5 Lessons in Longevity from Hong Kong
For the second consecutive year, Hong Kong has the longest-lived population in the world. We are officially, and perhaps surprisingly, the world’s foremost Blue Zone. Men are living to 81.3 whilst women live to the ripe old age of 87.3.
What is a Blue Zone?
When you hear the term ‘Blue Zone’ you might be forgiven for not immediately thinking of Hong Kong’s sprawling metropolis. Rather, images of sleepy Costa Rican beaches, elegant Okinawan gardens and steep Sardinian hillsides might spring to mind.
Best Selling Author Dan Buettner wrote the book on this back in 2008; “Blue Zones” looked for common factors between the world’s longest-lived populations. The good news from his research is that we are largely in control of our fate- only 25% of our longevity is predetermined by our genes- 75% is down to our environment and how we choose to live.
Hong Kong is by no means perfect. We have terrible air pollution problems, we’re a high energy, high-stress city and we lack many of the more obvious advantages of our fellow Blue Zones. However, despite all of these factors Hong Kong has the world’s highest life expectancy.
Let’s take a look at the factors that seem to confer longevity on Hong Kong’s oldest residents.
One thing to bear in mind is that these factors are very specific to a particular generation, a particular segment of society and might not automatically confer the same longevity on younger generations or expats here for a short stint before returning home. Just because the current generation of elderly Hong Kongers is longlived doesn’t mean that future generations will.
You also won’t find any quick fixes or ‘one weird trick’ type pieces of advice. There isn’t much that is shocking or revelatory but rather some useful reminders about things we all know to be true but frequently discard or ignore.
Longevity Factor 1: Hong Kong is an enabling society
We have easy access to everything here- public transport is excellent and means that the elderly aren’t alienated and have easy access to outdoor spaces, medical care and society at large.
Whilst the ‘enabled society’ has been a force for longevity in this particular demographic I suspect that the exact term might have more negative consequences for the younger generations.
We live in the age of e-commerce and ‘online to offline’ is the new norm. For a specific generation, this might confer tremendous benefits in keeping them socially engaged just at the point where their mobility starts to dwindle. However, for younger generations this easy access to everything- round the clock food delivery (I realize the irony here) will, I suspect, be the cause of poor health and shortened life expectancy.
The digitalization of certain aspects of life has probably made life tremendously easier in many ways as an add-on to an existing way of life. It remains to be seen whether cradle to grave immersion for digital natives will yield a similarly robust outcome.
Longevity Factor 2: Nutrition
Nutrition is a misnomer as most of the ageing population wouldn’t think in terms of nutrition but rather food and meals. Watching the older population shop in the wet markets there is a clear emphasis on eating leaner cuts of meat and fruits and vegetables. No fads, no carnivore diet, no veganism. Just traditional foods, eaten sparingly.
Hong Kong’s elderly don’t exclude very many foods. They don’t demonize carbs. They eat regular servings of the dreaded gluten, in the form of noodles and dumplings, and even regular consumption of MSG and Sodium of Soy Sauce and Oyster Sauce doesn’t seem to be having a net negative impact. Processed meat, one of the WHO’s carcinogenics, is regularly consumed. (Interestingly SPAM, the most processed meat in existence, is a staple of the Okinawans another famously longlived population)
What lessons can we learn here?
Calories are important- eating a diet that is lower in calories is good for health. The traditional Hong Kong diet contains a lot of very satiating elements that will make it easier to consume a lower calorie diet.
Lean protein, plenty of fruits and vegetables, soups and broths all blunt hunger whilst providing valuable nutrients.
This is something that Hong Kong has in common with many of the Blue Zones observed in the book where there was less of a fetishisation of certain diets and more of reliance on traditional eating behaviours and old-fashioned portion control. One thing that is seldom addressed with nutrition and health is the social structures that dictate eating behaviour.
Sometimes we focus too much on what we eat and not how we eat. In Blue Zones we typically see more of a social aspect to eating that has been abandoned in Western cultures where a hurried sandwich, eaten at the desk is the norm.
Longevity Factor 4: Exercise/Movement:
We’ve all seen the very visible cohort of elderly exercisers in Hong Kong’s public spaces. Armed with fans, or swords, or simply bearing arms they practice Tai Chi and Qi Gong in parks and plazas across the city. They also make frequent use of the exercise corners and rock gardens.
What lessons can we learn here?
Consistency trumps intensity. This is very much a case of use it or lose it, for longevity we aren’t interested in your 1rm or your VO2max, what matters more is consistent use.
The group element to the exercise culture in Hong Kong and the outdoor nature of much of the exercise are both tremendous benefits beyond the immediate exposure to exercise. One of the strongest cases for Crossfit is, in fact, the community, the tribal aspect which sits at the centre of the culture.
Longevity Factor 5: Purpose
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people feel unecessary.” Sebastian Junger
The elderly population in Hong Kong are quite a robust bunch. 70% of them were born on the mainland, as a population, there is a degree of self-selection, only the physically fittest came over to Hong Kong and survived the journey. Relative hardship breeds resilience.
The family unit in Hong Kong is well established and positions elderly family members in a position of privilege within the group. Many families live together on the multiple apartments in the same building, in a way which would be unusual in a country like England. This gives elderly people a clear sense of purpose and belonging.
More than any other factor this jumps out as a reason for the current crop of long-lived Hong Kongers. Having a reason to get out of bed in the morning is vitally important.
So, the elderly population are doing really well. Are we seeing a unique group of people shaped by environmental factors and operating within an eroding social support system? Will social media provide the same level of purpose to millennials?
They don’t measure food and exercise in terms of calories, steps and reps. They’re used as a platform for engagement with others, as a means for socialising.
For those of us who are heavily invested in the health and fitness world, it is worth reflecting on whether our own “healthy” habits are alienating us further from others or actually building strong social bonds.