The infrastructure of longevity — a systems-level perspective of living to 100

I really enjoyed reading a recent story in The New York Times Magazine about attempts to understand extreme longevity — the weird tendency for certain populations to have larger-than-average numbers of people who live well into their 90s, if not 100s.

Written by Dan Buettner, the piece focuses on the Greek island of Ikaria, and, in many ways, it's a lot like a lot of the other stories I've read on this subject. From a scientific perspective, we don't really understand why some people live longer than others. And we definitely don't understand why some populations have more people who live longer. There are lots of theories. Conveniently, they tend to coincide with our own biases about what we currently think is most wrong with our own society. So articles about extremely long-lived populations tend to offer a lot of inspiring stories, some funny quotes from really old people, and not a lot in the way of answers.

Buettner's story has all those elements, but it also proposes some ideas that were, for me, really thought provoking. After spending much of the article discussing the Ikarian's diet (it's low in meat and sugar, high in antioxidants, and includes lots of locally produced food and wine) and their laid-back, low-stress way of life, Buettner doesn't suggest that we'll all live to be 100 if we just, individually, try to live exactly like the Ikarians do. In fact, he points out that other communities of long-lived individuals actually live differently — Californian Seventh-Day Adventists, for instance, eat no meat at all and don't drink, and they live with the normal stresses of everyday American life.

What these groups do have in common, though, is a strong social infrastructure that ties people to each other emotionally and connects individual choices to a bigger community lifestyle.

It's hard to follow any diet when you're trying to do it on your own, in a culture that doesn't necessarily encourage you. It's hard to sleep in until 11:00 am every day (as the Ikarians do) when the social infrastructure of your community would actively punish such behavior. What's more, a common thread running through all these communities is an emphasis on the life-long pursuit of things that give your life meaning. There's not a cutoff point when you're expected to sit back, relax, and do nothing until you die.

The importance of systems, and how they shape individual behavior, is something I spent a lot of time thinking about while writing my book on energy. For example, it's somewhat futile to tell people to make an individual choice to drive less if the infrastructure of their city is set up in such a way that living without a car means being trapped in your house. But it's not something I'd thought about in terms of longevity.

Buettner's piece seems to suggest that it's not really your specific diet that matters. By which, I mean that eating healthy is definitely important, but there might not be a single, strict, specific diet that makes some things taboo and other things mandatory and must be followed at all times.

Instead, the important thing might really be your community as a system. If your community eats well (and makes eating well easy), so will you. If your community makes physical fitness part of daily life, you're more likely to be physically fit. If your community helps you create meaning in your life, it will be easier to find it. It's not really a solid answer for "HOW TO LIVE LONGER NOW", but it is intriguing. More importantly, from my perspective, it makes living a healthy life sound, you know, pleasant ... rather than like an obnoxious, individual dogma that creates smug insiders and resentful outsiders.

Of course, all of this fits nicely with my own personal biases, so who the hell knows. ;)

We do know from reliable data that people on Ikaria are outliving those on surrounding islands (a control group, of sorts). Samos, for instance, is just eight miles away. People there with the same genetic background eat yogurt, drink wine, breathe the same air, fish from the same sea as their neighbors on Ikaria. But people on Samos tend to live no longer than average Greeks. This is what makes the Ikarian formula so tantalizing.

If you pay careful attention to the way Ikarians have lived their lives, it appears that a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon naptime. It helps that the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the most healthful — and that your ancestors have spent centuries developing ways to make them taste good. It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. You’re not likely to ever feel the existential pain of not belonging or even the simple stress of arriving late. Your community makes sure you’ll always have something to eat, but peer pressure will get you to contribute something too. You’re going to grow a garden, because that’s what your parents did, and that’s what your neighbors are doing. You’re less likely to be a victim of crime because everyone at once is a busybody and feels as if he’s being watched. At day’s end, you’ll share a cup of the seasonal herbal tea with your neighbor because that’s what he’s serving. Several glasses of wine may follow the tea, but you’ll drink them in the company of good friends. On Sunday, you’ll attend church, and you’ll fast before Orthodox feast days. Even if you’re antisocial, you’ll never be entirely alone. Your neighbors will cajole you out of your house for the village festival to eat your portion of goat meat.

Via Tom Rafferty

Read the full story at The New York Times Magazine


  1. I find logic in his conclusion about community supporting lifestyle. In my own life, only after I moved to a laid-back part of California did I start to see improvements in my health and lifestyle, mostly due to how the rest of the community was living. I was obese and not particularly active, but in the past year or so since moving here, I’m surrounded by folks who hike, bike, get out and walk, enjoy the outdoors, eat fresh (and often organic) produce, relax, etc… in addition to that, folks here are just friendlier in general. In the time since I’ve been here, I’ve started eating better, exercising (because I feel like it should be part of my routine now, not out of any sense of pressure or obligation), getting active, and so on. As a result I’ve lost 100 lbs, gotten energy that I haven’t felt in years, and learned to love the outdoors in a whole new way.

    Contrast this to how I felt while living in other areas of the country (deep south, north east, eastern mid-west) where I didn’t feel such a sense of community and where I was just getting more and more out of shape. Yes, I’d say that the various facets of community have made a big difference in my life.

    That said, different folks will find their own sense of community in very different places. I’m interested to read feedback from others as this article gets read and circulated.

    1. And as a contrast, I moved to a place where people consume alcohol far more often, and after taking a job further from home I don’t exercise nearly as much, and I’m paying for it with weight gain and stress.

  2. Free will is a mirage. We should stop blaming people for their circumstances and work together more to create better scenarios for everybody.

      1. Well, it is quite the conundrum… I just fudge it by pretending free will exists most of the time, but remembering there’s no evidence to support its existence.

  3. Surely these communities also share something else in common – subset genomes? Seventh-Day Adventists may not be an ‘island’ population, strictly speaking, but children, as far as I can tell, still predominantly self-identify as practicing the religions of their parents, especially in proselytization-oriented religions like 7DA.  [The U.S. doesn’t collect religious data in its census, so this is just my own sense of things – correct me if I’m wrong.]

    Couldn’t that account for the longevity – the fact that there are fewer genomic degrees of Bacon between members of an island population, and by the same token, between each individual 7DA-ist? I’m not saying longevity is 100% nature and 0% nurture. But if the experimental population’s internal consanguinity is, say, one standard deviation removed from that of the general population, then any generalization you’re going to make about the general population based on the ‘island’ population should come with that ‘nature’ proviso.   

    For instance, if there was an especially HIGH rate of heart disease among Seventh-Day Adventists (but still, lower overall morbidity), would you also attribute that to the religion’s sense of community? Or would you come up with an alternative explanation?

    We already err on the side of ‘family and community are good for the soul.’ I do especially. But I don’t think it’s entirely innocuous, if we’re trying to look at things objectively, that we wag that dog with respect to the body.

    1.  How do you account for the differences between Ikaria and Samos, which the author says have identical genetic makeups?

      1. Ikaria is a more remote and difficult to access island, even today. Samos is kind of a central hub for the area and has a more mixed population.

  4. I think you might be on to something with that idea of community and longevity. The few centenarians that I know, all have the same thing in common – they are all actively engaged in society and their community; physically, mentally and emotionally. With 2 of them it’s their church communities, with another it is book clubs and dancing groups. None of them eat what I’d call a healthy diet – they eat smaller portions and none are obese. A couple have had severe health issues but have persevered with the help of family and friends.

  5. An interesting example of sacrificing some level of individuality for personal and communal gain.

    I also Really like the idea of Siestas!

  6. Wasn’t there a similar article in National Geographic a few years back? A 7th Day Adventist community in California, some island in Japan, and a town in Sardinia. The town in Sardinia had a lower average life expectancy than the other two communities because they had a measurable murder rate, but still had plenty of spry old folks.

    But it’s no secret what creates long lifespans, income equality, people working with autonomy and respect rather that sweating it for The Man,  a community that values good fresh foods and provides the time to prepare and enjoy them, and a culture that encourages vigorous activity in ample leisure time. The “City of Pigs” that Socrates proposed as the ideal human community, which was rejected by his interlocutors in The Republic, really is the way to go.

    I wonder if Salvadoran and Mexican communities in the US don’t sometimes achieve this. I look at how Hispanics buy grocies and I am impressed. They sometimes have abuelita loading up two carts with new (pink skin) potatoes, green beans, mangoes, Swiss chard, onions, carrots (that huge sweet kind you get pickled at the taqueria), wet masa mix to make tortillas, cabbage, and very little meat. And they have those fierce  Salvatrucha vs.Chicano futbol matches

  7. Great (specially the comments section)

    I’m collecting news and articles about longevity, and trying to live them myself –

  8. No, what all the isolated groups have in common is that they intermarry and have a very limited genetic pool. Any isolated group where though luck they have genetics predisposing them  to a longer life is just going to pass along this genetic advantage and you’ll find statistically a longer lived population.

    If you had an isolated colony where the genetic propensity was to a shorter life, you’d a) have the colony die out our more likely b) the press wouldn’t give a shit about them and so you don’t get any ridiculous articles.

    BTW: Many studies have shown that people given extra anti-oxidants live SHORTER lives.

  9. It’s a lovely story, and I particularly appreciate the highlighting of the interconnectedness of all the factors with community, meaning and interdependency. I can look at my own family, myself and many of my friends for examples of people anxiously following excellent diets, stressfully scheduling “enough” exercise into their schedules, fretfully comparing “best strategies” for health & longevity at (highly scheduled) social events, and see the ultimate- not quite futility, but almost- of attempting to apply the superficial solutions of diet, exercise, once-a-week-spirituality, etc into lives within a rigidly individualist system that actively works against reaping the rewards of all those. Unfortunately you can’t nutritionally supplement your way into a meaningful lifelong community where sustainable life practises are widely supported/communally enforced and where your evolving, continuously enriching role within it will be valued until you die. 

    Of course, as townandgownie above seems to be suggesting, it’s possible that community-supported healthy lifestyles and meaningful life-long interconnections alongside quality diets of local food may not guarantee any longer lifespan at all, without having also drawn the lucky card in an isolated gene pool. But it still sounds like a pretty nice way to spend 75 years, for those who draw the less-lucky gene cards.

  10. Sounds well and good.  My one non-smoking grandparent lived to be 99, and the one great grandparent who didn’t smoke or die at Ypres lived to be 102.  One Irish and one Hungarian.

    So I might have the genetic lottery part covered.  That said, it is hard to maintain a sense of community and connection – not to mention eat well and be healthy – in a typical western life nowadays.  Kids help in some ways (community) and not at all in others (money stress, access to recreation opportunities).

    1. MY grandparents’ average age at death – 84. My parents’ (who were heavy smokers and drinkers) average – 64.

  11. I’m going to ask the old, traditional question which may in itself not be very relevant to the scientific merits of Buettner’s theory: Is longevity even worth pursuing as a goal in itself? In some cultures, people have wished for an honourable death rather than a long life. Maybe we should focus on living well rather than on living long.

    In my experience, the conscience of living on top of a virtually infinite supply of days may easily become an excuse for procrastination and postponing everything till “tomorrow” because we can always get around to that.

    So other questions which might be analyzed by science is: Are people who live longer more happy? Are they more innovative and do they contribute more to the history of art, poetry, music, science, etc?

    The answer to the first question might easily be “yes”. The answer to the second question might also be affirmative, because they get more time to do their contributions, but people like Mozart, van Gogh, Keats, Shelley, Byron and Galois make you wonder.

  12. There’s one thing worth noting on nearly all “this group leads long lives” stories. No or low intake of meat and dairy.

    I doubt there’s a silver bullet for longevity, but the amount of meat and dairy we typically eat in the west has no precedence. It’s also something we have a very difficult time talking about.

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