There are locations across the globe where people live longer on average than most others. Commonly referred to as “blue zones” these places are statistical anomalies for life expectancies. Besides being home to some of the oldest populations, these special areas also have some of the healthiest people in the world. In addition to awe inspiring longevity, their old age isn’t typically spent institutionalized and chronic debilitating disease is not commonplace.
Why do residents of these specific places live so long? What habits do they have that can translate into our everyday lives to increase our longevity and enhance the health of our oldest citizens?
Yes, there are scientific and genetic factors that can contribute to longevity. There are certain genetic markers/variants that indicate one’s propensity towards a longer (than most) life span. But there are also lifestyle choices, easily controllable factors, which can be extracted from these exemplary examples of healthy longevity that we can utilize in our daily lives.
What once began as gerontology research into longevity, researchers focused in on the Sardinian region due to the high concentration of people 100 years of age (centenarians) and older. Over time the research expanded to what is now popularly known as “blue zones.” Books, web site(s), and even diets have originated from the once humble scientific beginnings.
In the spirit of full disclosure many ethnic Sardinians, having a very tight knit social structure and generations of island-life isolation, carry the genetic propensity to extreme longevity. Do other “blue zones” have a genetic component to their longevity? Yes, but genetics are only part of the puzzle. There are many communities across the globe that are remote and have a history of isolation thus with a smaller gene pool; some of these populations do exhibit increased longevity, with or without the specific supporting genetic markers.
You can’t control your genetics but there are plenty of other longevity variables that can be adapted to influence your aging loved one’s healthy expansion of their old age. Common traits of the blue zone populations include strong positive social ties, no smoking or illicit drug use, plant-based diets, physical activity at all ages and life stages, and social connections at all ages and life stages. The one longevity factor that arises which is in sharp juxtaposition in different populations is alcohol use. Most notably the strict alcohol-free lifestyles of Seventy-day Adventists is in sharp contrast to the regular (daily) alcohol consumption of the Sardinians. Loma Linda, California is the sole blue zone in the United States. Life expectancy is approximately 90 years of age, 10 years above that of the rest of the US. This is attributed to the area’s high population of Seventh-day Adventists. With a tight-knit religious community and strong social ties, Seventh-day Adventists are primarily vegetarian with a diet rich in whole grains, nuts, and beans. With the fantastic Southern California climate, residents of Loma Linda have the opportunity to enjoy healthy outdoor activity year-round.
Also with a largely plant-based diet and community closeness, the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, Italy is another blue zone. Since farming is part of most residents’ daily lives, connection to nature and daily outdoor exercise are other embedded positive attributes. In contrast to the Loma Linda population, the Sardinians regular alcohol consumption is also considered a positive contributing factor to their longevity. However, not all alcohol is created equal: positive health benefits are attributed to certain types of alcohol, specifically in the case of Sardinia the wine is high in polyphenols (anti-oxidants linked to prevention of disease).
Ikaria, Greece is another Mediterranean island with lots of outdoor daily activity and a plant-based Mediterranean diet which is rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and (of course) olive oil. Residents of Ikaria, like their Mediterranean Sardinian counterparts, also have regular consumption of locally produced red wine, which is high in polyphenols.
Polyphenols are also present in vegetables grown in the volcanic soil of Okinawa, Japan. Okinawa is also an island community with a largely plant-based diet. The residents take their job as stewards of the land to heart and can often found outside gardening and engaging in moderate activity. Okinawans have strong spiritual and community connections, very similar to that of Nicoya, Costa Rica.
The last of the 5 “official” popularized blue zones, Nicoya is situated on a peninsula with a tropical and subtropical climate that lends itself to year-round outdoor activity and an abundance of agricultural prosperity. Henceforth, the population of Nicoya traditionally relies upon a plant-based diet while warding off the temptations of processed foods.
1.Incorporate more nutrient dense, plant-based meals.
Being vegetarian isn’t for everyone but the addition of vegetarian options into one’s diet is easy! Simple plant-based meal substitutions can be made in any amount and in any frequency. The more nutrient dense, plant-based meals that can be substituted in the better! Healthier plant-based diet incorporations serve a dual purpose: in addition to encouraging longevity inspiring diet choices, not only are good food options added in, but less adequate food choices are substituted out! Processed foods, especially meat and dairy products, are leading causes of many chronic diseases and health ailments. Find out more about easy vegetarian meal substitutions.
2.Keep moving... Exercise!
A body in motion stays in motion. Illness and injury aside, exercise should be a daily routine. From walking the dog to yoga to low impact cardio, it is important for everybody (of all ages!) to exercise daily. Make certain to incorporate some strength training as well to circumvent some common effects of aging.
3.Provide nourishment for the soul
Spiritual and mental health is key to salubrious longevity. Make certain your loved ones are not missing out on their opportunity for complete happiness by overlooking the importance of connections such as friends, family, and/or religion. The intangible aspects of healthy longevity can be elusive but are undeniably indispensable.