Optimism and purpose, a low stress level, a natural diet and an active lifestyle…experts say those factors are three times as important as your genetic makeup when it comes to enjoying a long and healthy life. Luckily, it’s easy to embrace those elements when you’re living in a place where they come naturally. And they do in our top picks for the world’s healthiest places to live.
In these enclaves, people tend to put great value on personal interaction and friendship—and that involvement keeps you engaged every day. A slower pace—often coupled with a much lower cost of living—relieves the pressure and anxiety that so often takes grip at home. In the U. S., the “locavore” movement—which advocates eating foods grown near where you live—is just gaining momentum. But in the places profiled here, the foods you find at the markets are always fresh, local and organic. In these destinations, the air is clean and the sun shines—so you tend to be outside more and therefore more active.
As American Lee Carper reported after a few months in Ecuador, “I haven’t felt this good in so long I can’t remember. I used to take pain medication, but here I rarely take an aspirin. I don’t pick up a phone or get on the computer. I used to be glued to all that at home.”
If you’re ready to escape to a place where you’ll feel better, look younger and live longer, here’s your short list:
Healthy Living Kiwi-style
Home to 4.3 million people, New Zealand and its awesome landscapes is admittedly a long way from North America. But as our winter is their summer, you could consider retiring here part-time. In a pollution-free environment, it’s much easier to embrace a healthy lifestyle.
Those of working age may have a skill that New Zealand needs. Most transplants find their work-life balance changes for the better. There’s less stress, and health care is affordable and often free. For both sexes, average life expectancy is two years higher than in the U.S. Here, it’s 83 for women and 78 for men.
Its “outdoors lifestyle” isn’t all about high-octane adventure or team sports like rugby. The most popular participation sports are walking and hiking. Surveys suggest that 64 % of adults go “tramping.” Many families own a small boat, and fishing and swimming opportunities abound. No matter where you live, nowhere is more than a 90-minute drive from the ocean.
A Colorado transplant, Jill Chalmers moved to New Zealand with her Kiwi husband. “Everyone, young to old, always seems to be doing something active,” she says. “People just get out and do things. It’s easy to join in.
“Plus there’s an abundance of healthy whole foods. We eat fresh seafood (we often catch it ourselves) and local organic fruits and vegetables. Everyone grows something here and neighbors all put out bags for purchase by anyone. We get fresh lettuce from the kids’ school, avocados from our tree, and kiwis, apples and plums from our neighbors.”
“Live long and prosper.” In the famed Star Trek series, it was the typical Vulcan salute. And that brings Volcan to mind. What better place in Panama to seek long life and live off the grid?
Expat Patrick Greer, owner of the Lost and Found eco-lodge (www.lostandfoundlodge.com), says few places rival Volcan for green-highland scenery and low-cost living. But he and other expats are cottoning on to the health benefits of living here.
Check out the cemetery gravestones and you’ll note people in this region were living into their 80s and 90s when life expectancies elsewhere in Panama averaged 77 years or less. It’s a combination of the spring-like weather and the fresh produce here.
Often described as the “Shangri-La Valley,” Volcan’s attractions include thermal springs and berry stands. Just try to stress out here; it’s hard to do—the pace of life is so serene.
U.S. expat Paul Votava runs Restaurante Polineth in Volcan, which serves Thai fare. He lobbied organic farms to grow chilies for his dishes and grows many herbs in his own garden. Today, $10 gets you full of the tastes of Thailand—guilt-free, of course, thanks to the organic vegetables.
Patrick’s lodge is in a national park with dozens of hiking trails. “We are surrounded by tranquility,” he says. “Hordes of monkeys come through the trees…cacomistles appear every night at eight like clockwork.” His neighbors include an organic farmer who specializes in coffee and makes his own wine. You can sample both and have a farm-to-table lunch, then lose yourself under the green canopy of La Fortuna nature reserve.
Centenarians in Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula
“Blue Zones” have been determined by scientists as places where the world’s longest-living people reside. One of these is Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula on the country’s northwest coast. Researchers spent nine months there in 2007 to determine why so many people live well into their 90s and 100s—longer than anywhere else in Costa Rica…or the world, for that matter.
The scientists studying the centenarians of the Nicoya Peninsula found eight key reasons for this longevity:
1. Diet. The people here are heavily influenced by the indigenous diet of the Chorotega, consisting of high-fortified corn and beans—healthy and high in fiber.
2. Water. With loads of calcium, the hard water encourages strong bones and fewer hip fractures.
3. Family focus. The Nicoya centenarians tend to live as couples or with children and/or other family members from whom they get support.
4. Eating lightly. They eat a light dinner early in the evening. (Eating fewer calories is proven to add years to your life.)
5. Dry climate. Nicoya is the driest part of Costa Rica, and in dry climates food doesn’t spoil as quickly, the sun is more intense, and people get fewer respiratory diseases and more Vitamin D.
6. Social networks. The centenarians here get frequent visitors and they know how to listen, laugh and appreciate what they have.
7. Work. They’ve enjoyed physical work all their lives and find joy in everyday chores.
8. Purpose. They feel needed and want to contribute to a greater good.
Sardinia: Ancient Island, Ancient People
Off Italy’s Mediterranean coast, Sardinia is a rugged island of 1.3 million people. It’s often synonymous with the jet-set lifestyle—Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s Prime Minister, owns a vacation villa here.
While Signor Berlusconi happily admits to a hair transplant and cosmetic surgery, he looks in good shape for a 73-year-old. Could it be something in Sardinia’s air?
Maybe, but by local standards he’s a youngster. Sardinia is another Blue Zone. Due to their extraordinary number of centenarians, the close-knit villages of its interior have attracted several major research teams.
Dan Buettner, a noted author on longevity, interviewed several centenarians in Barbagia for National Geographic. (Tavern calendars here feature a “Centenarian of the Month.”)
Most still live with one or more family members. The men are shepherds and continue that lifestyle. They typically walk five miles a day and eat similar diets: whole grain flatbread, fava beans, tomatoes, greens, garlic, various fruits, olive oil and pecorino cheese from grass-fed sheep (high in Omega 3). Among older people, meat often remains reserved for Sundays and feast days.
One interviewee is Guiseppe Mura, aged 102. He starts work at dawn, comes home, sleeps a little, and then spends some time with friends in the village square. He then returns to the fields until dark.
Maria, his 65-year-old daughter, estimates her father drinks a liter of wine daily. The local wine is Cannonau, a dark, red wine with the world’s highest levels of antioxidants.
Vilcabamba: The Valley of Longevity
Why can natives of Vilcabamba’s “Valley of Longevity” live longer, healthier lives? Maybe it’s the pollution-free environment or the highly oxygenated air. It could be the unique combination of minerals in the water or the abundance of negative ions emanating from the mountains and fast flowing rivers. Easy access to natural medicines, largely unavailable in developed countries, is another possibility.
While all these factors can contribute to a longer, healthier life, they aren’t the typical reasons expat residents give when they explain why they feel so much better living in Vilcabamba. A more typical response will reference the valley’s magnificent weather.
The health benefits may not be immediately obvious. But this consistently good weather means your body doesn’t have to expend energy adapting to climatic extremes. Windows can be open 24/7, filling your house and your lungs with crisp, clean air.
Vilcabamba’s idyllic year-round weather means anytime-access to fresh, tasty and inexpensive fruits and vegetables. And it’s easy to get up and go when the weather outside is so good. How can your doctor and your body not like that?
But it’s not just Vilcabamba’s atmosphere that helps make the area a healthy place to live; there’s also Vilcabamba’s “attitude.” Stress, the stealthy destroyer of a person’s physical and mental well being, is no match for the valley’s ambience. Residents laid-back approach, combined with Vilcabamba’s spectacular scenery, can make anyone’s disposition as wonderful as the weather.
The Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Olive oil. Soups studded with yellow split peas, broad beans, haricot beans, chickpeas and lentils. Small portions of nuts. Wheat bread or pasta. Moderate amounts of fish and poultry. Cheese and yogurt as the main dairy foods. Aromatic honey. A low intake of red meat, but a moderate intake of red wine.
There’s nothing faddish about the Mediterranean diet. The term was coined by American nutritionist Dr. Ancel Keys in the1950s, but southern Europe’s people have eaten this way since antiquity.
Numerous studies suggest it helps combat heart disease and boosts longevity. It didn’t do Dr. Ancel any harm. He spent 40 years residing in southern Italy and lived to see his 100th birthday.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the Mediterranean diet has been associated with lower levels of LDL cholesterol—the “bad” cholesterol that clogs up arteries. Highlighted on ABC News, a recent study from Columbia University suggests it may also help seniors avoid strokes, and ultimately dementia.
And the taste, like Greek flavors, is great. Along with red wine, nothing beats a lunch of feta cheese, zucchini, olives and tzatziki—garlic yogurt. But wherever you go, even simple soups taste wonderfully flavorsome. Mediterranean cooks use herbs such as oregano and thyme to season foods. And bread—real bread—isn’t slathered in butter. Instead, it’s often smeared with tomato pulp and drizzled with olive oil.
Some items from the Mediterranean table may bring other benefits. Ancient Greeks and Romans threw walnuts at weddings because they reputedly improved fertility.
Then there are pine nuts. Italians combine them with basil, garlic, olive oil and parmesan cheese to make pesto sauce. In classical times, pine nuts were considered a libido booster—they’re rich in zinc.
Galen, a second-century Greek who became personal physician to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, devised a prescription to enhance male performance. He recommended: “A glass of thick honey, plus 20 almonds and 100 pine nuts repeated for three nights.”
The French Longevity Recipe
In 1911, The New York Times reported on French life expectancy. “At the beginning of the last century, the average duration barely exceeded the age of 30. In 1880 it was up to 40, and now varies between 47 and 48.
Since then, life spans have increased at an astonishing rate. Life expectancy now tops 80 for France’s population as a whole but is 84 for women.
That’s the average. The Paris-based National Statistics Institute showed 20,115 centenarians in 2008. Offset against a total population number of around 65 million, France’s centenarian ratio outranks the U.S. and Japan.
Moving to France won’t deliver immortality, but the World Health Organization ranks its health care system as the world’s best. Contributions-based, it’s costly to maintain, but nobody falls into serious debt—the unemployed are covered, too.
Adrian Leeds, who has lived in France since 1994, told IL about her situation as a foreign legal resident. “My [French] social security payments are approximately $2,175 per year. I top it up with a $1,300-a-year complementary policy providing 100% coverage, including dental benefits.”
Provided you can support yourself or are legally employed, you can obtain such status. However, many expats opt for private health insurance. With one provider, it costs around $215 monthly if you’re 50 to 64; $300 if you’re 65 to 69; and $335 if you’re over 70 years old.
What puzzles researchers is that, despite a rich diet, France has low rates of heart disease. Some scientists suggest the explanation could be the habit of eating everything, but in small portions.
Others put it down to red wine. Particularly high levels of a plant chemical called procyanadin are found in Tannat grapes from the Southwest region. Experts say this is beneficial for blood vessels.
Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who lived to the age of 122, defied all explanation. Still riding a bicycle when she reached her 100th birthday, she didn’t quit smoking until she was 117. She attributed her longevity to olive oil, port wine and chocolate.
Look and Feel Young Overseas
If you dream of moving to one of the overseas destinations that International Living writes about, you probably look forward to a low-stress, affordable lifestyle. It’s likely to be a healthier lifestyle, too. Here are some reasons why.
Warm climate: Most of us dream of retiring someplace warm. Snow and cold are things we gladly leave behind with our old 9-to-5 lives. And when the weather is warm and sunny, it’s easy to spend more time outside in the fresh air. Before you know it, you may ease into an active lifestyle with lots of exercise…which health experts agree is key to keeping us looking and feeling young.
Some expats actually choose an overseas destination because they can practice a favorite sport there, such as golf, hiking or fishing. Others take up a new activity once they move. If you’re near the sea, for instance, swimming or strolling the beach may become part of your new routine. If you live in a city, you may soon be walking to shops and markets, or just exploring your new home town on foot. When adventure or fresh discoveries lie around every corner, long walks don’t feel like exercise.
Social life: Fresh air and sunshine can also help you make friends. (Health experts say that social networking helps us live longer, too.) Ever stayed home from a social event because you couldn’t face a cold, wet night out? In your new warm-weather home, you’re more likely to ask, “Where’s the party?” and enjoy the evening stroll there and back.
Healthy eats: With a warm climate comes a long growing season for fruits and vegetables. Expats often praise the quality and freshness of the produce they can buy locally. You can choose to eat junk food if you want. But fresh, exotic produce can tempt you to eat more healthily. If you do, your health—not to mention your taste buds—will thank you.
Of course, in warm weather it’s also tempting to lie by the pool and just do nothing. That’s okay, too—it lowers all that unhealthy stress.