What are blue zones and why do they matter for healthy aging?
What better way to know what works in sustaining a long healthy life than learning from those who have already reached over 100? Rather than having a hypothesis and testing it with regard to longevity these are people who have already successfully achieved the result we all want, a long healthy disease free old age. It seems that we have a good chance of doing so too should we wish, a Danish twin study established that only 20% of aging is genetic the other 80 in how we live
But how should we live? That brings us to what are now known as The Blue Zones, in the early 2000s journalist Dan Buetter set out with the help of the National Geographic to discover the areas of the world where people lived the longest and what secrets their lifestyle would reveal. He planned to find not only areas where there was a large number of centenarians, but the population had less of the diseases that have become common in the Western world; diabetes, heart disease, obesity etc.
In his research he identified the following 5 areas-
On this Mediterranean Island they boast some of the lowest global rates of middle age death and dementia believed in large to be due their traditional Mediterranean diet free from processed foods and rich in vegetables, fats with some meat and dairy.
Here some of the world’s most long-lived women enjoy an excellent later life, they have a natural diet containing plenty of Okinawan sweet potatoes, soya beans, mugwort and turmeric.
Ogliastra region, Sardinia
A mountainous Italian region where the highest proportion of oldest men in the world live, they eat a predominantly plant based diet that is low in protein and is according to some research linked to lower levels of mortality in under 65s along with lower rates of cancer and diabetes. Professor Valter Longo an eminent researcher in the field of longevity recommends a low protein diet as a result. He is involved in a number of research projects examining the benefits of a low protein diet and fasting.
Loma Linda, California
The largest number of Seventh-day Adventists can be found here, they live around 10 years longer than the average American. Their vegetarian diet consists of grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables. They also eschew spices, alcohol, and caffeine.
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
The second largest number of centenarian men can be found with the locals subsisting on a diet of vegetables, beans, rice, some meats and coffee.
It is easy to spot the commonalities with regard to diet, the diet in each area is unprocessed and based around whole foods. The foods themselves vary from vegetarian to meat eating some with dairy some without, the Seventh-day Adventists are teetotal, the Mediterranean areas enjoy a little wine. However, they all have a focus on home cooking, quality ingredients with high levels of vegetables and fruits.
Perhaps then it does not matter what our dietary preference is be it Vegetarian, Vegan, Paleo or Omnivore. The key may be as simple and common sense as eating a largely unprocessed diet of whole foods and ensuring plentiful vegetables and fruit throughout the day. The finer points being up to each of us to decide.
A great deal of this may not be news to you, I think we are all aware of the need to eat a whole food unprocessed diet and particularly of the benefits of fruit and veg. In fact I would say the dietary aspect of the blue zones has been the most highlighted in the media and has been the subject of the greatest wealth of further research. In particular the Mediterranean diet.
However we can’t simply pick one aspect of these areas in isolation from the rest of the life style, what about the rest of the day to day life of those who enjoy health and extreme longevity.
All of the blue zones had other characteristics that are of equal important to dietary habits.
1. Movement, in each area people are active right the way through their lives, in the mountainous areas of Sardinia walking miles in hilly terrain is normal, the Seventh-day Adventists engage in deliberate daily activity. Compared to the Western world’s standards very high levels of activity are normal. Walking to commute for example remains part of life into peoples 90s as does engaging in physical jobs and hobbies
“the average time spent sitting per day for Ikarian residents≥90 years of age is 90 min per day. Similar results with a different form of measurement were reported for the Sardinian participants≥90 years of age regarding productive rest. The total daily resting time was measured by the participant’s duration of night’s sleep and time spent in supine in the waking day, which resulted in only 8.5 hours for men and 7.4 hours of total daily rest on average out of a 24-hour period”
This is a stark contrast to how aging is both seen and treated in the UK and America, activities tend to be wound down with age and older people are often encouraged to take it easy rather than get out and about.
2. A sense of purpose, having a reason to get up in the morning, a why is linked to longevity and common within these communities.
3. A sense of belonging and community, again all of these regions have strong senses of community and involve elders actively within the community. Social connections are connected to not only greater quality of life but longevity.
“by the time half of a hypothetical sample of 100 people has died, there will be five more people alive with stronger social relationships than people with weaker social relationships.”
Friendships and being included within daily life quite literally can save your life. Again contrast this with the way elders are treated within the UK and the US, often isolated, lonely and far away from family members. Loneliness and isolation are associated with heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s and other serious health issues. In fact, the risk may rival smoking.
It is also worth being aware that intergenerational friendships (a part of life in blue zones) benefit not only the older individual but also the younger person. Both gain different perspectives and are able to share valuable insights, in cases where older individuals mentor young adults it was found
“55% less likely than their peers to skip a day of school
78% more likely to volunteer regularly
130% more likely to hold leadership positions”
Community is good for all of us it seems.
4. Healthy friends, it doesn’t come as a big surprise that the people we spend time with influence our behaviours, in other words if you want to live a long healthy life spend time with people who encourage healthy behaviours.
In short, eat well, eat plenty of plants, move a heck of a lot more than you probably do and spend quality time with good people of all ages who encourage you to do all of the above! I realised a few months ago that although I exercised regualrly I also sat a lot during the rest of the day, due to this I set myself a 15,000 steps a day challenge which I will post about later. I have also joined a few new social networks as my social circle shrank dramatically when my daughter was unwell for a few years. We maybe can’t follow all of the recommendations but perhaps by getting as close as we can to the lifesyle ot the blue zones we will live just that little bit longer and perhaps more importantly those years will be in good health. Let me know what you plan to do help add a few years to your life and life to your year!
  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8786073/