Waypower versus Willpower

Optimistic Aging requires us to rally willpower to make healthy choices, but of course this is much easier when we have clear pathways to invigorating options—“waypower”—compared to when we face obstacles.

For his groundbreaking book The Blue Zones (now also an excellent documentary on Netflix), Daniel Buettner traveled the world seeking regions with the highest numbers of centenarians—people 100 years of age and older. In these pockets of unusual longevity, Buettner pinpointed the common factors that create unusual waypower for thriving with age. He identified shared lifestyle elements like healthy nutrition, sense of purpose, social connection and physical movement. But rather than describing these as targets for individual effort, Buettner emphasizes how the environment makes the healthy choice into the easy choice. Older adults in Blue Zones, such as Sardinia, Italy or Okinawa, Japan, don’t have to work hard to thrive with age. Waypower is built into these places, setting residents up for longevity.

Although America has one Blue Zone—Loma Linda, California—dangerous “red” zones are increasingly becoming the norm in the U.S. In fact, in 2014, American life expectancy peaked and began a steady decline; it has since been significantly lower than other similarly prosperous nations. While the pandemic certainly exacerbated this, the overall trend predated the coronavirus. Surprisingly, this higher mortality is not driven by older adults; those of us who make it to 75 die at similar rates to the elderly in other advantaged countries. Our shortened life expectancy is caused by fewer Americans living to the age of 65 (not to mention 100).

Mortality rates of Americans ages 35 to 64 have increased in the last decade. At first this was attributed to “deaths of despair” (overdose, suicide), but deeper research has clarified that middle-aged people much more commonly die of chronic diseases, mainly cancers and heart disease. And, appallingly, infant and maternal mortality rates are also higher in the U.S. compared to other wealthy countries. These deaths are generally considered preventable. Our American individualistic “bootstrapping” mindset tends to find fault with individuals who succumb to illness, emphasizing that they lack willpower to make healthy choices. But when we look at waypower limits, a clearer view of our challenges appears.

Environment drives our behavior. For example, most Americans live in a driving culture where cars or public transportation get us from place to place, limiting opportunities for physical exercise. In contrast, Ikaria, Greece, a Blue Zone, is built on a steep hillside; Ikarians live in a culture of walking, so residents get exercise in the normal course of their day, no willpower required.

Public policy also matters. In the Blue Zone of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, healthcare workers go door to door to bring preventive and primary care to residents. In contrast, the American medical system incentivizes care for the very sick, with fewer and fewer physicians choosing primary-care careers. Also, many Americans lack adequate insurance, further restricting our waypower for health care, not to mention sick care.

Our attitudes also impact our community’s social environments. Americans tend to treat the sick, the disabled and the elderly with disregard, adding to the social isolation that increases mortality. Similarly, over 30 years of research has shown how prejudice and hardship “weather” bodies of America’s people of color and low-income populations, leading to greater illness and earlier death. In fact, America has clear geographic Blue and Red Zones, showing a “death gap” between rich and poor Americans. It’s not poverty per se, but more how a society treats its poorest citizens that matters; Costa Rica’s Blue Zone is one of the poorest areas in the country economically, yet it is among the world’s healthiest places.

The good news is, Buettner has brought wisdom from the world’s Blue Zones to American towns and cities, promoting modification of health policy, built environments, and social patterns. By increasing waypower for healthy living, those who live in these areas are living longer.

How does your environment support or hinder your healthy choices? If you have healthy habits, be honest with yourself about how much your environment supports your choices, especially before you judge other people who are struggling with their health. For example, I live in a neighborhood with big shade trees and safe sidewalks that invite me outside to walk most days. I have five grocery stores within a two-mile radius of my house. I have an exercise buddy whose company rallies me to show up for our workouts when I definitely wouldn’t otherwise. I could be smug about my healthy habits, but an honest accounting shows that my waypower advantages make healthy choices relatively easy for me.

So, let’s be understanding of ourselves and each other about health habits, acknowledging that health is really a community-level endeavor and looking for ways to support policies and seek groups and environments that empower us with waypower for healthy living.

Photo credit: Desmarsol

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