Like almost everyone else in the U.S., I have tried a lot of diets and exercise regimens over the years, without much success or benefit. I was suffering from high blood pressure and high cholesterol and consulted fellow doctors and nutritionists. Everyone seemed to have a different answer. But everything began to change as I came to know Bapan, China—a place I read about after it was featured in a medical journal. It’s known as “Longevity Village” due to its concentration of older residents. With a population of about 550, it has around one centenarian for every 100 people living there. The average ratio of centenarians in the U.S. is 1 in 5,780.
In Bapan, people age very slowly and don’t struggle with obesity; villagers in their 90s and even 100s are often still out in their gardens and farms. There is virtually no heart disease or cancer. Dementia is all but unheard of.
To be honest, I found all of this a bit destabilizing. It stood in stark contrast to much of what I’d learned in medical school. I’d been taught that chronic medical problems were just part of aging and that we can treat them with medications and surgeries. In this way of looking at life, a painful decline was pretty much inevitable. All we could do was make it more tolerable.
So what do the villagers of Bapan do to live such long, healthy lives? A good diet free of added sugars and processed foods naturally plays a role, as does physical activity. The older residents of Longevity Village never intended to exercise, but they did get exercise—lots of it. Almost every waking moment of their lives was spent in motion. But I also discovered that some simple changes in mind-set can help, too.
Smile more. Mawen, who told me she was 107 years old when we first met, was feisty, funny and always smiling. When I asked if she smiled even through the hard times in her life, she replied, “Those are the times in which smiling is most important, don’t you agree?” One clever study published in Psychological Science in 2010 showed that baseball players who smiled in their playing card photographs lived seven years longer, on average, than those who looked stern. So the next time you’re standing in front of a mirror, grin at yourself. Then make that a habit.
Rethink stress. At least 70% of all visits to the doctor are estimated to be for stress-related ailments such as high blood pressure, chest pain or palpitations. Rachel Lampert of Yale University has found that feelings of sadness, anger, stress, impatience or anxiousness increase a person’s risk of suffering from atrial fibrillation nearly 600%.
But among the people of Bapan, I found an exceptionally low level of perceived stress. One day, I found myself picking vegetables with a man named Li Yu, who told me he was 50 years old. When I mentioned that working in the field seemed like difficult work, he said, “It is hard work. By the time I am back at my home, though, I don’t think about how hard it is. I am always feeling satisfied about what I have accomplished during the day.”
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Don’t forget to play. Many of us spend at least some of our lives engaged in exercise and athletics, but most of us don’t play. The villagers incorporated play throughout their days. Mawen, for instance, told me about the ad-libbed songs that she and her husband would sing as they worked in the fields. You can add play even in small ways. When I’m on call, I am often running from one end of the hospital to the other. Now, to make it a game, I try to see how many steps I can log on my iPhone.
Look forward to aging. In a study of 660 older Americans published in 2002 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that regardless of socioeconomic status or even age, people who embraced the aging process and felt like life would continue to get better lived nearly eight years longer than those with a more pessimistic view. Indeed, all of the centenarians I’ve spoken to in Bapan told me that they are living the best years of their lives. Looking forward to later years that could be truly golden might be one of the best things you can do for your health.
—Dr. Day is a cardiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City. This piece is adapted from “The Longevity Plan,” written with Jane Day, to be published on July 4 by HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).
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