As we continue on our longevity journey exploring the lives of the longest-lived people in the world, with researchers from National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging, along with Dan Buettner, author of Blue Zones, we embark next upon the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica — following our previous Blog adventures in Okinawa, Japan and Sardinia, Italy.
Much like Okinawa, many are likely to have preconceived notions about Costa Rica – associating it with Central America, a part of the world notorious for malaria, dengue fever and revolutions. The reality however is demographers have recently identified it as home to some of the healthiest, longest-lived populations on the planet. In fact, studies showed that a Costa Rican man at age 60 had about twice the chance of reaching age 90, as did a man living in the United States, France, or even Japan. And of those males reaching 90, they could expect on average, another 4.4 years of life – again, a life expectancy higher than in most developed countries. Further still, Costa Rica spends only 15% of what America does on healthcare, yet its people appeared to be living longer, seemingly healthier lives than people in almost any other country on earth.
While many demographers often question the authenticity of the age of some people due to the inaccuracy and poor record keeping which makes it difficult to actually verify ages, Luis Rosero-Bixby was one that had extraordinary detailed data and identified a group of villages around the Nicoya Peninsula where the proportion of oldest people was significantly higher than the rest of the country.
Interestingly enough, there appeared to be a similarity between Italy’s Sardinia and the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica in that they are both relatively isolated locations. But at the same time, there was one significant difference and new discovery with the Nicoya Peninsula that had never been seen before — the men here have very liberal attitudes toward sex – 75% of them had had sex outside the marriage and tend to have many sexual partners throughout life. Definitely a new theory for longevity!
One common aspect that certainly contributes to longevity however is that Nicoya, like all of Costa Rica, has the best public health system in Central America. They have good sewage systems, immunizations programs, and clinics in almost every village.
Nicoyans all believe in God, have a strong work ethic (like the Okinawans) and possess a zeal for family second only to the Sardinians. Clearly a recurring theme among long living people, regardless of where they live, is their strong sense of purpose –feeling needed and continuing to contribute to their family, ultimately provides a powerful sense of self worth, and likely also plays a key role in having a reason for living. In Okinawa, “ikigai” refers to a person’s reason to get up in the morning. In Costa Rica the term is “plan de vida” which basically translates to a reason for living.
Nicoyans diet consists of corn, beans, pork, garden vegetables and an abundance of fruit (papaya, mango and oranges) much of it grown in and around their yards. While fruits are well known to be powerful antioxidants associated with disease prevention and longer life, they are also likely a contributing factor to Nicoyans having the country’s lowest rate of cancer. Additionally, the corn (soaked in lime prior to being ground) and beans creates the foundation of perhaps the best longevity diet the world has ever known. Nicoyans’ food combination is rich in complex carbohydrates, protein, calcium, and niacin. Recent research shows that in high doses, maize can not only reduce bad cholesterol and augment good cholesterol, but being cooked with lime – a calcium hydroxide – makes a significant difference in that it infuses the grain with a high concentration of calcium – which is likely the reason why Nicoyans suffer fewer fractured bones and hips – another important factor in longevity.
But likely playing an equally important role to diet is their outlook on life – Nicoyans are very positive people and as a result, have very low levels of stress. They have a wonderful support network of family and friends — receiving large numbers of visitors almost every afternoon. The power of faith also has a profound impact on their longevity in that they have an unwavering belief in God — that he will take care of everything. Nicoyans believe God is in total control of their lives, which ultimately relieves any and all anxiety they might have otherwise. They go through life believing someone is always looking out for them.
Nicoyans’ “plan de vida” – their reason for living, is beyond just what they do on a day to day basis, it’s a core belief that they are alive for a reason and as a result, they continue to live life to the fullest each and every day.