Blue Zones are special geographical areas in the world where people live longer, but what is the secret to their longevity? Let's find out what Blue Zones are and what we can learn from the centenarians who live there.April 13, 2022 9:33 am April 13, 2022 9:23 am
What are blue zones?
In 1996, a group of Danish researchers published a study on the heritability of human longevity. In their study they observed over 2800 pairs of twins and concluded that about 20% of our lifespan is due to our genes whilst the remaining 80% is determined by our lifestyle.(1) Eight years later, New-York Times bestselling author Dan Buettner set out on an endeavour to unearth the secrets to a longer life. With the help of National Geographic and the National Institute of Ageing, Dan Buettner and his team uncovered the 5 areas of the world with the highest percentage of centenarians.
These are: Loma Linda in California, USA, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Ikaria in Greece, Sardinia in Italy and Okinawa in Japan. These areas are known as Blue Zones, the researchers were able to identify these areas based on statistics, birth certificates and other epidemiological data. Moreover, their unique characteristic is that their populations reach the age of 100 at 10 times greater rates compared to the USA.
After Dan and his team identified the Blue Zones, they enlisted a group of anthropologists, epidemiologists and demographers to identify the lifestyle factors at the heart of these centenarian populations.
The Power 9
Ultimately, they discovered that people living in the Blue Zones shared nine unique attributes. They refer to these characteristics as the Power 9.(2) This goes against the common misconception that to live until triple digits, one must be genetically blessed. However, research into the Blue Zones found that these 9 factors amongst the longest-living people in the world can slow down ageing.
The world’s centenarians do not have gym memberships nor do they participate in strenuous planned exercise such as running marathons. On the contrary, their movement is “incidental”. This means that they naturally lead active lifestyles simply by carrying out daily activities such as gardening. Most of them do not have advanced technology to assist around the house and garden, so they carry out most of the chores manually.
Purpose and Downshift
In Japan, the Okinawan population refers to “ikigai” as something that gives a person a sense of purpose and reason for living. Literally, it is translated as “a reason for being”. In Costa Rica, the Nicoyans have a similar concept called “Plan de vida”, literally meaning “life plan”. This alludes to their belief in living with purpose to serve their family and community. In fact, having a sense of purpose in life can increase life expectancy by up to 7 years.(2)
Furthermore, it is well-established that stress is correlated with disease and overall decrease in well-being. In fact, stress can lead to chronic disease in the long-term. People in the Blue Zones experience stress much like the rest of us however they seem to have found routines to manage their stress on a daily basis. For example, the Okinawans in Japan spend some time each day reflecting on their ancestors and pay their respects to them.
In addition, in Greece, the Ikarians make time for rest by taking a nap. The Sardinians religiously take part in happy hour “aperitivo” with friends and family to wind down in the evenings with some food and wine. In California, the Adventists pray.
Overall, each of these Blue Zone populations practices a different form of “winding-down” and relaxing but ultimately they all play a part in ensuring longer and happier lives.
The 80% rule and Plant-based diets
The Okinawans follow an ancient Confucian mantra known as “Hara hachi bu”. This refers to a reminder prior to meals which states that one should stop eating once one’s stomach is 80% full. Moreover, it is believed that the 20% “gap” between having satisfied one’s hunger and not being completely full could explain the difference between weight loss/maintenance and weight gain.
Furthermore, most Blue Zone inhabitants consume their smallest and last meal of the day in the afternoon or early evening, typically not eating anything else after that.
In addition, the researchers found that beans play a major role in most of the blue zone diets. In fact, fava beans, black beans, soy beans and lentils are amongst the most commonly consumed legumes by the inhabitants in these zones.
Conversely, meat is eaten sporadically, on average once per week, and the serving size tends towards the smaller size, approximately 100 grams ( 3 to 4 oz).
Ikarians follow a version of the Mediterranean diet which includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, pulses, potatoes, and extra virgin olive oil.(3)
Similarly, Nicoyans eat almost no processed foods however they have an abundance of antioxidant-rich tropical fruit. In addition, they also consume water that is rich in calcium and magnesium. Luckily for them, this keeps heart disease at bay and promotes strong and healthy bones.
A study looking at Sicilian centenarians found that there was a high adherence to the Mediterranean diet with a strong consumption of low glycemic index food. Overall their diet is low in saturated fat and high in phytochemical-rich fruits and vegetables.(4)
“Beans play a major role in most of the blue zone diets [...] fava beans, black beans, soy beans and lentils are amongst the most commonly consumed legumes by the inhabitants in these zones.”
What about alcohol?
Finally, an important aspect of eating (and drinking) in the Blue Zones is alcohol consumption. This may come as a surprise considering alcohol’s bad reputation. However all the Blue Zone populations, with the exception of the Adventists in Loma Linda, drink moderate amounts of alcohol on a regular basis. What’s more, moderate alcohol drinkers seem to outlive teetotallers.(2)
The key is moderation, 1 to 2 glasses per day, and ideally sardinian cannonau wine, which is notoriously high in flavonoids. In fact, it is up to 3 times higher in antioxidants than other red wines. Moreover, drinking takes place socially, in the company of family and friends, and accompanied by food.
The sense of belonging to a group of communities can greatly impact our health. In fact, Buettner and his colleagues interviewed 263 centenarians throughout their research. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that only five amongst the 263 did not belong to a faith-based community. That is to say that approximately 98% of the interviewed centenarians belonged to a community which shared their values. Moreover, there is research to show that people who attend faith-based services once a week can expect to live between 4 to 14 years longer than those who don’t.(2)
Loved Ones First
In addition, family seems to play a major role in the life expectancy of these centenarian communities. In fact, family comes first for these populations. It is common to live nearby ageing parents and grandparents so that the younger generations can look after the elderly. Moreover, the centenarians committed to a life partner which is also shown to increase life expectancy by up to 3 years.
Finally, they place a great deal of importance in taking care of their children. In fact, in doing so, the children will be more likely to look after their parents when they are in need later in life.(2)
Finding the right tribe
Finding the right “tribe” is also highlighted as a key factor in increasing the life expectancy of these populations. In fact, your social circle impacts your behaviour.
For example, the Okinawans created groups known as “moais” which consist of five friends who commit to each other for their entire lives. The Framingham study is a population-based observational study initiated in 1948. The United States Public Health Service led this study to investigate the risk factors for cardiovascular disease in the population.(5)
The results of this study showed that behaviours such as smoking are contagious, as are emotional states such as loneliness or conversely, happiness. This may explain why the social networks of centenarians have such a great impact on their health behaviours.
What can we learn?
Although many of us may not live in a Blue Zone per se, it is definitely possible to adopt some of the behaviours that lead to a longer life. It can be helpful to look at your life as if you were an outside observer, take a step back and ask yourself some questions.
How am I moving on a daily basis? What do my relationships look like? How am I feeding my body? Is faith or spirituality important to me? If I partake in unhealthy behaviours, what are they and what is triggering my behaviour? Is there a small change I can make that could benefit my longevity? For example, if I am a smoker, is there a local support group I can join to try to break the habit? Is there a friend I can turn to for advice?
Small changes can make big differences so don’t underestimate the power of taking a first step. It may just be what you need to get one step closer to the centenarian club.
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