Experts have long worked on creating a magic pill that can make you live longer. But the answer to living until you're 100 could be much simpler than a new drug.
“Blue zones” are areas of the world where people live considerably longer lives. On these territories we can find octogenarians, nonagenarians and many centenarians, and even some supercentenarians (people who have reached the age of 110).
These regions were named “blue zones” after the Belgian demographer Michel Poulain and the Italian doctor Gianni Pes discovered a population with such features in the region of Barbaglia (Sardinia, Italy), and they marked out the area with blue ink.
In the region of Barbaglia, located in the Sardinian mountain area, there is the world's largest concentration of centenarians. Okinawa Island is inhabited by the oldest women on Earth. Icaria – an island which is located in the Aegean Sea – has the long-lived population with the lowest senile dementia levels. Loma Linda is home to a community of Seventh-day Adventists whose life expectancy is 10 years over the average lifespan in the United States. And in Nicoya we can find the second-largest community of centenarians in the world.
What is the secret behind this great longevity; the mystery of the blue zones, where so many centenarians live?
A team composed of several specialists (doctors, anthropologists, demographers, nutritionists, epidemiologists) travelled many times to the different blue zones. They identified the following nine general longevity factors, which are related to diet and lifestyle:
1. Intense and regular physical activity in the performance of daily duties. The concept of a sedentary lifestyle is unknown to the people living in these regions
2. Having an “ikigai” – a Japanese word (Okinawa) which is used to define our own “reasons for being” or, more precisely, the reasons why we wake up every morning
3. Reduction of stress, a factor which is closely linked to almost all ageing-related diseases. Stress reduction means interrupting the normal pace of our daily lives in order to allow time for other activities which are part of normal social habits. For example, taking a nap in Mediterranean societies, praying in the case of Adventists, the tea ceremony of women in Okinawa, and so on.
4. “Hara hachi bu” – a Confucian teaching that means we should not continue to eat until we are full, but only until 80% of our eating capacity
5. Prioritizing a diet that is rich in plant-based products. Meat, fish and dairy products may be consumed, but in lower amounts
6. A moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages, which confirms the belief that moderate drinkers live longer lives than nondrinkers
7. Engaging in social groups that promote healthy habits
8. Engaging in religious communities with common religious practices
9. Building and maintaining solid relationships between family members: parents, siblings, grandparents and others.
To sum up, the above nine longevity factors could be synthesised in just two.
Firstly, maintaining a healthy lifestyle – which implies regular intensity exercise, including routines to “break” from daily stress, and including mainly plant-based products in our diets, eating without filling up and not drinking excessively.
Secondly, integrating in groups that promote and support those “good practices”: family, religious communities, social groups, and so on – all of which must have their own “ikigai”, that is, their own “reason to live”. There is a personal “ikigai”, but there is also a collective “ikigai” that sets the goals for each community as well as the challenges to overcome in order to achieve them.
Living this way means living better and longer. Longevity may be determined by genetics, but it is also something that can be trained, as can be seen in the example of the inhabitants of the blue zones.
Foods that are especially prominent in the diets of the blue zones include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes
- Quality fats like olive oil
- High-quality dairy products, like grass-fed goat milk and homemade cheeses
- Fermented products like yogurt, kefir, tempeh, miso and natto
- Whole grains, such as durham wheat or locally grown (organic) corn
Eating plenty of high antioxidant foods just like people in the blue zones do — such as making them about half of your plate or more at any meal — contributes disease-fighting nutrients and naturally controls your body’s hunger signals so you know when you’re full. These types of foods lower inflammation, which is crucial because we know inflammation is at the root of most diseases.
Plant foods deliver loads of fiber, antioxidants, potential natural anti-cancer agents (insoluble fiber), cholesterol reducers and blood-clot blockers, plus essential minerals. This is likely one reason why people in the blue zone eating a healing diet suffer much less from heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, dementia and cancer than people living in the U.S.
The centenarians in the blue zones didn’t necessarily avoid meat or animal products altogether (although the Seventh-day Adventists did for religious regions); most just didn’t have access to meat very often. Meat is typically eaten only a few times a month in most of the blue zones, while sheep or goat milk, eggs, and fish are eaten more often, usually a couple of times per week. Centenarians in the blue zones usually eat animal-based meals on occasion, such as for holidays, festivals or when they have access to meat from their neighborhood farmers.
When they do have animal products, they obtain more nutrients since their food is always raised locally, grass-fed, pasture-raised, wild-caught and free from harmful substances commonly used in the U.S meat and dairy supply, like antibiotics and growth hormones.
Avoid processed, packaged foods
When researching diets of the blue zones, something that really stands out is how low in sugar, pesticides and artificial ingredients their diets are compared to the standard American diet (sometimes called SAD). Blue zone diets only use small amounts of natural sweeteners on occasion, while refined carbohydrates and artificial flavors are unheard of for the most part. Considering the high rate of diabetes in the U.S., many people can afford to adopt similar principles that can serve as a natural diabetes cure.
It’s not that those living in the blue zones never let themselves enjoy a “treat,” they just opt to have antioxidant-rich “guilty pleasures” like locally made red wine (1–2 glasses per day) or sake, small amounts of coffee or herbal tea, or simple desserts like locally made cheese and fruit. Soda, sports drinks, candy bars and packaged baked goods don’t play a part in their diet at all.
A nutritional assessment of diets in the blue zones showed a high adherence to whole foods and a nutritional profile similar to the Mediterranean diet, with foods low on the glycemic index, almost always free from added sugar and high in healthy fats and plants.
Exercise Often but Make It Enjoyable
Centenarians in the blue zones lead active lives, yet they never set foot in a gym and don’t dread exercise. Being active is just a part of their day and way of life: They walk almost everywhere (usually up to five to six miles every day), they do chores using their hands instead of machines and their errands are run on foot. They tend to be active by practicing types of exercise they enjoy, such as yoga, tai chi, or playing sports and games with friends.
Many of them also have jobs that are physically demanding, such as farming — which is a big contrast to sitting behind a desk all day. And almost all of them love to garden, which gives them some exercise; time spent de-stressing in nature; and also provides fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit. Staying active consistently in a healthy way adds to longevity by reducing inflammation, improving heart health, improving resilience to stress, and maintaining bone and muscular health.
Living a longer, healthier, more enjoyable life doesn’t come from a single practice alone, such as a good diet or even good genes, but from a combination of habits.