Are there parts of the world where people seem to live longer than others? If so, why? What can we learn from the people in these areas?
What are ‘Blue Zones?’
Blue Zones are “limited regions where the population shares a common lifestyle and environment and whose exceptional longevity has been accurately verified”. The term was initially coined by Dan Buetter, a National Geographic Fellow. In these regions, it isn’t unusual for people to live an active life until nearly 100 or over.
Why do people tend to live longer there?
Are the people who live in these zones lucky and genetically blessed individuals who just happen to live in unusually healthy environments? Do they have better lifestyles? Eat better food? Have better social networks and social support systems?
These regions tend to be geographically or historically isolated regions, where a traditional way of life has been maintained. For example:
- Physical activity is continued to the age of 80 and beyond
- Food is locally grown and sourced
- There is strong family and community support, including for older people
Where people have been able to enjoy the benefits of a traditional lifestyle, augmented by the improvements made, for instance, by modern medicine, this is likely to have been a potent combination.
What is the best researched Blue Zone?
The traditional diet here is full of fruits and vegetables – especially leafy greens and sweet potatoes (rich in antioxidants). It is also low in meats, salt and sugar, refined grains, full fat dairy products and saturated fats. This kind of diet is low in calories, high in nutrients . It means the risk from cardio-vascular diseases, some cancers and age-associated conditions is low.
This traditional diet and Hara Hachi Bu (eating until you feel 80% full) has been widely suggested to be linked to the longevity and the low risk of age associated diseases within the population. Interestingly there is a European equivalent to Hara Hachi Bu, a German saying which translates as, ’When it tastes best one should stop eating.’
Traditionally people in Okinawa were also regularly active and had strong social networks – further factors likely to help.
Interestingly, when some Okinawans emigrated to countries like the US, and as younger Okinawans adopted a more westernised lifestyle (for example with more fast food and less exercise) their health and longevity deteriorated.
Are there any Blue Zones in Europe?
Sardinia is an interesting example, particularly when it comes to men. It has one of the highest proportions of male centenarians in the world.
And the proportion of male newborns who go on to live to be 100 is around 15 per 10,000 births – one of the highest in the world!
Again, this is thought to be driven by active lifestyles and a low calorie, high nutrient diet (as with the Okinawan Diet) – although here the closer comparison is with the Mediterranean diet.
Ikaria is a Greek Island where the Mediterranean diet is also thought to play an important role in the longevity of the population. And the same factors keep emerging – good social networks, daily physical activity, avoiding smoking and ‘a sense of purpose’ are all described by the ‘oldest old’ participants to be part of their daily lives.
But are there any urban Blue Zones?
We can’t all go and live on islands. Most of us live in cities. Are there any urban models we should consider?
An example we can probably relate more easily to is Loma Linda in California. Loma Linda is a small city with a population of around 23,853.
It is not an island, it is not isolated and in fact it suffers from a degree of air pollution. However, people here live four to seven years longer than their counterparts in other parts of California. So, what is their secret?
About half the residents in Loma Linda are Seventh Day Adventists – Protestant Christians who observe Saturday as their holy day and for whom diet and exercise are considered especially important. A combination of diet (mostly vegetarian, high in fats from nuts), exercise, not smoking, not drinking alcohol and the social support associated with church attendance seem to be important here.
So, if I adopt a healthier lifestyle will I live to be 100?
Perhaps, but there are other things the people living in these ‘Blue Zones’ have in their favour – their genes. There have been suggestions of inherited ‘longevity genes’ and mental resilience in Sardinia and even theories of gene selection due to Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ in Ikaria – as up to 20% of the population are thought to have died due to starvation in World War Two.
However, all is not lost! Many studies show that a healthy diet, regular exercise, not smoking, not drinking too much alcohol, participation in social and community activities and in groups with shared beliefs and values can all help our health and longevity.
The island of Ikaria is another interesting example here. As one of the island's few doctors on the Island told Buettner; "It's not a 'me' place. It's an 'us' place.”
What can we conclude?
Blue Zones suggest that genes can make a difference – but that lifestyle is also important. We can increase our chances of a long and healthy life if we:
- Don’t smoke or drink too much alcohol.
- Eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and low in salt, sugar and fats.
- Exercise daily and regularly – as part of our daily life.
- Maintain a strong network of friends and family and participate in our community.
- Live in areas where there is social equality and people think about each other, not just themselves.
Reviewed by Karen Rollins July 2019, next review due in July 2023