Blue zones: does the Fountain of Youth exist?
In the past few centuries, getting older than 90 has always been considered a rarity. The Fountain of Youth is the subject of many tales, passed down through generations, delivered by our grandparents, and even more so, by Hollywood. But in scientific circles too, countless dreamers undertook expeditions in search of the source of eternal life.
Nowadays, longevity is more and more likely. The secret hack? We’re not sure, but throughout the planet there are regions where living a long and healthy life seems to be the standard. These places are known as ‘blue zones', and have been studied intensively since they were discovered. Author Dan Buettner, with the help of the National Geographic Society, identified 5 blue zones on the basis of some remarkable data. He located places with an unusual number of centenarians and groups of older people who never showed any signs of health problems like cardiovascular diseases, obesity or cancers. And yet, the scientific world is still baffled about how and why blue zones exist.
However, Buettner has been able to identify a few similar habits between these regions, despite representing totally different cultures and living thousands of kilometers apart. These, combined with their unique traits, might help us learn more about living the right way.
This island in the Aegean Sea was named after Icarus, the mythological man who flew too close to the sun and who was believed to have perished close-by. Contrary to their etymological ancestor, the Ikarians are known to live long and healthy lives. Not only does the island have some of the lowest rates of middle-age mortality and dementia, the rate of cardiovascular disease approaches nearly half of what it is in the whole western society.
Scientific research links these improbable figures to the Mediterranean diet that the islanders adopted. Traditionally, their cuisine consists mainly of (grilled) vegetables, fresh fish, olive oil and other healthy fats. Dairy and processed meat is less heavily featured in their daily routine.
Furthermore, it has been pointed out that it’s not only about what you eat, but also about who you eat it with. According to ancient Greek customs, family and community has always been highly important. These close relationships seem to have a great impact on life expectancy in Icaria. Thus, the food on the table might be important, but so are the people around it.
With more than 30% of the inhabitants making it to their 90s, Icaria truly is the island where people forget to die.
The islands at the southern end of Japan have always been known for their longevity, even being called the land of the immortals. Okinawa is the largest island in this subtropical archipelago and home to the world's longest-lived women, with the highest concentration of 100 year olds on the planet.
There are several reasons for this. For example, there are noticeably fewer cases of breast cancer on the island than anywhere else in Japan. A leading factor, again, is the daily diet of the Okinawans. With food like tofu, sweet potatoes, goya, seaweed and otani watari (a fern-like herb), they reduce inflammation and oxidation, leading to healthier and longer lives.
In addition, the people of Okinawa maintain active social bonds through so-called moai. These are groups of friends that are founded early in a person’s childhood and are maintained throughout adulthood. They provide the necessary amount of emotional support, social connection and sometimes even monetary assistance to its members. This helps create a strong sense of purpose, also called “ikigai”, and gives a sense of belonging to a thriving community. For the Hawaï of Japan, there’s no greater honor than giving back.
OGLIASTRA REGION, SARDINIA
Another remarkable region is in the inhospitable highlands of Sardinia. In fact, this was the first area worthy of note because of the high number of centenarian men who lived there. While investigating the Italian island, researchers discovered a rare genetic quirk linked to unprecedented longevity. Due to cultural and geographic isolation and traditional living conditions, the genes of the inhabitants have remained undiluted.
These Sardinians still fish, hunt and harvest the food they eat: all physical activities they keep on doing throughout their whole lives. Because of the mountainous terrain, walking and cycling are the main forms of transportation, adding to a healthy and active lifestyle.
Whereas in our regions, whole grains and dairy products are often considered troublesome, they’re the main food groups in Sardinia. However, they’re less processed, rich in healthy bacteria like lactobacillus and are undoubtedly handled with care.
LOMA LINDA, CALIFORNIA
It may be hard to believe for many, but there is also a blue zone in the United States. Loma Linda, California is a small community with the highest concentration of Seventh-day Adventists. Generally, they live a decade longer than the average US citizen.
As part of their interpretation of Christianity, they renounce the consumption of meat, alcohol and caffeine, while holding on to a biblical diet of grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts.
Besides the obvious dietary commitments, their beliefs also strengthen the sense of purpose and connection that is also found in Okinawa. The social interactions in a devoted community and a strong spiritual bond seems a big contributing factor to the longevity of the people of Loma Linda.
NICOYA PENINSULA, COSTA RICA
This unspoiled paradise in Central America is a bucket list item for every nature lover, hiker, adventurer, wildlife enthusiast and dreamer. The incredible life expectancy of the locals, with the lowest rate of middle-aged mortality and second highest concentration of male centenarians, is one that dreams are made of.
Contrary to many other blue zones, a healthy diet is not the number one factor when studying the residents of Nicoya. Their plan de vida, their reason to live, is. This is probably why they are often labeled as the happiest blue zone in the world. Their secret? Deep social networks, a strong faith and regular, low-intensity physical activity. These habits not only keep them happy and free of disease but also sharp to the very end.
One dietary aspect that is different: Costa Rican corn tortillas. These are rich in B3 or niacin, which is linked to low cholesterol and boosts cognitive functions. Researchers even discovered that the Nicoyans have far more telomeres, which in their turn are associated with longer health spans.
It’s pretty obvious that we cannot limit the explanations for the exceptional longevity of the Blue Zones to one magic formula. In each of these territories there is a mixture of contributing factors that lead to a healthier and longer life. Some of these are common, others are unique to each culture. Although it is probably not as exhilarating as finding the Fountain of Youth, there are undoubtedly many ways in which we can draw from these remarkable people.