You may have heard of them. These places around the world where people seem to live much longer than the average human. Not only do they live longer (inhabitants reach the age of 100 at a rate ten times greater than in the U.S.), but their quality of life is better and the rate of disease is much lower. These places are called Blue Zones and there are five of them. They were identified through a 2004 study done by National Geographic and a man named Dan Buettner. What they discovered is fascinating (to learn more go here).
Twenty percent of our life is dictated by our genes while the other eighty percent is completely dictated by our lifestyle and the environment in which we live. Basically, we aren’t our genes. We have the ability, through diet and lifestyle, to turn on and off genes (preferably the bad ones off and the good ones on). Pretty cool right? So what do these fives places have that make them so special? How do their lifestyles and environments impact health and longevity? Let’s take a look…
1. Ikaria, Greece
Ikaria is a tiny Aegean island and the inhabitants owe their long lives to a combination of geography, culture, diet, lifestyle and their outlook on life. Inhabitants live an average of 8 years longer than Americans, have 20% less rates of cancer, 1/2 the rate of heart disease and almost no dementia. The culture in Ikaria is steeped in traditions that value family, knowing your neighbors, socializing over wine, being active outdoors and generally living an easy-going life.
2. Loma Linda, California
Loma Linda is a tight-knit Seventh Day Adventist community in southern California. Residents of this town outlive the average American by more than a decade. Their culture is steeped in their faith, which advocates vegetarianism, regular exercise, abstaining from cigarettes and alcohol and observing a 24-hour Sabbath every week. They spend their time with other Adventists who follow the same healthy behaviors.
3. Sardinia, Italy
Sardinia is an island in the Mediterranean that has more male centenarians than anywhere else in the world (ten times more per capita than the U.S.). It is a shepherd culture that carries the M26 genetic marker, linked to exceptional longevity, at much higher rates than other places. As it is geographically and culturally isolated, Sardinians live a pretty traditional lifestyle. They hunt, fish and harvest their own food, move naturally (i.e. no gyms around here), nap regularly and drink a lot of tea. They also like to drink wine, spend time with family and lifelong friends and laugh. The culture also has a very respectful attitude towards aging and its elders, many who still work and live at home with their families.
4. Okinawa, Japan
Okinawa has the longest disability-free life expectancy and the longest living women in the world. There are lower rates of cancer, heart disease and dementia. Inhabitants eat a modest, vegetarian diet, typically only eating until 80% full, and stay active throughout their lives. They also have a strong sense of purpose in life. Social networks are very important and inhabitants are dedicated to their friends and family. Lately the western diet has crept into Okinawa and the average lifespan has gone down dramatically.
5. Nicoya, Costa Rica
Inhabitants of this area of Costa Rica are twice as likely than Americans to reach the age of 90 and spend 15% less on healthcare. Family and faith is very important, as is plan de vida, which means a reason to live. The culture is very active and people eat little or no processed food and plenty of delicious, anti-oxidant rich tropical fruit. They also consume water that is rich in calcium and magnesium.
Throughout the course of the study of these five Blue Zones, lifestyle characteristics each of these locations share were identified that help to explain the longevity of the individuals living there.
Natural movement is a part of daily life
Sacred rituals are practiced daily and/or weekly to reduce stress
People have a sense of purpose in life
Except for Loma Linda, inhabitants like to drink and typically consume two drinks a day
Every culture consumes a mostly plant-based diet
Social connections are a key part of each culture
Inhabitants eat their biggest meal in the morning (they do not skip breakfast) and the smallest meal in the evening
Faith is a very important part of each culture
Inhabitants spend their time with people who follow similar healthy lifestyles
So what can we learn from this? Well first off, having fun, spending time with those you love, taking a break every once in a while and getting in touch with your purpose in life are pretty dang important. Natural movement is key. These people don’t spend hours on end in a gym or behind a computer. Spring is here in the Northern Hemisphere (in most areas…), so how about taking a stroll outside with friends or family, going for a bike ride or exploring a new hiking trail? You may find me at my local park doing yoga one of these days…
Take some time every week to stay in touch with friends near and far. Maybe try picking up the phone or writing an old fashioned letter instead of the typical email or message on Facebook. Cherish these relationships and tell people often how much they mean to you (you may make someone’s day!). Individuals in these five areas don’t try to live long lives, they just do. So let’s take a thing or two from their playbook and try to Blue Zone our lives a little bit.
~Peace, love and healthy living~