Call me kooky, but, even at the relatively tender age of 33, I sometimes fantasize about the kind of old lady I’m going to be, or at least the kind I’d like to be. I want my Mom’s silvery hair. I want to almost exclusively wear jeans. I want my body and bones to be strong so I can walk my dogs and hike in the woods and dance at parties. I want to live in a small town where everyone knows me. I want to garden and cook and eat really flavorful, whole foods. I want to be surrounded by good friends and loving family, and you know, I’m definitely going to want a really good dirty martini every now and again.
Turns out, other than the silver hair, jeans and martinis, I’m aspiring to, and hopefully steering toward, the prototypical golden years of a Blue Zoner.
If you’ve not already come across any of the recent media coverage of them, a Blue Zone describes a geographic area, frequently mountainous and often fairly isolated, where people live longer, more active and healthier lives than on average. Inhabitants of Blue Zones regularly live past 100 years and usually in statistically significant higher numbers than their geographic neighbors. There have been five Blue Zones identified to date:
- Sardinia, Italy
- The islands of Okinawa, Japan
- Loma Linda, California, specifically a community of Seventh-day Adventists
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- Icaria, Greece
The introduction of Blue Zones into the popular vernacular is an interesting story in itself. After a trip to the small Okinawan fishing village of Ogimi in 2000, where a 99-year-old woman named Ushi Okushima humorously asserted that the secret to her longevity was consumption of Spam, explorer and author Dan Buettner pitched a story to National Geographic on identifying longevity hotspots around the world – the Okinawan archipelago having been identified by a World Health Organization report as having the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. National Geographic liked the idea, but needed more research. So, Buettner approached the National Institute on Aging in Washington, D.C., with his idea and left with a $300,000 research grant and the support and scientific street cred of some of the top names in longevity research. Further discussions with demographers and scientists quickly revealed that two other longevity hotspots had already been identified: Sardinia, Italy and a community of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. Now armed with three different places in three different countries, Buettner went back to National Geographic and pitched the story again. This time, they accepted.
In 2003, Buettner and his team of National Geographic researchers started exploring the three established Blue Zones (apparently christened that after being outlined in blue marker on a map in a 2003 study of the Sardinian population). Each trip had the same format: first came discussions with every available expert, including anthropologists, dietitians, historians and geneticists, to determine what variables or habits about the particular culture might explain the increased longevity of its individuals. Then came finding and interviewing people of advanced age who represented or practiced those habits. Buettner wove together stories of individuals from Okinawa, Sardinia and Loma Linda and crafted a November 2005 National Geographic cover story that became an instant sensation (and the third best-selling issue in the magazine’s history). Based on the article’s success, Buettner quickly got a book deal to expand his research. He and his team used census data to identify other areas around the world with unusually long life expectancy, and subsequently identified two more Blue Zones in Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, and Icaria, Greece. He wrote Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, which became a New York Times bestseller and even got Oprah’s attention.
I suppose the popular clamor for Buettner’s research isn’t surprising. It’s no secret that we humans are somewhat obsessed with long life (or maybe we’re actually obsessed with death). We chase it endlessly with our medicines and machines, lotions and potions, research dollars and discretionary income. So, what is it about these Blue Zones that engenders long, healthy life? What’s the trick? The secret password? Come on, give it up, we’re not getting any younger!
You know, the kicker is there’s nothing secret about it. It’s not even revolutionary. Though genetics play a part, the research showed it’s mostly about choosing the right lifestyle. If you’re looking for a roadmap, Buettner and his team found some distinct patterns across all the globally far-flung Blue Zone cultures and broke their findings out into four categories:
There are no treadmills in Blue Zones. None of these people “exercise” the way we think of exercise, yet exercise is a constant part of their daily routine. The difference is that it’s built in. Their lives are set up so they are always nudged into regular physical activity. Okinawans live in houses with hardly any furniture, sit on the floor (lots of getting up and down) and keep gardens. Sardinians live in vertical houses with stairs and spend much of their time walking. Icarians, living in mountain villages, also garden and take many small walks to visit neighbors or do errands throughout the day. When they’re intentionally physically active, it’s doing things they enjoy, not the Stairmaster. All this physical activity — Buettner extrapolated about 105 minutes per day — ultimately burns far more calories than you or I do with a 20-minute gym workout and is easier on their joints and muscles. It’s slow and relaxed and almost effortless, but nonetheless conditions their bodies to be fit and capable machines, ready to fight off disease.
Keeping the right outlook
People in these areas of the world take time to slow down and punctuate their day with periods of calm and inactivity. Sardinians and Adventists pray, Okinawans practice ancestor veneration. They experience the same stresses we do with finances, health and children, but they’re able to manage them using these “downshifting” techniques. They also maintain a sense of purpose. The Okinawans call it “Ikegai,” the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida.” In both cultures, it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” It’s their chosen life purpose that gives them clear positions of responsibility and instills in them feelings of being needed and vital to their community.
Eating (and drinking) wisely
Sorry, junk food junkies, Blue Zone diets are largely plant-based, with lots of vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts, and very little meat. There is no fad-diet fix here; they just eat good, nutritious, unprocessed food. They implement strategies to avoid overeating, like stopping when they feel 80 percent full and eating off smaller plates. They also drink a moderate amount of alcohol every day. The Sardinians drink a few glasses of Cannonau, a red wine with the world’s highest-known levels of antioxidants. Okinawans enjoy their mugwort sake. Ikarians drink wine, too, but also ancient herbal teas that lower blood pressure. You won’t find stacks of vitamin bottles in their cupboards, but a natural supplement to many Blue Zone diets seems to be moderate exposure to sunlight and the benefits gained from their bodies’ resultant production of Vitamin D.
Connection with community
Blue Zone inhabitants surround themselves with the right people. They have strong family ties and put their loved ones first. They tend to belong to some sort of faith-based community. Buettner characterizes it as them belonging to the “right tribe,” and keeping like-minded people around. Most of the Adventists he interviewed said 90 percent of their close friends were also Adventists, creating an environment where their social circle was supportive of their cultural habits. The Okinawans keep mutual support networks called Moai, made up of lifelong friends who support each other emotionally, socially and even financially throughout their lives together.
So, that’s kind of…it? It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Honestly, when I was reading about Blue Zones and decided to make it my latest blog post topic, I kept sniffing the air for snake oil. But there really isn’t any. This research doesn’t make wild claims or leaps of logic. It doesn’t advocate anything potentially harmful or in any way controversial. It’s not even new, really. It’s all stuff we’ve heard before, just put into measurable practice by people who are outliving many of us by decades. And, if you buy into this idea that these disparate communities of long-lived, healthy, happy individuals have anything to teach us about aging well, it really is that simple. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy. These are long-term fixes, and we’re living in a glittery fast-food world of short-term satisfaction. Oh darn, no magic pill? That means more of that pesky behavior modification and self-discipline, doesn’t it?
For me, it’s a no brainer. I really do want to be that healthy, spry, silver-haired fox with a martini celebrating my 95th birthday on the dance floor, so I’m going to close this now and go take a little walk, nothing too strenuous, maybe say “Hi” to a few good friends here at work, and then come back and have a few walnuts. I’ll save the glass of wine for happy hour. While I’m gone, I’d love to hear what you think about all this. Does the Blue Zone research resonate for you at all when you think about the power you have to design your own aging process?
- Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones teach nine secrets of a longer life. Erin Carlyle, City Pages, February 2, 2010.
- Blue Zones – Places In the World Where People Live to 100 and Remain Healthy. Keith Kleiner, Singularity Hub, July 22, 2009.
- Can ‘Blue Zones’ Help Turn Back the Biological Clock? NPR: Weekend Edition Sunday, June 8, 2008.
- How to live to be 100+: Dan Buettner on TED.com (video)
- Uncovering secrets to a longer life. Dan Buettner, TED Talk Tuesdays, January 26, 2010.
- The Island Where People Live Longer. NPR: Weekend Edition Saturday, May 2, 2009.
- Poulain M, Pes GM, Grasland C, Carru C, Ferrucci L, Baggio G, Franceschi C, & Deiana L (2004). Identification of a geographic area characterized by extreme longevity in the Sardinia island: the AKEA study. Experimental gerontology, 39 (9), 1423-9 PMID: 15489066
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