In 2005, Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, and a team of demographers and researchers identified five areas around the world with the highest concentration of centenarians. They coined the term “blue zones” to describe these five regions. While our global life expectancy is around 72 years old, people in the blue zones are living healthy, happy lives to at least 100 years old!
How do people in blue zones live to be 100? Do genes determine our lifespans? In a study published on longevity and genetics, “it is estimated that about 25 percent of the variation in human life span is determined by genetics.” This suggests that our environment and lifestyle may impact the other 75 percent.
Where exactly are the five blue zones?
Blue zones are located in all parts of the world, from Europe and Latin America to Asia and North America.
“This island eight miles off the coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea has some of the world’s lowest rates of middle-age mortality and dementia. Research links their increased longevity with their traditional Mediterranean diet, which is heavy in vegetables and healthy fats and contains smaller amounts of dairy and meat products.”
“Okinawa is home to the world’s longest-lived women. Food staples, like Okinawan sweet potatoes, soybeans, mugwort (leafy greens), turmeric, and goya (bitter melon), keep Okinawans living long and healthy lives.” Common practices and traditions that increase longevity include “hara hachi bu,” which means eating until 80 percent full, and “moai.” Moai is a social circle of five friends committed to supporting each other for life.
Barbagia region of Sardinia
“The mountainous highlands of this Italian island boast the world’s highest concentration of centenarian men. Its population consumes a low-protein diet associated with lower rates of diabetes, cancer, and death for people under age 65.”
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
“In this region of Central America, residents have the world’s lowest rate of middle-age mortality and the second-highest concentration of male centenarians. Their longevity secret lies partly in their strong faith communities, deep social networks, and habits of regular, low-intensity physical activity.”
Loma Linda, California
“This community has the highest concentration of Seventh-day Adventists in the United States, and some residents live 10 more healthy years than the average American by following a biblical diet of grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables.”
What lessons can we learn from the people in the blue zones?
A team of researchers found nine evidence-based common denominators for longevity.
- Move naturally. Think outside the gym. Consider parking farther away from your destination, taking the stairs, or walking to the park or store.
- Know your purpose. According to researchers in the Psychological Science Journal, knowing your purpose in life has been linked to reducing mortality risk and increasing lifespan. Begin thinking about what adds meaning to your life and the lives of those around you.
- Down shift. Think about practices that help you reduce stress. Stress leads to inflammation and age-related diseases. Do you take time for yourself to nap, pray, or enjoy happy hour? Find a de-stressing activity that works for you.
- The 80 percent rule. The Okinawans practice the Confucian teaching, “hara hachi bu,” which is to eat till you’re 80 percent full. Use this as a way to practice more mindful eating and listen to your body. Enjoy the food you have and the eating experience. Take this as a way to eat till you’re satiated, but not overly full.
- Plant slant. The centenarian diet treats meat as a condiment, consumed weekly instead of at every meal. Instead, the diet is full of legumes, like lentils and soy, black, fava, and garbanzo beans, with a variety of local plant-based foods. Begin incorporating these nutrition powerhouses with the Classic Hummus (garbanzo beans), Lean and Green Edamame (soybeans), and Black Bean Dip recipes.
- Wine at five. Except for Loma Linda, most people in the blue zones drink one to two glasses of wine to enjoy with friends and family as part of their down shift.
- Right tribe. People in these areas have strong social connections and networks that support their healthy behaviors. Researchers found that behaviors, like smoking and loneliness, are contagious as are happiness and healthy behaviors. Surround yourself with a group of friends that support the positive changes you’d like to make in your life.
- Belong. Most centenarians interviewed belong to a faith-based community. Research shows that being part of these communities can add 4 to 14 years of life expectancy.
- Loved ones first. Those in the blue zones put their families first. They do so by committing to a life partner, keeping children and aging parents close by to grow relationships, and spending quality time with their loved ones.
As you consider these nine lessons, think about what practice you can add to start increasing your longevity and happiness. Whether it’s reaching out to friends, increasing more plant-based foods, adding movement, or spending more time with loved ones, you can’t go wrong. Wishing you longevity, health, and happiness!
Tip: If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try the Blue Zones test to evaluate areas to get started with.
Note: We are not affiliated with the blue zones project. This information is for educational purposes only.