It’s been proven that by living a healthy lifestyle, we have the potential to live longer lives. Intriguingly, there are small groups of people who are taking this strategy to a whole new level. These individuals live in one of the world’s Blue Zones, locations where impressive numbers of people are living remarkably longer, fuller lives.
What Are Blue Zones?
The term Blue Zones is used to specify a geographic area where people tend to live measurably longer, healthier lives. The Blue Zones principle was initially developed based on the demographic work carried out by Michel Poulain and Gianni Pes, who identified Sardinia as an area with a high concentration of male centenarians who shared a common lifestyle and environment. As the researchers located villages with the highest concentrations of longevity, they drew blue circles on a map and started referring to each area within a blue circle as a Blue Zone. In 2004 Dan Buettner teamed up the National Geographic and together they identified longevity hotspots all over the world.
The five blue zones are: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Ikaria, Greece; and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. But why do people in these specific geographical areas live longer and healthier lives? Well, we first need to take a more detailed look into each Blue Zone.
A small island in the Pacific Ocean, Okinawa, Japan is the first Blue Zone we’ll take a look at. Okinawan people have lower rates of dementia, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers than Americans, which is attributed to their active lifestyles. Okinawan’s remain active until very late in their lives, and can usually be found walking, gardening and getting regular vitamin D (via the sun) exposure.
Healthy eating also plays a big part in their overall health. Thanks to their year round access to homegrown vegetables and fresh medicinal herbs, healthy food has long played a role in strengthening their minds and bodies.
Okinawan’s strong emotional and mental health is attributed to their robust social network (and I don’t mean their use of Facebook). Okinawan’s believe in embracing “Ikigai,” which means “life of purpose,” and enjoy the simple pleasures of life that includes the respect they receive within their communities and from their families.
In Sardinia, the highest percent of centenarians are men. For centuries, members of this mountainous, isolated island in the Mediterranean Sea have made their living as shepherds and farmers. They live a very active lifestyle, and receive daily health and cardio benefits from the physical nature of their living off the land.
The diet of the Sardinian people includes healthy foods such as: whole grains, beans, fresh fruits, vegetables, and goat’s milk. Meat is served sparingly, usually only for special occasions. Sardinians also drink a moderate amount of red wine. Red wine is rich in artery-scrubbing flavanoids, which helps decrease stress levels and lowers the risk of heart disease.
Sardinians are also known for their tremendous sense of humor, which naturally helps to reduce their level of stress.
Dubbed by NBC as “The Island Where People Forget to Die,” Ikaria is a beautiful island in Greece. Ikarians are very active people, and their livelihood is based on herding, fishing and farming. They receive tremendous self-fulfillment from living off the land. In addition, the area’s exceptional weather, therapeutic thermal springs, and beautiful surroundings make the residents of this remote Aegean island four times more likely to live to 100 than their American peers.
Loma Linda, CA
Near Anaheim, California, Loma Linda is home to a significant number of Seventh Day Adventists who typically follow a vegetarian diet that is heavy in fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts. These healthy food habits help to lower their risk of many cancers and lead to significantly lower Body Mass Index (BMI). Similar to people in some of the other Blue Zones, “Loma Lindan’s” eat meat only sparingly.
In addition, members of this religious community are committed to regular exercise and elders are frequently gym members and actively power walk well into their 70’s. Studies have recently shown that the people of Loma Linda have been found to have the longest life expectancy in the entire United States!
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
The last Blue Zone takes us to the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. Costa Ricans in this part of the country eat nutritionally rich foods that include fortified beans, maize, fresh vegetables and fruits that they grow in their own gardens. Even their water is healthy, containing high levels of calcium, which contributes to their strong bones and helps fight osteoporosis. Their food choices lower the risk of heart disease and other conditions, and their year round sunny weather (supplying plenty of vitamin D) helps counteract depression.
These Costa Rican centenarians usually live with relatives in their later years and enjoy the benefit of being surrounded by neighbors they’ve known their entire lives. They remain focused on their life’s purpose, have a strong work ethic, are passionate about their faith and appreciate the significance of enjoying life. Today, Costa Rican’s in the Nicoya Peninsula region are said to live far healthier, longer lives than people in any other country in the world.
What Does Each Blue Zone Have in Common?
Now having more knowledge about each Blue Zone, what can we extrapolate about these groups of centenarians?
Constant, Moderate Physical Activity – One characteristic of all Blue Zones is that individuals put forth consistent physical activity. People in these communities are always moving. They tend to live off the land, and while they don’t necessarily have gym memberships or participate in cross-fit, they move naturally throughout the day.
Social Engagement – This is not your children’s Facebook! Each of the five communities described is very socially active. Whether it’s family or friends, these individuals have very strong social relationships with their community. Each Blue Zone seems to have a strong sense of tribe, which influences their behaviors and well-being.
Plant-based, Healthy Diet – It’s probably not surprising that each Blue Zone community follows a diet heavily influenced by fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains. They refer to this as a “plant slant.” While not all individuals claim to be strict vegetarians, animal products tend to be a very small percent of their caloric intake.
Sense of Belonging – One of the more interesting aspects of the Blue Zones is that faith seems to play an important role in each of the communities. While each Blue Zone (and in some instances within each Blue zone) has different religious beliefs, they all tend to have some sort of faith, spirituality or belief in religion.
Wine – Yes, you read this last item correctly. Living in a Blue Zone doesn’t mean not having any fun! A common trait within Blue Zone communities is the tendency toward moderate consumption of wine, especially when sharing drinks with their family or friends within the community.
So what can we learn from this? How can we incorporate some of these traits to create our own Blue Zone community? Let me know your ideas in the comments!
Until next time,