What do the healthiest populations of the world all have in common?
What hidden clues about optimal health can we learn from the world’s few remaining isolated populations? Is it some special sacred spice, or a deep and difficult meditation? Is it just geography, or luck?
For hundreds of years, humans have looked to other humans for the scientific secrets to longevity and high quality of life. But long before logic brought controlled inquiry, humans relied on brain cells. Housed in our skulls are mirror neurons, which sense the welfare of others, giving us an impression of whether a stranger is friend or foe, fit or not. It’s one example of the human brain’s secret survival mode.
I’ve been a student of human health since the 1960s, although initially not for academic or clinical reasons but rather because it was fascinating beyond my wildest dreams. The connection with the earth, how homegrown food provides the building blocks for the body to regularly replace itself, the brain’s quest to understand, and, even more important, pondering the wordless wonders of the universe. This close bond with nature, a real true love, in fact, is a common feature found in the healthiest populations. By observing the pockets of the world’s healthiest people, we can get clues about how to structure a healthy lifestyle now. But we’d better hurry.
Among the many populations studied are those around the Mediterranean Sea, with its rich region having a direct history with the earliest humans. Also often studied is the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, boasting great numbers of centurions. Even the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon have been highlighted for their superb fitness — written about long before Christopher McDougall’s blockbuster book Born to Run highlighted their amazing physical abilities, or their portrayal in the recent award-winning documentary, “Goshen.” What really led all these people to the fountain of youth, helping them live youthful and vibrant lives?
While many different studies have assessed the various amazing lifestyle qualities associated with these and other populations, one thing is clear — they are all dying off.
A problem with studying such populations is they are giving way to the modern world’s bad habits. The much talked about Mediterranean diet, with its great balance of carbohydrates, fats and proteins from plants and animals, native to Greece and the surrounding sea of the same name, was the diet for humans over millions of years. Today, however, junk food is the staple in Greece and the surrounding Mediterranean countries. And overfat is the norm in young and old, with a high rate of chronic disease.
Okinawa, once home to Japan’s longest living citizens, is now No. 26 in longevity, and the number one fattest. Okinawa now also boasts the largest number of hamburger joints in Japan. While the oldest generations cling to traditional healthy diets trying to maintain their longevity, McDonald’s, A&W and other fast-food companies selling everything from fried chicken to pizza have become a sign of modern times for the next generation.
The Tarahumara have also lost their ancient health, entering a modern world complete with junk food, overweight conditions, and chronic illness. A favorite treat of the younger Indians is cheese puffs that local stores sell in gigantic six-foot-long plastic bags.
The reason we may never know what populations such as these one-time healthiest people did to maintain their status is because they will soon cease to exist. Their next generations are as unhealthy as the rest of the world. While studying the habits of these healthy peoples may be very valuable, we’ll only have history books with which to gather data as these populations vanish.
Population studies are a favorite of most scientists. Unfortunately, the conclusions drawn cannot be applied to individuals. Likewise, case histories of individuals are an important way to learn about successful lifestyles but these lack the credibility observed in population studies.
Perhaps the best way to gain an understanding of health is to investigate ourselves. This “study of one” can have great value through experimentation, and discovering healthy habits that work and those that don’t. Since these change throughout a person’s lifespan, each individual’s life is really one big experiment. That’s the function of the brain — to help us be individuals.
Long ago I wrote a case that I’ve used a number of times in books and other articles. John was a 40-something executive who went to his company doctor for a now obsolete annual physical. His doctor was thorough in checking all John’s vitals, standard blood tests, even a chest X-ray, and always brought the good news that all looked great and John was healthy. Yet, John felt the effects of aging and had various functional problems, including low energy, poor sleep and frequent indigestion. When I started working with John, I could see his face change at one point as we talked through this scenario. He suddenly got it — he understood the message of real health and was eager to get on that path. That “aha” moment in his brain, which I could see in the very subtle but obvious whole body response, was another common denominator in people who develop the best lifestyle for optimal health. Although John was only taking his first step, it reminded me of my own first steps, and I knew he would succeed. Almost 20 years later, he was living an incredibly healthy and joyful life.
Many people relate to these short human stories. They somehow see themselves as a case study, wishing, wanting to control the outcome. We are truly individuals who have a say in how well, or how bad, we live our life and to a great extent how we die, as most people succumb to preventable conditions. We have the power over whether we die a long slow death, or during sleep following another joyful day of living a full life.
While individual case histories, science says, are not sufficient evidence of good or bad health habits, they may provide real-life examples of how a person’s lifestyle may affect health.
If you really believe there are hidden health secrets out there hidden away in jungles or on sacred mountaintops, please stop — there are none. There are certainly healthy habits that are very powerful. Scientists have been studying them for decades, and found four lifestyle factors that are primary for optimal health. Virtually all the well-known super-populations of the past that have been studied so far also successfully follow these. You can too. Here is a review of each “secret:”
- Food. Avoiding junk food (even the organic variety) is a must, but even so-called natural foods can fool us. Wonder-foods from thousands of years ago no longer exist on earth. While the Bible talks of bread, and corn was an Indian favorite, those versions are long gone. Modern menu choices have been dramatically changed, as today we are faced with unnatural junk foods and the likes of Wonder Bread and corn chips as the prominent cuisine around the world.
- Physical Activity. Natural daily movement is how humans evolved, performing many different actions each day. Some of us still gather wood for fire, large stones for garden beds, and perform other natural movements. The mainstream approach to fitness today, however, is as artificial as most foods. We are also significantly less fit than our ancestors of thousands of years ago. One might consider a marathoner, as an example, very fit. And they are. However, many marathoners are quite inactive in the 22-23 other hours of the day when they’re not working out. Running does not automatically convey health. Running-only routines, or common gym workouts, are not nearly as beneficial, especially for the brain, which wants variety as a spice of life. Being outdoors in the open sunshine, another key feature of the world’s healthiest populations, is our real gym.
- Tobacco. This one’s easy. Avoid it, even the organic variety.
- Alcohol. Over millions of years our bodies developed the ability to metabolize and respond to alcohol, a natural fermentation of plants, not unlike all other natural drugs. But to do that without harm requires a natural, healthy body. Only then will moderate drinkers outlive nondrinkers. Learning your tolerance level is more about understanding your body’s response than knowing what number (of drinks or blood alcohol level) is your limit. While a general guide for moderation is one drink for women and two for men, this is really about the liver’s effectiveness in breaking down alcohol.
Most other important factors said to be key reasons why certain populations live longer can be misleading. Wealthy countries now see people living much longer, yet quality of life is diminished, and an average person may spend a decade or more in a state of dysfunction, unable to care for themselves.
In addition, other common factors associated with healthier populations are usually secondary. Not that these are unimportant, but they happen naturally without us having to get online for a date, learn meditation, join a gym or buy a diet book. Here are two examples:
- Stress control. A healthy body naturally regulates stress. This brain-body stress management mechanism is related to hormones, the nervous system, and in particular, the brain itself. Our states of consciousness also play key roles not only in controlling stress, but are part of the body’s self-correction mechanism. In particular, the production of alpha waves, the relaxed but alert condition common during music (listening or playing/singing), enjoying life, or pondering the universe, plays a key role in keeping us healthy. But an unhealthy brain won’t work well no matter how many psych sessions we have or self-help books we read.
- A real life partner. For millions of years, the human brain, with the help of hormones and music, to name a couple of key features, helped us find our best mate. Sexual selection should be natural. While most no longer live in a culture where our mate is chosen for us, too many still act that way. If we think we met the right mate, but later find out we were wrong, instead of moving on we get stuck in a bad relationship. Having a mate clearly can improve health, but a mismatch can trash it fast.
Every animal in a natural habitat knows how to live life to the fullest. But by dulling our instinct-intuition, the modern world, especially the digital boom, is dumbing down humanity. Without instinct-intuition, it becomes very difficult to implement a healthy lifestyle. We forget how to eat, move and respond. It’s why diet books and gym workouts are so popular — no need to think, just do.
The need to rediscover — and cultivate — natural instinct-intuition may be one of the most important features of successful health. It may even be the best of the best factors common in all successful populations. A place to start includes two of the habits common to all those healthy populations: the avoidance of junk food, especially refined carbohydrates, and inclusion of a variety of physical movements during the day (which may be in addition to your regular workouts).