’s years!
Worldwide, we are seeing a greater aging population than in previous times. In less than a decade, the number of persons 60 years and older is expected to increase from 1 billion in 2020 to 1.4 billion in 2030. Between 2020 and 2050, the number of people eighty years old and older is projected to triple, reaching 426 million.
While our lifespan has increased, our ‘health span’ – the years one experiences good health – has not. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the most prevalent aging-related health conditions are hearing and vision impairments, wear-and-tear arthritis, chronic bronchitis, diabetes, depression and dementia.
As a matter of fact, aging is the number one risk factor for most chronic diseases. Eighty percent of Americans over the age of 65 have one chronic disease; 68% have two or more chronic diseases. It is a common belief that with aging comes physical and mental ailments that chip away at the quality of life and one’s independence.
As the proportion of older people increases globally, many low- and middle-income countries, like The Bahamas, face a significant economic challenge in providing proper care for an aging population
experiencing numerous age-related health conditions. More families will be directly impacted as they are faced with aging relatives who are no longer able to live independently.
What if we could intervene and mitigate this challenge? What would it look like in 2050 if we institute a national campaign today encouraging everyone on their ‘Road to 50’ to adopt lifestyle habits so that the need for geriatric care facilities does not increase with the increasing elderly demographic?
The WHO defines healthy aging as ‘the process of developing and maintaining functional ability that enables well-being in older age.’ It further describes it as the ability ‘to meet one’s basic needs, having the ability to learn, grow and make decisions, be mobile, contribute to society, and build and maintain relationships.
Functional ability not only refers to one’s capabilities but also includes how these capabilities enable one to navigate and interact in one’s environments – both physical and social. As I’ve studied food as medicine over the past three years, I’ve often wondered what I ought to be doing today so that I can experience well-being thirty years from now.
How many of us are intentional about our lifestyle choices today, motivated by the desire to experience well-being in our later years? Scientists estimate that genetics accounts for only 25% of the variation in the human lifespan. Much of the variation is due to lifestyle, which means we have quite a bit of control over how well we age.
Over the past few decades, longevity research has documented common lifestyle practices among those who live the longest. Early in 2000, researchers Michael Poulain and Gianni Pes identified a small town in Sardinia, Italy, as having the highest concentration of male centenarians.
They dubbed the region a ‘blue zone’ as a blue marker was used to draw concentric circles around the town on a map. They later teamed up with Dan Buettner, author and National Geographic Fellow, to identify four additional ‘blue zones’ around the world.
Blue Zones® are geographical regions that boast of the longest-living and healthiest people – many living to be 100 years old and older! Here’s what you can glean and begin practicing today to add years to your life and life to your years:
1. ‘Eat food, not too much, and mostly plants’. This advice from ‘Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual’ by Michael Pollan summarizes the way Blue Zone inhabitants eat. A diet based largely on plant foods promotes longevity as it is anti-inflammatory and rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, which collectively function to reduce our risk of developing chronic, non-communicable diseases.
The high amount of phytonutrients also protects our DNA from damage which is considered to be a driver of aging. In the blue zone of Okinawa, where the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world is found, a meal begins with the phrase ‘hara hachi bu’. It translates into ‘eat until you are 80 percent full’. Okinawans also guard against overeating by using smaller plates.
2. Move your body. You may immediately interpret this as ‘exercise,’ but in the Blue Zones, ‘movement’ is an integral part of life. Daily living involves far more movement than our sedentary Western lifestyles. The American Blue Zone of Loma Linda, California, is a community of Seventh-Day Adventists whose lifestyle habits include vegetarianism and regular nature walks in addition to intentional exercise.
Despite the fact that Loma Linda has a high percentage of centenarians, it also boasts of having a low incidence of dementia. Alzheimer’s researchers and husband and wife team Drs. Ayesha and Dean Sherzai have determined that genetics account for only a small percent of the risk of developing dementia, and ninety percent of us can avoid developing the disease.
Although symptoms appear in the sixties and seventies, the damage leading to age-related cognitive impairment begins as early as twenty-five years before!
3. Minimise stress. Stress creates an inflammatory environment in our bodies. Chronic inflammation has been shown to be the basis of a number of NCDs which ultimately take years off our lives and diminish the quality of life. Meditation, nature walks, and deep breathing are all accessible practices that can help to reduce and manage stress.
4. Cultivate strong social ties. In the blue zone of Sardinia, men meet daily in the streets and enjoy humour and red wine. In Okinawa, strong social bonds are formed and nurtured in the ‘moia’ – a group of lifelong friends formed to provide social, financial and health support and share common interests. In Loma Linda, intentional time is spent with family and friends during the Sabbath. Social isolation
and loneliness have been found to have a greater impact on our quality of life, rates of illness and premature death from all causes than diet and not smoking. We need the supportive company of others to age well.
Aging is Inevitable
Getting older is inevitable, but the health conditions associated with aging certainly are not. ‘Once a man, twice a child’ does not have to be the reality as we age. I challenge all the 1973 babies to consider the way of life of our own forefathers. Many of us can recall stories told by a parent or grandparent whose daily life involved walking long distances to their fields to tend the vegetables that were the foundation of their diet. I can recall stories my mother told of growing up on Cat Island and the community coming together to prepare bodies for burial, play rake and scrape music, or tell ‘old stories.’ We have a deep heritage of strong social ties. We don’t have to look very far, spatially or temporally, for examples of aging well. So, as I march down my ‘Road to 50’ and beyond, I owe it to myself, my children and future grandchildren to engage in good lifestyle habits now. I vow to add life to the years that I will share with my loved ones decades from now – today.
About One Eleuthera Foundation
Founded in 2012, One Eleuthera Foundation is a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to transforming our local island communities into thriving, self-sufficient ecosystems. We do this by focusing on five key areas: economic ownership, meaningful educational advancement, pathways to wellness, and environmentally sustainable communities centered around our island’s unique cultural identity. We run a number of social enterprises, including CTI, our vocational school; the Retreat Hotel, a training hotel for hospitality students; and our farm and Cooling House, which trains future farmers in the best sustainability and food production practices. Through OEF’s consistent dedicated efforts, the tenacity and resourcefulness of our legacy community, and the support of donors and partners, we are creating change in Eleuthera.