Blue Zones: What and where are they and why people there live longer

Global life expectancy is on average 71.4 years. Certain communities increase that average considerably due to far greater longevity. These communities and areas are called “Blue Zones”. The term refers to geographic areas where inhabitants have low rates of chronic disease and live longer than anywhere else.

With all the health buzzwords focused on increasing reducing risks for chronic diseases and prolonging life-span, it might be worthwhile to sit up and take notice of the habits of these “Blue Zone”-residents.

 

What Are Blue Zones?

Blue Zone is a non-scientific term given to geographic regions that are home to some of the world’s oldest people.

Several years ago, demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain identified regions with a significant higher incidence of people living to age hundred or longer. For closer study, they were narrowed down and identified with blue circles on a map. With those circles, the concept of Blue Zones was born.

Author of The Blue Zones and The Blue Zones Solution, Dan Buettner worked with the researchers to learn what it was about these places that allowed residents to live such long and healthy lives.

Currently there are only five areas identified and discussed in Buettner’s book, however there may be unknown areas in the world that could also fit the criteria of being Blue Zones. These five areas include:

 

1.    Sardinia, Italy

Largely a plant-based diet, daily physical activity and familial closeness have given this Blue Zone the highest concentration of male centenarians in the world.

They also have the M26 marker, a genetic variant linked to extreme longevity, passed down through generations in this secluded community.

 

2.    Okinawa, Japan

Many Blue Zones emphasize family and community, but bonding reaches its peak in this Japanese culture.

Okinawans are supported by their moai, a small but tight-knit social circle/ support structure that is there through all of life’s ups and downs and reinforce shared healthy behaviours.

The result? A culture that boasts the longest-living women in the world, with many surpassing a hundred.

 

3.    Nicoya, Costa Rica

The Costa Rican people traditionally get the majority of their caloric intake from beans, squash and corn, plus tropical fruits and avoids processed food.

This plant-forward, nutrient-dense diet— and plenty of time outdoors—makes for strong, well-nourished bodies.

A “plan de vida”, or guiding life purpose, helps Nicoyans stay mentally and spiritually content to age ninety and beyond.

 

4.    Loma Linda, California, U.S.A.

The U.S.’s only Blue Zone is a haven for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a Protestant denomination.

A shared set of principles, emphasis on community and adherence to the Sabbath—a day of rest, reflection and recharging— help Loma Linda Adventists live ten years longer than their fellow Americans.

Many avoid meat and eat plenty of plants, whole grains and nuts.

 

5.    Ikaria, Greece

A fierce sense of island pride keeps Ikarians invested in their community.

That, combined with late bedtimes offset by daily naps and a strict adherence to the Mediterranean diet—eating lots of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, potatoes and olive oil—drives 1 in 3 Ikarians to live into their 90s, often free of dementia and chronic disease.

Buettner grouped the above-mentioned balance of good health habits and social engagement and listed nine factors, including:

  • moderate, regular physical activity
  • life purpose
  • stress reduction
  • moderate calories intake
  • a plant-based diet
  • moderate alcohol intake, especially wine
  • engagement in spirituality or religion
  • engagement in family life
  • engagement in social life

Interestingly, genetics probably only account for 20–30% of longevity. Therefore, environmental influences, including diet and lifestyle, play a huge role in determining your lifespan.

 

Analysing these factors under the microscope

People Who Live in Blue Zones Eat a Diet Full of Whole Plant Foods

One thing common to Blue Zones is that those who live there primarily eat a 95% plant-based diet.

Although most groups are not strict vegetarians, they only tend to eat meat around five times per month.

A number of studies, including one in over half a million people, have shown that avoiding meat can significantly reduce the risk of death from heart disease, cancer and a number of other different causes.

Instead, diets in the Blue Zones are typically rich in the following:

  • Vegetables: They’re a great source of fibre and many different vitamins and minerals. Eating more than five servings of fruits and vegetables a day can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and death.
  • Legumes: Legumes include beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas, and they are all rich in fibre and protein. A number of studies have shown that eating legumes is associated with lower mortality.
  • Whole grains: Whole grains are also rich in fibre. A high intake of whole grains can reduce blood pressure and is associated with reduced colorectal cancer and death from heart disease.
  • Nuts: Nuts are great sources of fibre, protein and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Combined with a healthy diet, they’re associated with reduced mortality.
  • Fish:Fishis a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for heart and brain health. Eating fish is associated with slower brain decline in old age and reduced heart disease.

 

They Fast and Follow the 80% Rule

Other habits common to the Blue Zones are a reduced calorie intake and fasting. 

Calorie Restriction

Long-term calorie restriction may help longevity.

Okinawans tend to follow the 80% rule, which they call “hara hachi bu.” This means that they stop eating when they feel 80% full, rather than 100% full.

A number of studies have also shown that eating slowly can reduce hunger and increase feelings of fullness, compared to eating rapidly.

This may be because the hormones that make you feel full only reach their maximum blood levels 20 minutes after you eat.

Therefore, by eating slowly and only until you feel 80% full, you may eat fewer calories and feel full longer.

 

Fasting

In addition to consistently reducing overall calorie intake, periodic fasting appears to be beneficial for health.

For example, Ikarians are typically Greek Orthodox Christians, a religious group that has many periods of fasting for religious holidays throughout the year.

One study showed that during these religious holidays, fasting led to lower blood cholesterol and lower body mass index (BMI).

Many other types of fasting have also been shown to reduce weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and many other risk factors for chronic disease in humans.

These include intermittent fasting, which involves fasting for certain hours of the day or certain days of the week, and fasting mimicking, which involves fasting for a few consecutive days per month.

 

They Consume Alcohol in Moderation

Another dietary factor common to many of the Blue Zones is moderate alcohol consumption.

There is mixed evidence about whether moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of death. The beneficial effect of moderate alcohol consumption may depend on the type of alcohol. Red wine may be the best type of alcohol, given that it contains several antioxidants from grapes. Consuming one to two glasses of red wine per day is particularly common in the Ikarian and Sardinian Blue Zones. In fact, Sardinian Cannonau wine, which is made from Grenache grapes, has been shown to have extremely high levels of antioxidants, compared to other wines. Antioxidants help prevent damage to DNA that can contribute to aging. Therefore, antioxidants may be important for longevity.

A couple of studies have shown that drinking moderate amounts of red wine is associated with a slightly longer life. However, as with the other studies on alcohol consumption, it’s unclear whether this effect is because wine drinkers also tend to have healthier lifestyles.

It is important to note that these benefits are only seen for moderate alcohol consumption. Each of these studies also showed that higher levels of consumption actually increase the risk of death.

 

Exercise Is Built into Daily Life

Aside from diet, exercise is another extremely important factor in aging.

In the Blue Zones, people don’t exercise purposefully by going to the gym. Instead, it is built into their daily lives through gardening, walking, cooking and other daily chores.

A study of men in the Sardinian Blue Zone found that their longer life was associated with raising farm animals, living on steeper slopes in the mountains and walking longer distances to work.

The benefits of these habitual activities have been shown previously in a study of more than 13,000 men. The amount of distance they walked or flights of stairs they climbed each day predicted how long they would live.

Other studies have shown the benefits of exercise in reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease and overall death.

The current recommendations from the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest a minimum of 75 vigorous-intensity or 150 moderate-intensity minutes of aerobic activity per week.

 

They Get Enough Sleep

In addition to exercise, getting adequate rest and a good night’s sleep also seem to be very important for living a long and healthy life.

People in Blue Zones get sufficient sleep and also often take daytime naps.

A number of studies have found that not getting enough sleep, or getting too much sleep, can significantly increase the risk of death, including from heart disease or stroke.

A large analysis of 35 studies found that seven hours was the optimal sleep duration. Sleeping a lot less or a lot more than that was associated with an increased risk of death.

In the Blue Zones, people tend not to go to sleep, wake up or go to work at set hours. They just sleep as much as their body tells them to.

A number of studies have shown that daytime naps, known in many Mediterranean countries as “siestas,” have no negative effect on the risk of heart disease and death and may even reduce these risks.

 

Other Traits and Habits Associated with Longevity

Aside from diet, exercise and rest, a number of other social and lifestyle factors are common to the Blue Zones, and they may contribute to the longevity of the people living there.

These include:

  • Being religious or spiritual: Blue Zones are typically religious communities. A number of studies have shown that being religious is associated with a lower risk of death. This may be due to social support and reduced rates of depression.
  • Having a life purpose: People in Blue Zones tend to have a life purpose, known as “ikigai” in Okinawa or “plan de vida” in Nicoya. This is associated with a reduced risk of death, possibly through psychological well-being.
  • Older and younger people living together: In many Blue Zones, grandparents often live with their families. Studies have shown that grandparents who look after their grandchildren have a lower risk of death.
  • A healthy social network: Your social network, called “moai” in Okinawa, can affect your health. For example, if your friends are obese, you have a greater risk of being obese, possibly through social acceptance of weight gain.

Take home message

Although their lifestyles differ slightly, they mostly eat a plant-based diet, exercise regularly, drink moderate amounts of alcohol, get enough sleep and have good spiritual, family and social networks. By incorporating these habits into your lifestyle, it may be possible for you to add a few years to your life.

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