Blue Zones, a term coined by National Geographic Fellow and author Dan Buettner, refers to regions around the globe where folks tend to live longer than the rest of us – often well into their 100s.
These intriguing locations include Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and the Seventh-day Adventists community in Loma Linda, California.
I’m fascinated by these Blue Zones. I’ve written several articles based on his research and the lessons it offers for living longer and healthier lives.
What do the widely-dispersed Blue Zones have in common? In a recent article entitled “Reverse Engineering Longevity,” Buettner drilled deep to explore the shared traits of these unique places.
Buettner knew most of the answers lie in lifestyle and environment, as a study known as “The Danish Twin Study” had already established that our longevity is determined by our genes by only about 20%. So, Buettner set about his work with a team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and epidemiologists to search for “evidence-based common denominators” among the Blue Zones.
He found nine elements that are present in all of these areas.
Before we begin our review, let’s briefly dissect some of the data from the five Blue Zones, so you have a real feel for what we’re talking about.
According to Buettner’s research:
- In the Barbagia region of Sardinia, a mountainous area of inner Sardinia, live the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
- In Ikaria, Greece, Buettner found one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
- People living on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, have the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the second highest concentration of male centenarians.
- In Okinawa, Japan, females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.
- The Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda live ten years longer than their North American counterparts, which demonstrates that the average person’s life expectancy could increase by 10-12 years by adopting a Blue Zones lifestyle.
Now that we have some context let’s dig into the nine essential traits that all of these places share.
1. Putting Loved Ones First
Most of the centenarians in the Blue Zones make their families a priority, putting them first. This practice could mean keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home. (This practice also lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home, too.). These folks also commit to a life partner – which can add up to three years of life expectancy – and invest in their children with time and love.
2. A Sense of Purpose
In Okinawans, it’s called “Ikigai.” Nicoyans call it “plan de vida.” Both sayings translate into “why I wake up in the morning.” Having and knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
3. The 80% Rule
“Hara hachi bu” is a 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals. In Okinawa, it reminds residents to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could very well be the difference maker in either losing weight or gaining it. People who live in the Blue Zones eat their lightest meal in the late afternoon or early evening, and they don’t eat anything else for the rest of the day.
4. A Plant Slant
Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat (mostly pork) is eaten only five times per month on average, and serving sizes are between three to four ounces, or about the size of a deck of playing cards.
5. Natural Movement
Our world’s longest-lived people aren’t hitting it at the gym. Instead, they live in environments that encourage them to move without even thinking about it – they walk many places in their neighborhoods, grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
6. Happy Hour
People in all Blue Zones (except for the Adventists) moderately and regularly drink alcohol. It has been shown before that moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink only one or two glasses per day (and preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine) with friends or with food. And no, saving up all week and having 14 drinks on Saturday doesn’t count!
7. Down Shift
We all experience stress – even people in the Blue Zones are not immune. And we know now that stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which is associated with every major age-related disease. But, what the world’s longest-lived people have in common (that we may not have) are routines to relieve stress. Adventists pray Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians have happy hour.
8. A Sense of Belonging
All but five of the 263 centenarians interviewed during this study belonged to a faith-based community. And here’s the thing – denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research on the topic shows that attending faith-based services just four times per month will add between four to fourteen years to a person’s life expectancy.
9. The Right Tribe
Our world’s longest-lived people chose – or were born into – social circles that support healthy behaviors. Okinawans have something called “moais,” which means a group of five friends that have committed to each other for life. Research shows that happiness is contagious, but so are smoking, obesity, and loneliness. So, the social circles of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.