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From time to time, natural product promoters try to tell us that the world's longest living people eat some particular food from some particular country and we need to eat it, too. But the country with the world's greatest longevity is seldom mentioned.

The year 1933 saw the publication of British author James Hilton's famous novel, Lost Horizon. In his book Hilton described a mythical lost valley of Shangri-La, where people were almost immortal, aging only slowly, maintaining their youthful appearance and vigor well into old age.

Ever since the novel about Shangri-La, people have been loking for it. In the 1950's, a series of books and advertisements were based on products found in the Hunza Valley in Pakistan. The men of the Hunza Valley were said never to lose their hair, so if the consumer would only buy the seller's Hunza Valley herbal remedies, a full head of hair into old age was assured.

In the 1990's, the supposed site of great longevity had switched to Okinawa.

Japan is known to have the world's longest-lived people (although the statistics are skewed by the way the Japanese government counts deaths in infancy). Okinawa has five times as many people surviving to the age of 100 or greater than the rest of Japan, about 1 person in 300.

Fully 5% of the population of Okinawa in 2010 was over the age of 80, about twice as many women reaching this milestone as men. But Okinawa and Japan as a whole only have a life expectancy at birth of about 82 years.

What the CIA Tells Us About Life Expectancy

Life expectancy data are collected in every country in the world, and member states of the United Nations typically submit their statistics to the World Health Organization. The Central Intelligenc Agency of the USA, however, collects much more detailed data that included regions of countries that are not members of the United Nations--and several tiny countries have even greater expected life spans than Japan or Okinawa.

The latest data from the CIA date from 2012:

  • In Japan, the average life expectancy is 82.25 years. Men in Japan have a life expectancy of 78.96 years, and women have a life expectancy of 85.72.
  • The tiny principality in the Pyrenees Mountains Andorra has an average life expectancy of 82.43 years. Men in Andorra have a life expectancy of 80.36 years, and women have a life expectancy of 84.64.
  • The tiny mountain nation of San Marino, completely surrounded by Italy, just a few kilometers from the Adriatic Sea, has an average life expectancy of 83.02 years. Men in San Marino have a life expectancy of 80.5 years, and women have a life expectancy of 85.74.
  • On the southern coast of China, the administrative region of Macau has an average life expectancy of 84.41 years. Men in Macau have a life expectancy of 81.45 years, and women have a life expectancy of 87.52.
  • The Principality of Monaco, the world's second smallest independent state, has an average life expectancy of 89.73 years. Men in Monaco have a life expectancy of 85.77 years, and women have a life expectancy of 93.69.

When the average life expectancy in a country is nearly 90 years, and women have a life expectancy well over 90 years, something is going very right. But what is it in these tiny countries that makes the difference in how long their citizens live? And can those of us who live in other countries replicate their experience?

Does Tiny Monaco Possess The Casino Of Youth?

A tiny country famed for its luxurous casino and its Film Festival, Monaco at first would seem to be a place where longevity would be shorter than in other countries. After all, all those wonderful canapes at all those galas are not specifically low in cholesterol. The consumption of alcohol and tobacco is not stringently discouraged.

And while Monaco may rank at the top of the charts in longevity and income--a staggering US $153,177 per capita gross domestic product and US $215,000 per year average income for an adult--it's not exactly known for its vitamin consumption, personal trainers, or gym attendance. Instead, the tiny nation is known for its elegant and extremely expensive restaurants, its personal chefs, and its landscape, maintained like a fine garden.

So what is it that makes the difference in how long the Monegasque live that perhaps can be emulated in places where people earn less than $215,000 per year? Here are some possibilities:

  • Perched on the Mediterranean coastline, Monaco receives abundant sunshine, even in winter. Sunshine helps the body make vitamin D, and vitamin D helps to maintain the immune system. In turn, the immune system culls the senescent cells that too old to function that can cause problems in the linings of the arteries, in the heart, and in the brain. Maybe part of the reason life expectancy in Monaco is so high is its sunshine.
  • People in Monaco are, on the whole, financially quite well off. Poverty is essentially non-existent. When people do not have to deal with financial struggles, they are more free to engage in activities they find pleasant and rewarding and to take care of health problems quickly.
  • The most commonly consumed diet in Monaco incoporates many of the elements of a "Mediterranean diet," including fish, olive oil, and daily servings of vegetables. This diet even seems to help the body repair the telomeres, the "stoppers" at the ends of strands of DNA that make it possible for the body to recognize which cells are healthy and which cells are in need of removal to prevent the development of cancer.

Or maybe being old is just more fun in Monaco than in most other places.

If you want to create a lifestyle to emulate the longevity of Monaco and similar small countries, the common denominators do seem to be political stability, high standard of living, adequate diet, lots of leisure activities, and sunshine.

If you can't become a citizen of one these small nations where people live to be so very old, perhaps you can at least organize your life so that you have a minimum of financial worries, you have a minimum of major dislocations (for example, you don't live where there are hurricanes, tornadoes, or warring political factions), you have many connections to your family and your neighbors, and you get to spend a lot of time in the sun.

More than any prescription medication or any nutritional supplement or food choice in your daily diet, these factors make the greatest different in how long you live, and how well. Prepare for long life by making basic choices to ensure prosperity and liberty, and other choices will take care of themselves.

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  • [No authors listed] Wealth but not health in the USA> Lancet. 2013 Jan 19. 381(9862):177. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)60069-0.
  • Shippee TP, Wilkinson LR, Ferraro KF. Accumulated financial strain and women's health over three decades. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2012 Sep. 67(5):585-94. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbs056. Epub 2012 Aug 28. PMID: 22929397.
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