What 12 Centenarians Taught Me About How to Live to 100
The simple things in life can make the biggest impact.
The secrets to a long, happy life
“Everything that is lost is lost, so why worry about it? I’m not worried about it.”
This is sage anti-stress advice from Ana Reyneri Fonseca Gutiérrez. She’s an elegant 104-year-old woman, just one of the many centenarians living in Costa Rica’s Blue Zone. She gave me a glimpse into their lives—and the secrets of living to be 100 years old.
I visited Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula with Jorge Vindas, Costa Rica’s Blue Zone expert, and met a dozen centenarians and almost-centenarians. I learned that the keys to living a long life aren’t money, herbal supplements, joining a gym, or even getting lots of sleep. While some of the contributing factors to living so long—like the centenarians’ calcium- and magnesium-rich water—are harder to replicate outside of the Nicoya Peninsula, most of us can adopt several of their other practices without too much difficulty.
What are the Blue Zones?
The concept of Blue Zones was created by a demographics professor, a medical doctor, and a National Geographic fellow about 20 years ago. Working in Sardinia, Italy, Michel Poulain, PhD, and Giovanni Pes, PhD, discovered clusters of villages where people live exceptionally long lives. Teaming up with journalist and producer Dan Buettner, they identified areas in the world that they dubbed Blue Zones.
There are five Blue Zones: Sardinia, Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, Okinawa in Japan, Ikaria in Greece, and (though it’s debated) Loma Linda in California. Each Blue Zone is different, but all have significant portions of its populations living well into their 90s and 100s—in good health and in good spirits. Beyond the Blue Zones, these are the countries that are aging the best (and the worst).
Costa Rica’s simple life
When you visit Costa Rica, you hear “¡pura vida!” all the time. Pronounced “poor-ah vee-dah,” it’s the way many Costa Ricans say “hello,” “welcome,” and “goodbye,” as well as ask and answer “how are you?” It means “pure life” or “simple life,” and it characterizes the way they choose to live—relaxed, low stress, simple, and easy. Costa Rica has topped the world’s happiest country list three out of four times, and whether they live in the Blue Zone or not, Costa Ricans are more likely to live longer and happier lives than in most other places.
Costa Rica’s good life is helped by the government’s focus on its people and the environment in which they live, the World Economic Forum explains. Because the country eliminated its armed forces 70 years ago, Costa Rica has the money to invest in education, health care, biodiversity, renewable energy, reforestation, and sustainability.
Though most of us can’t move to Costa Rica, we can take a vacation there. In fact, four Costa Rican spots are on this list of the most popular travel destinations in Central America. My trip to Costa Rica was the ideal way for me to get into the pura vida groove and adopt some of the practices I learned from meeting Costa Rica’s Blue Zone centenarians.
The Nicoya Peninsula
Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula is on the country’s Pacific Coast, accessible via international flights to the city of Liberia. Two provinces claim it, Guanacaste in the north and Puntarenas in the south. The 75-mile-long and 35-mile-wide peninsula is topped by the Tamarindo area in the north, popular with international tourists for its beaches and surfing waves.
Emilio Salana, my guide and translator, tells me that fewer tourists venture south, where the centenarians live. Those who do can benefit from Nicoya’s beautiful surroundings and its longevity-giving drinking water, as well as learn other good centenarian practices. By the way, tap water in Costa Rica is safe for foreigners, and in general, you should rethink drinking bottled water.
Regular low-intensity exercise
The first centenarian I meet is 101-year-old José Bonifacio Villegas Fonseca, also known as Pachito. He dons a hat, and there’s a twinkle in his eye as he comes out to greet me. He tells me that he rides his horse every day—usually to visit neighbors—and he insists on demonstrating his prowess and showing off his horsemanship skills. Though he needs assistance getting up on the saddle, he looks half his actual age riding around his backyard.
Each centenarian I meet tells me about the importance of being active. While I hear about a few knee and hip problems, and some use canes and walkers, the centenarians are all active; they usually take walks or maintain their yards and gardens. Juan Gutiérrez Rosales, age 99 and nine months when I meet him, tells me he goes for a short hike every morning after his 6:30 a.m. cup of coffee.
Physical labor is also a common factor among the centenarians. As children, they were expected to contribute—for example, by harvesting fruits and vegetables or milking cows. As adults, most worked the land in some way, by cattle farming, cutting wood, growing produce, milking cows, or grinding corn.
Light eating of natural, not processed, foods
Costa Ricans generally eat a pretty healthy diet based on fresh foods grown in abundance in their verdant country. For example, pinto—rice and beans—is eaten every day, and passion fruit, papaya, and pineapple are popular.
Nicoya’s centenarians eat a simple and fresh diet, partially because many do not have higher incomes more common in Costa Rica’s big cities or easy access to shopping centers and restaurants. The diets of most Blue Zone centenarians tend to be low in calories, which has been shown to slow aging.
The centenarians tell me about typical meals. Most ingredients are grown nearby, and dishes are made at home. Corn tortillas and black beans are staples. Vegetables and fruits, like zucchini, pumpkin, cassava, squash, yam, and plantain are featured prominently. The centenarians aren’t vegetarians, though several tell me that meat used to taste a lot better than it does now. José de la Cruz Espinoza Quintanilla, who’s 103 years old, tells me he loves beans with “not too much pork fat, but enough.”
Most of the centenarians tell me they keep vices to a minimum, although that wasn’t necessarily the case in their younger days. Maria Trinidad Espinoza Medina, 102, lives a horseback ride away from Pachito, and he frequently visits her. “No drugs, no smoking, no drinking, or parties,” she says, but several of the men tell me they smoked and drank at one point.
In addition to exercise, healthy eating, and minimal vices, Costa Rica’s Blue Zone centenarians say that they sleep well but not a lot. Several make a point of telling me that they don’t even take an afternoon siesta. “No one will find me sleeping after 5 a.m,” Pablo Castillo Carillo, 96, says, as chickens walk through his yard. But he confesses that he sometimes drinks a beer and that his doctor has approved one beer per month.
Strong families and a sense of purpose
Most of the centenarians live with family or have family within walking distance who visit daily. Relatives bring groceries, help prepare meals, eat with their elders, and keep them company. Meals aren’t for fuel but for connecting with family and friends.
Almost all of the centenarians I meet have many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The centenarians are role models for the younger generations, and providing them with advice ensures that the elders have a sense of purpose. This is an important role for their families and for their own longevity. Studies show that those of us with life goals have better physical and mental health and a better quality of life. In fact, knowing your purpose in life can help you live longer.
Almost-centenarian Juan proudly poses for a photo with his 11-year-old great-grandson, Asdrubal. I ask Asdrubal whether he also wants to live to be 100. His shy answer is “yes,” but he’s more confident answering my question of how he’ll do that: “I will follow the example of my great-grandfather!”
Helping others helps you live longer
Blue Zone centenarians often have a strong social network, as well as gain a sense of purpose by helping their neighbors and community. Explaining her secrets to long life, Maria tells me: “Be a good person. Don’t do bad things to others. Love everyone.” Each centenarian tells me stories about looking out for others and sharing, and Pachito, our horseback rider, explains that whenever his family would kill a pig, they would ensure that all the neighbors received a portion. He says that “in the past, friendship was the most important” and adds regretfully that now money is more important and that respect for others has lessened. Here are 50 random acts of kindness that don’t cost a cent.
A strong faith
Religion is a central part of the centenarians’ lives. Vindas, Costa Rica’s centenarian expert, founded a nonprofit to support Nicoya’s centenarians, called the Asociación Península de Nicoya Zona Azul. He explains that all the people he works with were born into the Catholic faith, though some converted to other religions. The centenarians’ advice is to follow God’s instructions and to be thankful to God.
A positive outlook and few regrets
Whether almost at age 100 or past it, everyone I meet has a positive outlook and says they have “tranquil” lives. They do miss family and friends who have not lived as long as they have, and I hear stories of difficult times. But they don’t dwell on things. I ask each centenarian what worries them, and they all reply with an emphatic “nothing!” and seem to find the very question absurd.
The only regret I hear is that they all wish they could continue to do more of the work that they have always done. “My only worry is that I can continue to stay well so I can work,” Pablo says. Dominga Álvarez Rosales, 104, adds, “I’d like to work all day long if I could.”
Now, for North American workaholics like me, it’s important to note that none of these centenarians are saying they wish they’d spent more time in the office. Their work is the physical activity that makes their families, homes, and communities better and is interspersed with the opportunity to connect with the land on which they live and with other people.
The centenarian life
While it’s obvious that the centenarians aren’t spring chickens, most look at least 30 years younger than their actual age. Dominga, for example, is 104 but looks 75. And she’s passed on her good genes: Her daughter, Edith, looks to be in her late 40s, and my mouth drops in disbelief when she tells me she’s 73 years old. Of course, it’s more than that: They’ve discovered the things that can actually slow down aging.
No one is in perfect health, of course. Some are missing teeth, many are hard of hearing, and several of them need help getting in and out of their chairs (or on their horses). Once they’re moving, though, they’re pretty agile.
They’re all sharp, too. Vindas tests them on occasion as a way to see if his organization can help them with more specialized care. For example, he purposely uses the wrong name for one woman’s father. She doesn’t miss a beat, quickly correcting him as she continues her story. Most of the centenarians tell jokes and draw laughs from family members, and each is clearly happy to be the center of attention.