How can the Blue Zones help us live longer?
Icaria, Okinawa, Ogliastra, Loma Linda and Nicoya. What could these regions, spread across the globe, possibly have in common? Well, all five of these are places where living a long and healthy life seems to be the standard. In these so-called Blue Zones, we can find an unusual number of centenarians who have never shown any real signs of health issues like cardiovascular diseases, obesity or even cancer.
Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones Solution, managed to identify ‘the blue zone power 9’, a set of characteristics these regions seem to share. These combined factors are believed to slow the process of aging altogether. Find a purpose, manage your stress levels and limit alcohol consumption: these are all tips to live a long and happy life. But what are the others?
The world's oldest people do not run marathons or join gyms. Their daily dose of physical activity comes from performing general day-to-day chores, like gardening and walking. This is often supported by the environment they live in and their preference for a more basic and traditional approach to life.
- In most of the blue zones, the connection between the mind, our health and a sense of purpose is very strong. On the Japanese island Okinawa they call it “ikigai”; in the Costa Rican Nicoya peninsula, “plan de vida'' is the right term to use. For us, it’s just another reason to wake up in the morning.
- Everyone experiences stress, even the inhabitants of the blue zones. The biggest difference, however, is how they perceive and deal with it. Blue zoners all have their own routines in place to shed the built-up stress, or to give it a proper place in their minds. And just as well, since stress leads to inflammation, which is a leading cause for every age-related disease. Okinawans commemorate their ancestors; Adventists pray; Ikarians take a nap; and Sardinians do enjoy happy hour. What is your stress relief?
- Moderation is key. It might not be polite to leave anything on your plate, but in the blue zones people tend to eat until they’re full, not until they’ve finished everything there is to finish. The 20% gap between a full stomach and an overstuffed one, might just make the difference. On top of that, the residents of these blue zones eat their most important meal in the late afternoon or early evening, not right close to bedtime.
- The main food source in these regions is primarily plant-based. Consuming meat occurs only a few times a month, and only on special occasions. Beans, in every size and form, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Vegetables, nuts, herbs and fish, all full of healthy vitamins, complete the traditional table setup. In contrast, added sugars and processed foods have never shown any real health benefits. Cutting them out is already a giant leap to a healthier life.
- Studies have shown that most of these blue zone residents do in fact drink alcohol, but only moderately and on a regular basis. This means: one or two glasses a day, on regular times and mostly wine. Of course, the best way to do this is with food, family or friends.
- Belonging to a community and finding a purpose is an important aspect of every blue zone. The rates of weight problems, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and even cancers are lower for people who engage in community activities and adopt a village lifestyle.
- In all blue zones, families tend to be close, not only emotionally but also geographically. Blue zoners keep their aging parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters nearby, or even take them in. When they choose a life partner, they do so for life.
- The world’s longest lived people chose —or were born in—social circles that supported healthy behaviors. For example, Okinawans created moais—groups of 5 friends that committed to each other for life. Research shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.
Probably the most important thing we can learn from studying the Blue Zones is that happiness and longevity do not come from material things. It sounds like a cliché, but the simple things in life seem to be the most important of all. A good relationship with your family, friends, surroundings and nature, finding a goal you can commit to and taking care of your own health can lead to a longer, fulfilling life.
We all have the power to make small changes for the better, and the Blue Zones are the perfect inspiration for that.