The Blue Zones

Okinawan women spend hours each day cultivating their vegetable gardens

You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. -C.S. Lewis

Today, I am treating you to a summary of the book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who Have Lived the Longest, by Dan Buettner. Buettner, who wrote a National Geographic piece on the same topic, travelled to four areas of the world which have been identified as having a much higher proportion of centenarians – people who reach the age of 100 – than the general American population.  The four Blue Zones are in disparate parts of the world and though they are culturally different, share similar characteristics.  They are Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; and the Nicoya Penisula, Costa Rica.  Researchers working in the area of longevity have looked at specific qualities of the Blue Zone populations, as well as double-confirmed census data, birth and death records, and other demographic information to ensure that the people of interest are really how old they say there are.

The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who Have Lived the Longest

All of us want to live a long, healthy life.  The pivotal question underlying this universal desire is, how?  Examining the longest-living people in the world can help us gain insight into how we might change our destiny in this respect. When it comes to the Blue Zones, there are no doubt genetic factors at work, as two of these areas (Okinawa and Sardinia) are populated with homogeneous groups that are different from the surrounding populations.  However, the Nicoyans of Costa Rica - despite living in relative isolation for the last 400 years - and the people of Loma Linda, CA, are not genetically unique.  In any event, genetics alone cannot account for the fact that people living in these areas reach the age of 100 on average ten times more frequently than those in the US. What are the characteristics that these cultures have in common that might contribute to their longevity? They eat a plant-based diet.  While the Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda are the only group that are for the most part strict vegetarians, the Okinawans, Sardinians, and Nicoyans were economically disadvantaged most of their lives and for this reason could not afford the frequent consumption of meat.  Meat was reserved for special occasions and eaten at most 1-2 times per week. Processed food is unknown.  A 102-year-old Okinawan woman was perplexed when presented with a hamburger by a grandchild.  The people of these four communities cook all their own food from scratch, often from vegetables they have grown themselves. They walk on average 5 miles a day.  Okinawan women grow their own vegetables and spend hours each day cultivating their gardens.  Men in the specific region of Sardinian Blue Zone are traditionally herders, and walk on average 5 miles per day up and down rugged mountain terrain.  Nicoyans are poor and lead simple lives, growing most of their own food and walking several miles to the market for staples they cannot produce themselves.  And part of the Seventh Day Adventist religion is the pursuit of health and care of the body, which leads most followers to engage in daily physical activity as part of religious observance - like Marge Jetton, age 100, who begins her day at dawn by walking a mile, lifting weights, and eating a post-workout breakfast of oatmeal.

They live close to their families.  One of the characteristics of these cultures that I was most struck by is that there is a tradition of families living close together, as well as families caring for their elders.  With the exception of Loma Linda, the older adults in the other three blue zones would probably have no idea of what a “retirement home” or “long term care facility” is. They have meaningful and enduring social networks.  This includes their families, as well as greater communities.  The women of Okinawa each belong to a lifelong moai – a group of women who meet each other’s social and recreational needs, as well as logistical and economic needs when necessary.  Each woman knows that if she falls on hard times financially or becomes ill, she will be taken care of by her moai.  Contrast this to the US, where the average number of friends has dropped in recent years from 3 to 2 and most people live far from their families. They were poor much of their lives.  This resulted in the habit of eating in moderation – which is known to extend the lifespan.  Okinawans follow a Confuian-inspired adage, hara hachi bu, which means eat until you are 80 percent full and no more.  Nicoyans are generally poor and while they have access to good universal health care and healthy food they grow and prepare themselves, they do not visit restaurants or consume processed food. They live in temperate climates and get lots of sunshine.  Regular exposure to the sun allows the body to produce Vitamin D, which promotes stronger bones (as well as numerous other benefits).  Take into account that hip fractures caused by osteoporosis drastically increase the risk of mortality – a 2010 meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that all-cause mortality rate in older adults is increased 5- to 8-fold three months after hip fracture and persists with time. They make sure they have a reason to get up in the morning.  Okinawans call it ikigai – the reason for waking up – and it is having a sense of purpose in living.  Loma Linda residents engage in volunteer work (a fundamental aspect of the Seventh Day Adventist religion) that helps others while providing the individual with a sense of being needed.  Sardinian elders are instrumental in the extended family structure, where as grandparents they provide love, childcare, financial help, wisdom, and motivation to perpetuate traditions and encourage children to succeed.  A 100-year-old Nicoyan man named Don Faustino wakes up at 4am on market days so he can catch the bus to buy groceries for his family’s Sunday meal, and a woman in her 90s bakes tortillas and walks five miles to the village to sell them.  In longevity research, this sense of being needed by others is considered instrumental. They have extremely low-stress lives.  All of the previously mentioned features lead to low-stress living.  Being surrounded by family and friends who are more than happy to lend a helping hand, and knowing what your purpose is in the world, minimizes stress.  Stress, particularly chronic stress, impairs the metabolic, cardiovascular, and neurological systems.  Additionally, on a cellular level stress has been shown to damage the teleomeres which protect our chromosomes – speeding up the aging process.  Stress literally kills us, and a lifestyle that minimizes stress will – independent of other variables - drastically improve health and longevity outcomes. Eat your vegetables!  Don’t overeat!  Exercise!  Spend lots of time with family and friends!  Enjoy the sun!  Practice stress management !  Have goals and a purpose for living! All the best, Jennifer.