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