by Renee Franklin
In 2004, a group of researchers led by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner embarked on a journey to discover regions of the world with the lowest rates of middle-age mortality. What they discovered were five areas that appear to exist outside of our time, virtually free of disease and the discomforts that accompany aging. These areas cultivate lifestyles that result in a surprisingly large amount of residents living to age 100 and beyond, and there are five of them: Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece) and a population of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda (California). Researchers deemed these regions “Blue Zones” for the blue ink drawn around their map to mark these areas of immense longevity.
The researchers found that these five areas, although spread across the globe, have nine qualities in common:
As much as it is beneficial to get that gym membership and stick to it, you won’t find people signing up for marathons or taking spin classes in Blue Zones; instead, movement is a natural part of their day, one they don’t need to set time aside for. They tend to gardens, walk to the market or bike to school.
A sense of purpose in your life goes a long way—seven years, in fact, which is how much longer those who feel they have a reason to get up in the morning tend to live than those who don’t.
Stress is a natural part of life, even in the most picturesque and tranquil corners of the world. Build up of stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which plays a role in every major life-threatening disease. Methods of stress reduction are inherent in the daily life of Blue Zone cultures and range from prayer, happy hour and honoring ancestors.
80 Percent Rule
People in Blue Zones eat their smallest meals in the early evening, and then refrain from eating for the rest of the day. They also eat until their stomachs are 80 percent full, a method that has been practiced in Okinawa for 2,500 years. The 20 percent is often the difference between gaining and losing weight.
Plant-based diets are the common thread among these centenarian communities in which junk food and processes meats are virtually non-existent. Meat is eaten approximately five times a month, while beans (think fava, lentils and black beans) make up most their diet.
Wine at Five
Wine, enjoyed regularly and in moderation (1-2 glasses per day) with friends or at meals, is shown to be beneficial and contributes to longevity.
Being a part of a faith-based group, regardless of denomination, can add up to 14 years onto an individual’s life. Of the nearly 265 centenarian’s interviewed by Blue Zone researchers, only five were not members of a faith-based community.
Loved Ones First
The longest living people in the word prioritize their families. This means keeping elderly parents and relatives close, committing to a life partner and spending quality time with children.
The Right Tribe
Researchers found that social circles that encourage and support healthy lifestyle choices are a commonality among centenarians.
What have we learned?
The Blue Zones grew from a group of researchers to an organization that works to help communities live better, longer lives through long-term changes to environment, policy and social networks.
“We asked, ‘How do we bring these lessons back?’” Blue Zones Speaker and Community and Corporate Program Director Nick Buettner said.
He goes on to explain that the majority of most people’s lives occur in a 20-mile radius.
“The Blue Zone environments naturally result in longevity,” Buettner said. “What if we can optimize our environments to do the same?”
Currently, they have worked with 42 communities across the country and have yielded quite an impact; Iowa City experienced a 15 percent drop in obesity from 2014 to 2015 as a result of Blue Zone initiatives, and Beach Cities in California has seen a $12 million saving in annual health care costs.
What can you do?
Even if your community is not yet a part of the Blue Zone Project, Buettner notes there are things you can do to incorporate the nine elements of centenarian living into your own home.
“Set up your home for healthy living,” he advised. “Instead of putting chips on your counter, put fruit there so it’s the first thing you reach for. Spend more time with your family, go on walks— set up your life so the healthiest choices are the easiest choices.”