Life is Better in Blue
What the Blue Zones reveal about the keys to a long, healthy life.
There are plenty of fad diets out there that claim to help you lose weight or finally get that beach bod. But what about a diet, or moreover, a set of habits that naturally increase your life expectancy? And who holds this secret? Examining the daily routine of Blue Zone residents is the place to start.
Blue Zones are specific locations throughout the world scientifically proven to have a higher concentration of centenarians, that is, people that live over 100. First identified by Dan Buettner and his research team in 2004, a “Blue Zone is a non-scientific term given to geographic regions that are home to some of the world’s oldest people. The term refers to geographic areas in which people have low rates of chronic disease and live longer than anywhere else.” The first Blue Zone discovered was in Sardinia, where men over ninety walked miles a day tending sheep, drank red wine in the evenings, and ate plenty of cheese. Here, it seemed, with their tight knit, active community, the men of Sardinia thrived past 100, living relatively happy and healthy lives by simply carrying on like their ancestors had for hundreds of years.
While we aren’t recommending you go out and become a sheepherder just to live longer (though here on the Central Coast you very well could), there are some notable centenarian habits to incorporate into your daily routine. They may increase your lifespan, but more importantly, they can increase the quality of your life. Let’s dive in!
The Blue Zones
The Blue Zone experiment did not begin as an anthropomorphic project. Instead, Buettner and team aimed to study men carrying the M26 gene marker. As Buettner explains, “The M26 marker is linked to exceptional longevity, and due to geographic isolation, the genes of the residents in this area of Sardinia have remained mostly undiluted. This results in nearly 10 times more centenarians per capita than the US.” Although, “genetics probably only account for 20-30% of longevity,” making “environmental influences, including diet and lifestyle, play a huge role in determining your lifespan,” notes Ruairi Robertson, PhD.
This made the centenarians of Sardinia even more fascinating––though many of them carried the gene, it seemed the gene was not the sole motivating factor in their longevity. Studying lifestyle similarities between Sardinians proved useful in determining further Blue Zones and providing a blueprint for how to live a long, healthy life.
Today, the research has expanded to include five Blue Zones: Sardinia, Italy; the islands of Okinawa, Japan; a group of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; and the small island of Ikaria, Greece.
Each of the Blue Zones possesses its unique characteristics. In Okinawa, home to some of the world’s oldest women, soy-based foods are a dietary staple and residents practice tai chi daily. In Costa Rica, people regularly perform physical jobs well into old age, while feasting on beans and tortillas. A strict vegetarian diet and involved spiritual life is common among the Loma Linda Blue Zone residents. Though we only know of five Blue Zones at the moment, there may be more communities of centenarians across the world, waiting to be discovered.
The Bigger Picture
Despite their geographic and cultural differences, Blue Zones contain similarities that may help point us in the direction of becoming centenarians ourselves. Fundamentally, Blue Zones, “produce a high rate of centenarians,” says Buettner, “They suffer a fraction of the diseases that commonly kill people in other parts of the developed world, and enjoy more years of good health.” Some of these similarities seem obvious, like exercise and sleeping well. But what’s most interesting, and perhaps most vital, is how effortlessly these healthy habits are built into the lives of Blue Zone residents.
For example, the sheepherding men of Sardinia don’t wake up at 5 am to hit the gym––their exercise is built into their daily lives, “through gardening, walking, cooking, and other daily chores… including walking longer distances to work,” explains Dr. Robertson. In Okinawa, gardening is an essential aspect of daily life, and Nicoyan Peninsula centenarians perform physical jobs well into old age. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest 150 moderate-intensity minutes or 75 vigorous-intensity minutes of aerobic activity per week. Building activity into daily life like the centenarians do, encourages you to exercise more regularly.
Another commonality between Blue Zones is sufficient sleep and daytime naps. Specifically in Mediterranean regions like Sardinia and Ikaria, daytime naps are common. Dr. Robertson confirms, “napping has no negative effect on the risk of heart disease and death and may even reduce these risks.” According to recent study analysis, “seven hours is the optimal sleep duration [at night]… and naps of no more than 30 minutes during the day,” proved most effective.
While exercising and sleeping well may seem evident, other traits associated with longevity may be less obvious. Residents of Blue Zones proved to be active socially and spiritually, involved with their communities, families and faith groups. These regular, meaningful interactions promoted high quality of life and longevity. Surely, the spiritual component of the Blue Zones contributes to another similarity between them––residents have a life purpose. In Okinawa, this life purpose is known as “ikigai” and in Costa Rica, “plan de vida.” Perhaps this proves moreover that psychological, social, and emotional well-being can impact the length and quality of our lives just as much as eating right and staying in shape.
The Usual Suspects
While the social and psychological aspects of centenarian life are both important and interesting, the burning question remains––what do centenarians eat? Perhaps one of the most hotly contested subjects of our time, the diet of the centenarian challenges the boundaries of popular diet culture. Yes, it’s true––centenarians love carbs.
In Sardinia, carbs make up around 47% of daily diet, which consists mainly of whole grains, specifically barley. According to Buettner, “The classic Sardinian diet consists of whole grain bread, beans, garden vegetables, fruits, and in some parts of the island, mastic oil.” In a culture that has consistently vilified carbohydrates, particularly in bread form, it’s comforting to hear the happy centenarians of pastoral Sardinia enjoy their carbs freely.
The diet of Sardinians is comparable to the diets throughout the other Blue Zones. Residents mainly eat vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. According to Dr. Robertson, “those who live [in Blue Zones] primarily eat a 95% plant-based diet.” In most cases, meat was eaten only on weekends, or for special occasions. Dr. Robertson goes on to clarify, “Although most groups are not strict vegetarians, they only tend to eat meat around five times per month.” Of all the meat, it seems fish and seafood remain the most popular choice among Blue Zones, which ensures a consistent source of omega-3s, important for brain and heart health.
Overall, the centenarian diet includes whole, plant-based foods with the occasional serving of meat. So too, alcohol is enjoyed in moderation. It seems the centenarians know not only how to prolong their life, but how to live it well and enjoy every moment, even with the hard work it often entails.
Blue Zones consist of geographic locations where people consistently live to be over 100 years of age. Blue Zone residents engage in an active social life, exercise daily, maintain a spiritual connection and life purpose, and eat mostly plant-based.
Note: This article was originally published in the October/November 2021 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.