When I began my undergraduate years at the University of California-Berkeley, I chose cellular biology as my premed major. Enthused as I was with each course, I felt something was missing. Seeking an answer to my angst, I’d often take long, reflective walks around campus, through eucalyptus groves populated by cackling blue Steller’s jays and verdant gardens punctuated by bright hibiscus and bougainvillea. And then it hit me: The answer was literally right under my nose. Gazing at the greenery around me, I realized how much I yearned for a more holistic and integrative perspective on the science I was studying. It’s not just about Earth’s living creatures; the intersection with their living environment is also integral to understanding how to optimize their wellness. My mind naturally embraced these countless interconnections with nature, which eventually led to my double major in biology and conservation of natural resources. This marriage of premed and ecology raised more than a few eyebrows at the time, but it made perfect sense to me.
Flash-forward to a recent trip to Costa Rica, where I would experience an extraordinary opportunity to pair medicine and nature.
I was drawn to Costa Rica for many reasons, including its protective animal and environmental policies. There is no leisure hunting, nor is there cutting down trees without the environmental ministry’s approval. But something else drew me to this tropical Central American country: One of its cities, Nicoya, is home to a thriving community of centenarians. Nicoya is one of five designated “blue zones,” or hot spots of longevity, that have been identified around the world, including Japan’s Okinawa, Italy’s Sardinia, Greece’s Ikaria, and Loma Linda, California, here in the USA.
For years, researchers have busied themselves studying the lifestyles of these gold-medal winners of longevity, seeking their “secrets” to sustained wellness and vitality. Is it their water? Their environment? Specific foods? The company they keep?
With these questions churning through my mind, I hopped into a four-wheel-drive vehicle with my trusty Costa Rica expert and guide, Ron Carranza, and we made our way to Nicoya in hopes of meeting one or more of the great elders.
They’re not easy to find, as they tend to live in mostly rural locations, often lacking actual addresses. The good news is Nicoya is a tightly knit Catholic community, and the parish priest, Father Juan Carlos, was happy to provide creative directions–head south until the paved road becomes dirt, turn left at the cemetery, right after the second tree grove, watch out for the horses–to 109-year-old Francesca (“Panchita”) Castillo’s humble hillside abode.
Panchita at the age of 105.
The Wisdom of the Elders
When we finally arrived at Panchita’s small wooden home, which is shaded by a canopy of lush yellow bark and balsa trees, 70-year-old Magdalena, Panchita’s granddaughter and primary caregiver, warmly greeted us. Discovering I was a doctor, she asked for my help. Panchita, we were told, had celebrated her 109thbirthday the month before. All seven generations of the family had converged for a day of savory meals, joy, laughter, and stories. At dusk, after everyone had departed, a jubilant and tired Panchita fell asleep. The next morning, to Magdalena’s astonishment, she was completely different.
Seven generations of family.
Already blind and mostly deaf, Panchita now vacillated between coherence and confusion. Sleeping and eating became chaotic. Her sudden decline was rapid, and had left Magdalena anxious and panicked. Apparently, Panchita had not been seen by a medical provider in quite some time, so I gladly volunteered to do what I could. After examining her, it appeared she had suffered a stroke. Ron and I educated Magdalena about what had apparently transpired, offering suggestions about her caregiving going forward. Relieved and grateful, she sat with us on the porch, sharing stories, insights, and wisdom about Panchita and her legacy.
I learned much from my conversations with Magdalena, including the following highlights that form the foundation of powerful wisdom. Perhaps you can use them to create your own legacy of longevity.
- First, the secret is there is no one secret. Ditch any idea that there’s “something in the water” or that there’s one big secret to high-quality longevity. As I had learned during my college days, wellness is always an integrative, holistic ecosystem involving a host of interconnections between the individual and the environment.
- Second, we should all live by the BE, then DO, then HAVE wellness plan. People seeking the Holy Grail of wellness and longevity often fall into a desperate and fruitless cycle of frantically DOing something to themselves, to BE something different, hoping to HAVE that goal in hand. So we do the latest diet or exercise craze to be thinner/more attractive/fitter/competitive in life, in order to have some kind of happiness and satisfaction from it all.
Follow Their Wellness Plan
The great elders show that we’re doing it all wrong. Instead of constantly trying to do something to yourself in hopes of finding a fountain of youth, change the order so that it starts with being yourself, then doing what it takes to support that, resulting in having the wellness and happiness you seek. So:
Be authentic, introspective, truthful, fun, adventuresome, a loving family member, supportive friend, clear about your purpose in life, responsible for maintaining your health and well-being.
Do the planning and work to maintain all that it takes to support your “BE,” including the precious networks of loving and supportive relationships; the preparation, cooking and eating of whole, natural foods; the physical activities necessary to care for yourself and be of service to others; the other activities that gift you with joy and fun.
Have by being true to your purpose in life and doing the work to support the true you that you discover. You’ll have optimal happiness, satisfaction, pride, and gratitude for the benefits you reap.
Build Your Longevity Base
Now take this ecosystem template, remembering the BE-DO-HAVE order of life, and integrate the Four Pillars of Wellness:
- Family. Scientists have found that extreme old age does indeed run in some families. This genetic inheritance is not attributable to a single gene, but to a number of common genetic traits that are associated with aging more slowly. Like Panchita, most centenarians spend the majority of their years in an energized health span, followed by a shortened, often rapid decline at the end of their life. In order to fully express these favorable genes, they must be supported by an optimal lifestyle and environment. Genetics may load the gun, but lifestyle and environment pull the trigger! Family networks and relationships are key to wellness. Panchita is the matriarch of seven living generations. This is extraordinary, to say the least. Researchers are finding that loving relationships are equal to, if not more important than, good nutrition and physical fitness. If bloodline family ties didn’t work out so well for you in your own life, create your own family with your own chosen support networks. Hey, don’t forget: Pets count, too!
- Friends. Harvard researcher Robert Waldinger, MD, is director of the longest study of adult happiness. This 75-year-long study’s finding is simple: Happiness has little to do with material possessions. For that matter, in a recent comparison of lower-socioeconomic-status Costa Ricans like Panchita with a similar U.S. demographic, the poorer Costa Ricans lived far longer and happier lives than their American counterparts. Happiness is rooted in rich, satisfying relationships. Research also shows you don’t need a slew of friends to enhance your health and well-being. Having at least five good friends seems key to both men and women alike. The larger the network of high-quality friendships, however, the greater the happiness and well-being. It pays to reach out and connect.
- Faith. Science has demonstrated the powerful association between faith, spirituality, and wellness. A positive and productive belief system is integral to what the Costa Ricans refer to as the plan de vida, or purpose in life. I interviewed other elders on my Nicoyan trip, and in each case, both a strong religious and spiritual belief and a firm plan de vida were present. There seemed to be an undercurrent of a need to be of service to others, whether it be family, friends or anything/anyone who was reaching out for help. Prior to her stroke, for instance, Panchita maintained a ritual of daily chores and responsibilities, rising at 5 a.m. to make fresh tortillas for the family. She was in congruence with nature, up at sunrise, preparing to rest at dusk. She and her kindred centenarians lived by nature’s rules, driven by her faith and beliefs, the foundation of her plan de vida.
- Fitness. I’m referring to mental, spiritual, and physical fitness. Panchita stayed engaged, mindful, and fully present in her daily lifestyle rituals. The three-mile walk she took regularly to purchase supplies was never about a calorie-burning obsession.
If running off to a tropical forest and living a simple life with toucans and mangos is not an option, you can customize these lessons to fit your 21st-century life.
Plants and mammals evolved in parallel. We’re intricately bonded. So strive to live in more congruence with nature. Move closer to nature and integrate the Pillars of Wellness into your daily life. Cultivate your own overall ecosystem; start by identifying your own plan de vida. Spend time in device-less contemplation. Make a friend. Embrace family. Ditch processed foods. Grow a garden anywhere. Find every excuse to get outside to connect with your natural roots.
You’ll discover, as I have, that the pairing of health and nature is indeed the recipe for optimal wellness. So say the elders.