The Secrets of a Long Life from the U.S.’s Top Longevity Hot Spot

Horse_Gloria

Summit County resident Gloria Breigenzer, 75, does a yoga headstand in the Rocky Mountains while her horse looks on. (Photo credit: Thomas Breigenzer)

People are living longer in the world’s richest countries, according to a recent Pew Report. Certain areas, in particular, have drawn the attention of researchers who study longevity because in those places, living to 100 is not unusual.

"If you want to live longer, shape your environment."

At 8000 feet up, Summit County, Colorado is a longevity hotspot. Surrounded by mountains that soar to more than 14,000 feet, the population of nearly 31,000 brags the highest expected lifespan in the United States, at 86.83 years. For comparison, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.6 years.

So, what is it about living in Summit County that has brought about this high honor?

Despite popular belief, it’s not about genes. Only about “20-30 percent of longevity can be predicted by genetics,” longevity researcher Howard S. Friedman wrote in an email exchange. Friedman, a professor at the University of California at Riverside, co-authored a book about a famous study that followed participants for eight decades to learn what traits and factors contribute to a long life.   

“About half is behavioral (including environmental),” Friedman says. “The rest is random (chance).” His longevity research is based on work that began in 1921 by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman. To discern the keys to longevity, Friedman and colleagues spent 20 years looking back at the lives led by the 1500 “gifted” 11-year old boys and girls who were born in 1910 and participated in Terman’s study. 

“We found that ambition, perseverance, and high motivation … predicted not only success but also longevity: Stressful job and hard work, long life!” Friedman says.

Longevity expert Dan Buettner agrees that an individual’s environment is key. Buettner studies what he calls Blue Zones, where people “naturally live longer.” But, unlike the five Blue Zones in the world — Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California — the majority of the Summit County population chose to move to the mountain towns that make up the region. Because Buettner believes that people can be taught to live longer, he sees Summit County as an instructive locale.

Like the Blue Zones, people in Summit County “do not pursue healthy lifestyles; [rather] it ensues,” he says. “Blue Zones have the benefit of traditional patterns of eating and traditional rhythms of life. So they tend to be places where people walk to work, to a friend’s house … [and] Blue Zone people eat the right food — not because they have better individual responsibility or discipline; they simply live in an environment where beans, greens, nuts and grains are cheapest and most accessible.”

“If you want to live longer,” Buettner says, “shape your environment.”

But an individual’s environment can be affected by a number of factors, including socioeconomics, race, quality of and access to health care, as well as behavioral and metabolic risks. While the residents of Summit County smoke less and exercise more than those in regions with shorter life spans, they also have higher incomes and levels of education and lower unemployment. 

"The healthiest individuals in The Longevity Project…lived meaningful, committed lives. They worked hard and played hard."

Gloria Breigenzer moved to Summit County 20 years ago with her husband. “We wanted to ski and ride horses up in the mountains,” says Breigenzer.  The 75-year-old still works part time as a hair dresser, goes to the gym every day, lifts weights and does yoga.

”I don’t know why people don’t want to get up and go out and work out and do stuff. I do,” says the grandmother, who also exercises her rescue horse five days a week and for the past 15 years has done swing, country two step, and jazz dance in a group with her 77-year-old husband. She’s also taking kiteboarding lessons and for the past two years has spent every afternoon studying Spanish.

Pete and Judy Rubin, both 65, retired to Summit County nearly two years ago from Cleveland. In Colorado, “socializing doesn’t revolve around food,” says Pete. “In Cleveland it always did…[Being outside] in summer or in winter is just easy. Skiing, on a bike, taking a hike, mowing the lawn, looking at a mountain instead of having someone else do it.”

The Summit County approach resonates for researcher Friedman, who says that it’s the “constellations of habits and patterns of living,” that stood out most to him in his study. “Throw away your lists…The healthiest individuals in The Longevity Project…lived meaningful, committed lives. They worked hard and played hard. They were very persistent and responsible, and they were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.”

The following are some of the common denominators found in populations that live longer, including those who live in Summit County:

Plant-based diet: “Eat meat, no more than 5 times a month … [and] 95 percent of all the calories you take in should be whole plant-based foods,” says Buettner.

Know your purpose: Buettner found that having and understanding your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy. 

Have friendships: “You should have three to five friends who are healthy themselves who you can call on a bad day and they’ll care,” says Buettner.

Be on the move: Populations in zones where there is higher longevity “move naturally” as part of their day. It’s not about diets. “No diet in the history of the world has worked for more than 5 percent of people after two years,” says Buettner.

Relieve stress: “You should have some daily practices that help you downshift,” says Buettner. It “could be taking naps, or meditation practice, or a habit of praying or a habit of doing happy hours.”

Employ a family first rule: “Successful centenarians put their families first,” explains Buettner. “And that means keeping your aging parents nearby, being seriously invested in your partner and if you have kids, you make them a priority.”

It’s these “key patterns of living [that] tend to make you both healthier and happier,” says Friedman. “And health and happiness often then mutually reinforce each other.” 

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