The Blue Zones is one of the most interesting longevity studies performed on a global scale. Author, and National Geographic contributor Dan Buettner set out to discover why certain areas of the world had an unusually large number of centenarians (people aged over 100). What was it about these locations that caused people to live longer lives, and what can we learn from that and apply to our own lifestyles? Dan and his team identified 5 specific regions that demonstrated exceptional longevity among the population:
- Ikaria, Greece: An island in the Aegean Sea, has one of the world’s lowest rates of both middle-age mortality and dementia.
- Okinawa, Japan: Home to some of the world’s oldest women.
- Ogliastra, Sardina: Highlands region of an Italian island that has the world’s highest concentration of centenarian men.
- Loma Linda, California: High concentration of Seventh-day Adventists, many of whom follow a biblical diet of grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. These residents typically add 10 years to their healthy lives.
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica: Here, in Central America, they have the world’s lowest middle-age mortality and second highest concentration of centenarian men.
With such an impressive display of longevity, they must be doing something right, so what is it? Of the nine primary factors that were identified, a few of them are particularly significant:
- Move Naturally: A common pattern was the natural way of “getting life done”, such as gardening or walking to wherever they needed to go. There was minimal use of mechanical shortcuts and help, much like with the early historic man.
- Downshifting: Each of the regions had a clearly defined way of de-stressing themselves – whether it was praying, sleeping or socializing. Stress is a known contributor to diseases and conditions that limit lifespan.
- 80 Percent Rule: Simply put, people who live the longest don’t stuff themselves full at mealtimes – they eat until they are about 80% full. Okinawans even have a Confucian mantra spoken before meals – Hara hachi bun me – roughly translated as “eat until you are 8 parts full”.
- Right Tribe & Community: These were listed as separate findings by the researchers, however, they have very similar roots. “Right Tribes” was the observation that long-living people organized themselves into healthy living support groups. Healthy living is contagious, and with group support, they were able to maintain positive lifestyle habits.
These are great and powerful observations, but what can we take away from these lessons that we can use to promote health and wellness in our everyday lives, and in our current environment? Fortunately, we can map these discoveries into a few fundamental lifestyle choices:
- Consistent Exercise: The need to exercise is obvious, but the key is exercising the whole body, not just certain areas. A complete body workout is needed to ensure that parts of the body are not neglected and prevent musculoskeletal issues in later life that will shorten your long-term longevity.
- Work-Life Balance: Stress will shorten your life and make what is left of it miserable – so do something about it. Find a way to leave the office behind, at a reasonable hour, and do something fun with your life.
- Manage Your Intake: This is especially important in our Western culture. We live in a world of processed food, ridiculous portions, and irregular eating habits. Take control of your portions and your eating habits. Eat little and often, and certainly not late at night.
- Build A Support Team: The most successful athletes, business people, and now we know the longest-living people; all rely on help from their peers and their support network to reach their goals.
WITH A GRAIN OF SALT
The gist of The Blue Zones study has been condensed to a few key points here. It’s important to remember that thousands upon thousands of individual factors go into the longevity of each and every person. We all should drill down to better understand all of the factors that may be influencing the peoples discussed in The Blue Zones. Maximizing our life expectancies is the main goal of the study and there are many points beyond the four mentioned here that must be considered in the lifestyle and diet choices we make every day.
USE OF SUPPLEMENTS
Longevity experts are divided on the use of nutritional supplements. On one hand, there is the valid argument that you should get all your nutrients naturally from the food you eat – just as our ancestors did. However, there is the equally persuasive argument that our food supply is irreparably changed from those historical times – it is less nutritionally-dense, tainted by GMOs, antibiotics, and overly processed – and therefore supplements are a way of compensating for the lost nutritional value in our food.
One thing is for sure, many of the identified regions in The Blue Zones study are geographically remote, and therefore have a diet that is closer to the natural “normal”, so while you can say that the world’s longest living people do not take nutritional supplements, they certainly do have a head start in the nature of their whole-food diet. In addition, multiple studies have shown that remote tribal groups have a higher level of bacterial diversity in their microbiomes than Westernized cultures.
This supports the idea of supplementing a Western diet with beneficial bacteria, or probiotics, to help compensate for the drop in diversity and lower nutritional value found in Westernized societies.