Dotted around the world, Blue Zones house the highest amount of centenarians than anywhere else in the world. What is the secret to their longevity lifestyle?
Around the world, there are pockets of people who routinely reach 100 years old or older! Known as Blue Zones, these culturally diverse areas share diet, lifestyle, and community habits that have been shown to delay aging and improve longevity. Living in a Blue Zone not only extends lifespan, most importantly, it prolongs healthspan, and it is not uncommon to see people living as healthy, capable centenarians. Unfortunately, not all of us are lucky enough to live in a Blue Zone, so how can we replicate their longevity prolonging lifestyles?
What are Blue Zones?
Blue Zones are areas around the world that share longevity-boosting lifestyle habits. 5 main, culturally diverse Blue Zones have been identified; Loma Linda, California, USA; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa; Japan . Here, people turn 100 years old 10 times more often than in the wider United States. Crucially, Blue Zone residents reach this impressive age without developing chronic diseases like heart disease – the world’s biggest killer according to WHO .
Despite varying in locality, Blue Zones share a common set of lifestyle principles known as the Power 9. Our lifestyle choices directly impact health and longevity – indeed, the famous Danish Twin Study established that only around 20% of our life expectancy is influenced by genes, while the other 80% comes down to lifestyle choices . Genes and lifestyle can work together in combination, known as epigenetics. This is when our lifestyle choices effect how our genes are expressed. Throughout our lives, our DNA accumulates different chemical tags and markers that control which genes are turned on or off. This gene expression can even be passed down to children!
Diet, exercise, and sleep are lifestyle factors that have the most influence on health. By changing your lifestyle, it is possible to alter your genetic fate, prevent disease, and live better for longer.
Eating for health and longevity
Blue Zones are dotted all around the world seemingly randomly, like water droplets on a map. A major part of the antiaging powers of Blue Zones is diet. A diet of rice and seafood in Japan is quite different from the Mediterranean diet of Italy. However, the diverse diets eaten in the world’s Blue Zones do share one commonality; they remain faithful to the traditional diets of their ancestors, away from the highly processed foods of modernity.
Good news for vegetarians – another similarity is their relatively low consumption of meat. Blue Zones are united by a low protein diet that largely features plant-based or pescatarian protein sources. For example, animal products represent only 1% of the traditional Okinawa diet . While you may consider prosciutto, jamon, and gyros as the foods of the Mediterranean, these are usually savoured for special occasions along with sides of varied vegetables. Considering that high consumption of red and processed meat is associated with greater risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, this may go some way of explaining the health benefits of Blue Zone diets .
The longevity lifestyle
In Blue Zones, it is not only what you eat, but also how you eat. Blue Zones place an emphasis on community spirit – sharing meals with family, friends, and neighbours. This is important as remaining socially active can maintain health as we age. Simply enjoying life can make a difference. You are also more likely to find a multi-generational family seated around the table, as older and younger generations commonly remain in the same household, limiting social isolation in both generations.
Even older people remain active in Blue Zones, which emphasise outdoor living. Crucially, exercise, especially walking, gardening, and enjoying nature, is integrated into everyday life. Obviously, this has tremendous benefits for cardiovascular health, as well as maintaining muscle and bone strength which can decline with age.
How to live like you are in a Blue Zone
Most of us are not lucky enough to live near the sun-blessed beaches of Sardinia or Ikaria. The warm weather and community spirit that play a part in Blue Zone residents’ longevity are difficult to replicate. However, you can integrate other Power 9 principles whatever the climate:
- Move naturally. Modern modes of exercise include running marathons, gym workouts, and HIIT training. Instead, Blue Zone residents take an easier route, and most of them live in environments that keep them moving without thinking. Common activities include walking, growing gardens, and doing outdoor work themselves.
- Purpose. Known as Ikigai to Okinawans and plan de vida to Nicoyans, having a sense of purpose when you wake up in the morning can keep you living for longer.
- Downshift. Stress is the silent killer, with excess stress leading to chronic inflammation and disease. Blue Zone residents destress with various methods depending on region; praying, napping, or relaxing with friends.
- 80% rule. In Okinawa, some residents follow a Confucian mantra that reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs feel 80% full. This prevents overeating and obesity, which is overtaking the rest of the world. It is common in Blue Zones for the last meal of the day to also be the smallest, meaning that people consume and expend energy throughout the day.
- Plant slant. Whole grains like beans and lentils form the basis of most centenarian diets, coupled with relatively low meat consumption.
- Wine at 5. Apart from traditional Adventists in Loma Linda, California, most people in Blue Zones enjoy alcohol regularly as part of their active social lives. While this does not excuse binge drinking, savouring one or two glasses of wine with dinner and friends may be beneficial.
- Belong. Many centenarians belong to some sort of faith-based community. While this may not be applicable in the modern, secular world, being active in any regular group or club could help.
- Loved ones first. All Blue Zones share a strong sense of family and belonging. It is common to commit to a life-long partner. Their societies value and care for children and older adults, and multi-generational families living in harmony in one household is common.
- Right tribe. Residents often inhabit close social circles that encourage healthy behaviours. An extreme example is Okinawan moais, a chosen group of 5 friends that remain together for life .
Not all 9 Power principles common to these closed communities are compatible, or even desirable, in modern life. However, it is possible to take inspiration from Blue Zone longevity lifestyles wherever you are.