This is the first article in a series devoted to the subject of Blue Zones.
In some of our past blog posts we have mentioned the Blue Zones, but the topic is so important that I would like to dive deeper.
So what exactly are Blue Zones anyway?
Simply put, Blue Zone are areas in the world where populations of people live to be 100 years or older.
That is a huge three-digit number.
In fact, it exceeds the average U.S. life expectancy of 77.74 by almost 25 years!
But importantly, it is not just that people who live in the Blue Zones live long.
They also live well.
That is what we all want.
To grow old but still enjoy a healthy, vibrant life each and every day.
So, let’s take a peek at the Blue Zones and discover their secret to longevity.
The Birth of the Blue Zones
The Blue Zones refer to the five regions in the world where people live the longest.
The idea of the Blue Zones was initially conceived as the result of a demographic study conducted by Gianni Pes and Michael Poulain, who stumbled upon Sardinia’s Nuoro province which boasts the highest concentration of men who live to 100.
During their research, they drew concentric blue circles on a map to mark the cluster of villages with the most centenarians, naming the area inside the circle the “Blue Zone.”
Intrigued by the concept, National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner took the idea of the Blue Zone and applied it to other regions with long-living residents in Japan, Costa Rica, California, and Greece. He ultimately wrote a book on the topic called The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.
Where Are the Blue Zones?
In total, there are five Blue Zone regions:
- Okinawa, Japan: Known as the ‘land of the immortals,’ Okinawa has the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. Interestingly, Okinawans eat 3-4 times the vegetables that average Americans consume.
- Icaria, Greece: This area has the nickname, ‘the island where people forgot to die.’ An April 2009 study revealed that Icaria had the highest percentage of 90-year-olds on the planet—nearly 1 out of 3 people was in their 90s! Plus, they enjoy a healthy old age with almost zero dementia and a 50 percent lower rate of heart disease.
- Sardinia, Italy: Sardinia has been nicknamed the ‘place where people live the longest in the world.’ In fact, from 1996 to 2016, a record-breaking 20 centenarians lived in one Sardinian village.
- Loma Linda, California: Tucked away in California, this town is inhabited mainly by Seventh Day Adventists whose healthful habits translate into a life expectancy at least 89—11 years higher than that of other Americans.
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica: The middle-aged residents of the Nicoya Peninsula have a four-times greater chance of reaching 90 than the average American.
It Is About Quality, Not Quantity
What is most impressive about the Blue Zones is not the quantity of years they live, but the quality.
They grow old well.
Overall they remain healthy, with significantly lower risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s and dementia.
So the obvious question is why?
What differentiates the people in these Blue Zones?
According to Dan Buettner, the nine lifestyle habits that link the Blue Zone inhabitants are:
- Eating a (mostly) plant-based diet
- Engaging in moderate, regular physical activity
- Ensuring a balanced caloric intake
- Having a life purpose
- Maintaining low levels of stress
- Drinking limited amounts of alcohol (emphasis on “limited”, not “drinking”)
- Being spiritual
- Emphasizing family
- Being involved in the social life of a community
The Role of Diet in Living Longer
While all nine factors play a role in longevity, your physical health—what you eat and your level of activity are crucial factors.
Let’s first talk about diet.
Across all of the Blue Zones, the populations mostly eat a plant-based diet with a strong emphasis on homegrown or locally produced foods.
Specifically, the Blue Zone diet is made up of nutrient-dense vegetables (especially green leafy vegetables), fruits, herbs, nuts, seeds, sweet potatoes, corn, and whole grains.
Blue Zone inhabitants also eat a lot of legumes and beans. As we discussed in The Brilliant Bean and Eat Your Beans, this category of food is incredibly good for you and has been linked to increased longevity.
In a study conducted in Japan, Sweden, Greece, and Australia, scientists saw a whopping 8 percent reduction in death risk for every 20-gram increase in daily legume intake!
The Blue Zone diet is rich in both antioxidants and phytochemicals, which help to lower inflammation levels, a well-known contributor to many diseases. This probably explains why Blue Zone inhabitants rarely suffer from ‘classic’ illnesses like cancer or heart disease that normally plague the elderly.
What might be as important as what they DO eat is what they DO NOT eat. Inhabitants of the Blue Zones avoid meat as well as highly processed, packaged foods. Their diet is also bereft of refined sugar, pesticides, and artificial ingredients.
Equally, they never overeat.
In the Japanese Blue Zone, centenarians practice hara hachi bu, which teaches people to eat until they are only 80 percent full.
The Link Between Exercise and Longevity
Another interesting observation about the Blue Zones pertains to exercise.
As we discussed in our articles Connecting the Dots Between Eating and Exercise and Cracking the Exercise Code, the Blue Zone inhabitants are just naturally active. Physical movement is woven into everyday life, whether it is in the form of walking (between 5-6 miles a day!), house chores, gardening or playing with pets and grandchildren.
As Dan Buettner explains in his book, “The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons, or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work. Every trip to work, to a friend’s house, or to church occasions a walk.”
In the Blue Zones, people do not ‘go to the gym.’
They just move.
All the time.
And in a natural way.
The inhabitants of the Blue Zones can teach us many important lessons.
Stay tuned for our next article in this series.
And in the meantime, I will leave you with these parting wise words from one 102-year-old female living in the Okinawa Blue Zone:
“Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to people, and smile.”
– Kamada Nakasato (Dan Buettner)