Ask 104-year-old Sylvia Pospisil to recall her fondest childhood memories and she’ll paint an idyllic picture of life on the family farm. One of six siblings growing up in Wilber, Nebraska, she ate fresh greens grown steps from her front door, bread made from freshly ground grains, pork from hogs butchered and eaten in the same day, and juice and wine from the family grape vines. She ate light, got plenty of exercise, and—through the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and life’s other challenges—kept a loving family around her and a level head about her. Pospisil moved from the farm to a nursing home recently but still enjoys good health. When pressed for advice on how the rest of us might be so lucky, she humbly says, “I don’t have no secret.”

But scientists think the details of Pospisil’s life may provide many clues to longevity. Since 1976, when the Okinawa Centenarian Study began peering into the lives of the longest-lived, Pospisil and others like her have become valuable guides, pointing researchers toward some surprising revelations. With roughly 50 centenarians per 100,000 (as much as five times more than in the United States), Okinawa has been the epicenter for research, along with the Mediterranean island of Sardinia (known for its 100-and-older men), and Nova Scotia, where people have twice the chance of living to 100 as in nearby New England.

Thirty years of research has shown that not only do centenarians live longer, they tend to enjoy better lifelong health. One study of supercentenarians, age 110 to 119, found just 6 percent had ever suffered from vascular disease (including heart disease), 3 percent had diabetes, and 25 percent had some form of cancer (all cured). And of the 1,700 participants in the New England Centenarian Study, 90 percent remained functionally independent into their 90s.

Just how do they dodge disease and mortality? Genes do play a role. The lucky one-fourth of us who possess a variant of the FOXO3A longevity gene are twice as likely to live to 100. But geriatrician Bradley Willcox, MD, who helped discover that gene in 2008 and co-directs the Okinawa Centenarian Study, stresses that genes the other 75 percent of centenarians stay healthy through healthy lifestyle choices about how much and what they choose to eat, and how they fill their days. Listen and learn.

Eat less, live more

Decades of longevity research suggest that eating less can add years to your life. “Calorie restriction is one thing we know can lead to greater longevity,” says Pittsburgh neurosurgeon Joseph Maroon, MD, author of The Longevity Factor (Simon and Schuster, 2009). In July, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers published a groundbreaking study looking at 76 rhesus monkeys tracked since 1989. Half were allowed to eat freely; the other half were limited to 30 percent fewer calories. Twenty years later, just half the free-grazing animals have survived. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the calorie-restricted monkeys are still alive, and they’ve suffered half as many incidences of cancer and cardiovascular disease—and zero cases of diabetes.

Human studies have shown similar results. One compared 25 people who ate 1,400 to 2,000 calories per day to 25 who consumed the more typical 2,000 to 3,000 calories. The lighter eaters had squeaky clean arteries and hearts typical of those 15 years younger. Case in point: The longevity superstar Okinawans practice hara hachi bu, or “eat until you are eight parts full” and consume about 11 percent less calories than the amounts typically recommended by body weight. They boast 60–70 percent lower death rates from stroke, cancer, and heart disease than Japanese counterparts.

Some theorize that because metabolizing food creates cell-damaging free radicals, eating fewer calories slows the assault. Others believe eating less turns on a set of genes called sirtuins that make our bodies enhance energy metabolism and protect DNA from injury. “There is an ancient defense system in you and me to protect us in times of scarcity,” says Paul McGlothin, an author and long-time member of the Calorie Restriction Society (crsociety.org). “When you provide less food, [the body] reacts by becoming more efficient, and a more efficient machine lasts longer.”

Willcox acknowledges an 8–30 percent calorie slash (the amount shown to have an impact in trials) could leave some people too thin or hungry. Instead, he says, if we “optimize” the calories we eat, we’ll end up eating less by default. Fill three-quarters of your plate with nutrient-dense (but not calorie-dense) foods loaded with fiber and water, such as veggies and complex carbs; go easy on the protein (low-protein diets have been associated with longevity); chew slowly instead of gobbling; and push yourself away from the table long before you feel full.

Harness the potential of resveratrol

Resveratrol and other compounds found in red wine, peanuts, some berries, and chocolate may mimic the life-extending effects of calorie restriction by activating sirtuins. This is seen as one possible explanation for the so-called French Paradox—the fact that in butter and cheese-loving France, where more than 20,000 citizens are centenarians and heart attacks are half as common as in the United States.

One pivotal 2008 study conducted by the National Institute on Aging found that mice fed resveratrol had better heart health, bone health, fewer cataracts, and better balance and motor coordination. And ongoing human trials are showing promise, with some showing increased cognitive function, athletic prowess, and lower disease rates among people supplementing with resveratrol. Maroon says wines whose grapes were grown in harsh conditions, such as Spanish reds and those derived from muscadine grapes, are the best sources of life-extending compounds. But even then, a typical bottle of red only contains 1–5 milligrams of resveratrol, far short of the 250–500 mg recommended.

Maroon’s advice: If you drink, drink red wine (1 glass for women; 2 for men each day). If you don’t, stock up on fresh-squeezed grape juice, eggplant, berries, and peanuts. And consider taking at least 250 mg per day of a supplement that blends resveratrol with other beneficial polyphenols, such as quercetin (an antioxidant found in green tea and apples).

Connect with others

Daphne Miller, MD, an associate clinical professor in the department of family medicine at University of California San Francisco, traveled the globe—from Mexico to Iceland—to explore places where people experienced low rates of modern chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. She found that most have a diet rich in immune-boosting fermented foods (from Okinawan pickles to Icelandic yogurt), omega-3 fatty acids (from Nova Scotia fish to African nuts), and chemical-free, locally grown veggies and meat.

Along with diet, exercise, and avoiding tobacco, social connections are probably the most important determinant of longevity, says Miller. One recent study from Rush University Medical Center studied 1,238 seniors over age 78 for five years and found that those with “high purpose in life” (a rich spiritual life, close family, meaningful hobbies, good friends) were half as likely to die during the follow-up period as those without.

“In Okinawa, they call it ikigai,” explains Willcox, noting that Okinawan elders are highly valued and sought after for advice. “It’s something to look forward to every day, something that gives life meaning.” At 104, Pospisil’s ikigai includes regular visits from her grandchildren, an occasional game of bingo with friends, and tours around the neighborhood on foot or in her new motorized wheel chair. “You can’t just sit around all the time,” she says. “I want to keep it up.” And 105 is just around the corner.

Preventing dementia

Contrary to the image conjured up by the word “centenarian” ( an absent-minded elder suffering from the ravages of Alzheimer’s), research shows that as many as 25 percent of the 100-plus crowd show no sign of cognitive decline at all. Furthermore, among those who do experience dementia, it didn’t surface until 92 or later. “Many believe the ageist myth that the older you get the sicker you get,” says New England Centenarian Study director Thomas Perls. “If this were true, it would follow that most if not all centenarians should have Alzheimer’s disease. Numerous studies disprove this assumption.” In fact, the same factors that prolong life can keep our minds sharp well into the golden years.

Rule #1: Stay lean

One 40-year study of 1,152 twins found that those who were overweight in midlife were one and one-half times more likely to develop dementia by age 65.

Rule #2: Eat a heart-healthy diet

One study by researchers at Columbia University found that eating a diet rich in fish, veggies, whole grains, and good fats lowered the risk of cognitive impairment over the course of more than four years by 28 percent.

Rule #3: Move it

A daily one-mile walk reduces the likelihood of dementia by 50 percent, says George Washington University neurology professor Richard Restak, MD.

Rule #4: Try new activities

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic recently asked 1,300 people, ages 70 to 89, about their daily activities in middle age and in the previous year. Those that read books, played games, did crafts, and had a rich social life were 30–50 percent less likely to develop memory loss.

Rule #5: Be Social

A 2007 study of 823 people in the Chicago area found that “lonely” people (based on a survey given at intake) are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than people who aren’t lonely.