We all want to live long, healthy, happy lives…but how? There are regions around the world that have the secret recipe. These regions, or “Blue Zones” are areas where populations are living longer and thriving more so than anywhere else in the world. Let’s examine the commonalities these regions share and how we can apply them to our lives.
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Why are so many of us overweight, over-stressed, and prone to so many diseases? It’s easy to blame genetics or factors beyond our control. But as more and more studies pile up on the subject, we’re finding that the decisions we make every day affect our health much more so than our genetic makeup.
Living better and longer
Scientists and academics who have examined human longevity in-depth have identified locations called “Blue Zones.” These are geographic areas and cultural enclaves around the world with many citizens aged 90 and older. Here in the U.S., we have an average lifespan of only 78 years, so what’s the secret?
“Individuals get lucky, populations don’t,” – Dr. Dan Buettner, longevity expert
Genetics indeed plays a role in making longer lives possible. But these studies suggest genetics is only about 20% of the equation. The remaining 80% is from epigenetics, where your lifestyle determines how your genes express themselves.
It comes down to a few simple yet powerful guidelines:
- Eat a balanced and nutritious diet
- Get plenty of physical exercise, and find ways to reduce stress
- Stay mentally vibrant and intellectually engaged in life, and with others
Internationally recognized researcher, explorer, founder of Earthtreks, Inc., Emmy Award winner for co-producing PBS’s Scientific American, and most recently an author and American National Geographic Fellow, Dr. Dan Buettner, worked with the National Institute on Aging, pioneering incisive new research in the ways people everywhere pursue longer, healthier lives.
Dr. Buettner shared his discoveries in his book, Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived where he interviewed 263 individuals from Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California.
The “Power 9”
The nine common denominators discovered through this decade-long study were a series of lifestyle choices, not quick solutions, that are believed to slow our aging process.
- Moving naturally refers to our daily activities. Rather than setting aside an hour of the day to exercise, these populations are natural movers. They garden, they walk, they do housework both inside and outside, the commute on foot, their jobs are physical. Their everyday routines are much less sedentary than the typical American work-life cycle.
- The purpose of the Okinawans, called ikigai, is an understanding that they can make a difference in others’ lives every day. This motivation to live each day is fueled directly by a sense of purpose, a reason to get out there and live with meaning.
- Downshifting is a major takeaway from each culture, which often use a part of their day or week to seek rest. This “downshift” is the practice of managing their stress by ensuring rest. We know that stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which is associated with a variety of age-related diseases. The Okinawans take time each day to remember their ancestors, while the Ikarians commonly nap. Sardinians downshift by having daily happy hour, while Adventists rest on Sundays.
- The 80% Rule is a 2,500-year-old rule from Okinawa’s Confucian ancestors. They say the mantra before each meal to remind them to only eat to 80% capacity. That 20% gap is the difference between losing or gaining weight. People in the Blue Zones generally tend to eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then fast for the remainder of the day.
- Wine @ 5 refers to all Blue Zones, save for California, whose Adventist population does not drink alcohol. The trick is to keep drinks to 1 or 2 glasses per day, often with food and friends.
- Belonging is a critical part of the findings. All but five of the 263 centenarians who were interviewed belonged to some type of faith-based community. The denomination did not seem to matter. The research showed that attending a faith-based gathering four times per month added four to 14 years of life expectancy.
- Loved ones first is widely practiced in these communities by having their grandparents and great-grandparents live very close. Furthermore, these communities were known for committing to one partner for life, allowing them more time to invest in their children and to share love.
- The right tribe goes hand in hand with social circles. The world’s longest-living people were either born into or chose social groups that support healthy lifestyles. For example, the Okinawans created moais, which is a group of five friends that committed to each other for life. These groups proved to combat loneliness and decrease negative lifestyle factors.
- Eating practices for these locations included a diet rich in vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts. Additionally, they also often practiced fasting, as well as decreased calorie intake. The Blue Zones also eat diets that are fish heavy, as a preferred protein. For example, in Icaria and Sardinia, fish is a staple and high in omega 3s.
Does location determine longevity?
National Geographic and Dr. Buettner did not originally set out to uncover these Blue Zones. In fact, they were embarking on what was originally designed to be an expedition to explore uniquely different areas of the world, only to find out that these 9 factors were major contributors to their longevity.
We know that there is no actual fountain of youth and that moving to these exotic places is not going to add years to your life. According to Buettner, these populations were not ‘trying’ to be healthy- they had not set out on a health quest to cleanse themselves, or create new ways of life. No, it was innate. The environment in which they lived was primarily natural, they worked near loved ones and knew their purpose. They broke bread with family and took the time to recharge.
Blue Zones, in partnership with Healthways, created what is called the Blue Zones Project which has set out to bring the Power 9 longevity principles to entire communities. To focus on changing environments, and creating long-term sustainable change for future generations.
This task is no small feat. Changing the way communities move, and share and eat and grow requires a lot of effort, as Buettner details:
“We work with restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and large employers to make healthier foods more accessible and less expensive. We also work with local community groups and religious institutions to create walking groups and other opportunities for residents to meet new people, create new connections, and improve their lives with volunteer work or new hobbies…we make it easier for people to move naturally, make new friends, and eat healthy.”
So far, the results have been dramatic. The first community work for this project was in Alberta Lea, MN. In a single year, the citizens added 2.9 years to their lifespans, with healthcare claims decreasing by 49%. There are now 42 Blue Zone project cities in the U.S. We look forward to seeing what changes these communities will actualize. According to Dr. Buettner:
“…through policy and environmental changes, the Blue Zones Project Communities have been able to increase life expectancy, reduce obesity, and make the healthy choice the easy choice for millions of Americans.”
Hope for the rest of us
And while we know this is one study, the initial results support other research for living longer. We know about some similar lifestyle suggestions such as meditation, the Mediterranean Diet, the importance of exercise, the need to have a purpose in life, and the critical component of love with family and friends.
We must, for the health of ourselves, and our children, focus on the whole body. From decreasing our stress to prioritizing our loved ones, to giving ourselves the time to relax and recharge, to not overeating and focusing more on the foods we eat than being full.
The Bottom Line
Long lifespans aren’t based on one or two things. They come from a complex mix of factors, some that seem so far beyond anyone’s control. But many are controllable – through decisions we make and actions we take in our day-to-day lives. Eat right. Exercise. Keep your mind and body engaged with your family and friends, and connect with the world around you via your church, schools, and other organizations.