Life in a ‘Blue Zone’
Could the answer to how LONG you live lie in WHERE you live?
It’s hard to imagine that in East Asia during the 1950s life expectancy was less than 45. In fact most babies born around the world in 1900 did not live past 50.
Thanks to public health projects in the 20th century, such as ensuring cleaner drinking water and the widespread use of immunisations, life expectancy rates rose, but it’s not just the rich industrialised nations with good healthcare that see the highest rates of health amongst the elderly.
According to the World health Organisation, the current average global life expectancy at birth is 71.4, but there are of course wide national variations, as well as those between men and women. In the 1950s the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet (fresh fruit, vegetables, olive oil, fish and little meat and animal fat) were praised as the reason why Southern Italy had the highest concentration of centenarians. The diet is still amongst the best in the world for general health, but there are other places void of this diet that display key lifestyle trends that amount to longer lives.
Dan Buettner, a Journalist for National Geographic Magazine, discovered ‘blue zones’ where statistically people live the longest, and he compiled trends in lifestyle and environmental factors that attributed to the life longevity.
The Blue Zones identified by Buettner are:
- Sardinia, Italy (in particular Barbagia of Seulo has the highest concentration of male centenarians in the world)
- The Islands of Okinawa in Japan
- Nicoya Penninsula, Costa Rica
- Icaria, Greece (where 1 out of 3 people live into their 90s, and regardless of age Icarians experience little to no dementia)
- Loma Linda, California (a cultural blue zone in a community of Seventh-day Adventists, who have a life expectancy some ten years higher than that of other Americans)
In all of these blue zones you can expect to not only live a long life, but residents will also suffer from a fraction of more common diseases prevalent in the developed world.
So what’s the secret?
The shared lifestyle trends between all five of these areas that Buettner researched are:
- Social engagement (in particular with the local community)
- Family engagement as a top priority
- Being somewhat culturally isolated
- Having ‘likeability’
- No time urgency day-to-day, so less stress
- Following a ‘faith’
- Spending time outdoors, in nature – in particular growing fruit/vegetables or gardening
- Moderate physical activity, especially walking
- A predominately plant-based diet, (Soy & beans being the largest source of protein) rich in whole grains, nuts and turmeric
- No other alcohol except for a moderate intake of high polyphenol wines
- Not smoking
Can a whole city live longer?
The city of Albert Lea, Minnesota, began adopting a ‘Blue Zones Vitality Project’, sponsored by United Health Foundation and led by Dan Buettner, to increase health and wellness in their population by encouraging small changes throughout their communities.
These included regular walking groups (as well as walking more children to school in groups), community volunteering initiatives, regular neighbourhood picnics, free life-coaching workshops, widespread use of ‘healthy’ vending machines and community garden allotment schemes.
Residents completed a questionnaire that determined their life expectancy pre and post trial of the Vitality Project and found that, on average, residents life expectancy had increased by three years by making these small day-to-adjustments.