After you are born, one thing is certain in life – you will die. How to delay the inevitable end has therefore always been a central question for mankind. The two scientists Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain never went in search of eternal life, but when they discovered a village in Sardinia in 2004, they came closer to finding the answer to this question, because it has the highest concentration of male centenarians. The first Blue Zone had thus been discovered and others were added in the years to come. But what is a Blue Zone actually and what is the secret of Blue Zones?
What are Blue Zones?
Blue Zones are called few places in the world where people can grow significantly older than average. In addition, residents of these places have a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, or dementia. The five places defined as Blue Zones are Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Loma Linda (United States), Ikaria (Greece), and the Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica)
The Discovery of the Blue Zones in Sardinia
The term was first used by two researchers, Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, in a publication in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology. In their epidemiological study, they had identified the province of Nuoro in Sardinia as the place with the highest concentration of male centenarians. This increased life expectancy in the most mountainous of Sardinia’s four provinces was very unusual, being very different from the average of the surrounding regions. So the two demographers wanted to know if longevity was limited to certain places.
To do this, they calculated the Extreme Longevity Index (ELI) for all four provinces of Sardinia. It expresses the percentage of people born in Sardinia between 1880 and 1900 who lived to be over a hundred. As a follow-up, they calculated the ELI for all 377 municipalities of Sardinia, assuming that residents did not move to other places. This allowed them to determine the regions of Sardinia that showed the highest ELI values and marked them with a blue circle. Therefore, they named the area lying within it Blue Zone.
In Sardinia, the towns of Ogliastra, Barbagia of Ollolai, and Barbagia of Seulo located in the mountains stood out in particular. In these towns, 91 out of 17,865 people reached their 100th birthday – more than twice as many in percentage terms as in Italy as a whole. It is also exciting to note that almost as many men as women lived to be more than 100 years old, while in the United States, for example, the ratio is only 1:4. The Sardinian lifestyle, which has hardly changed in the last 100 years due to a lack of immigration, apparently leads to a significant increase in life expectancy, especially among men.
Dan Buettner Finds More Blue Zones Around the World
As a result, New York Times bestselling author Dan Buettner, with the help of the National Geographic Society, began tracking down more places around the world that had particularly high longevity. To do this, they looked not only for regions where there was a high concentration of centenarians but also for settlements of people who had grown old without health problems such as heart disease, obesity, cancer, or diabetes. The team found them in Okinawa in Japan and in Loma Linda in the U.S. state of California. Dan Buettner compiled the results of the research in the November 2005 cover story The Secrets of Long Life in National Geographic, which went on to become the magazine’s third-best story.
The huge interest in the article had two important implications. One was that Dan Buettner – although he was not the actual person who named the article – had the term “Blue Zones” trademarked. The other was that the positive response further fueled his interest in Blue Zones and their mysteries. In 2008, he subsequently published his book The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, describing another Blue Zone in Costa Rica. Four years later, the second edition was published, in which he also identified Ikaria in Greece as a Bluezone. But what distinguishes Dan Buettner’s additional four Blue Zones compared to Sardinia?
Blue Zone in Japan: Okinawa
The inhabitants of Okinawa are among the people with the highest life expectancy in the world and may also enjoy significantly more years of the best health. For a long time, the island was even considered the place where people became the oldest on average. Due to the long-standing presence of Americans, however, the Western way of life increasingly took hold, so that the life expectancy on the island has since been in decline.
Nevertheless, residents still have a significantly low likelihood of serious illness. For example, compared to Americans, Okinawans are 80 percent less likely to suffer from heart disease, 75 percent less likely to suffer from breast or prostate cancer, and 66 percent less likely to suffer from dementia.
Blue Zone in the U.S.: Loma Linda, California
A Blue Zone also stands out in the USA. In Loma Linda, California, about 9,000 of the 20,000 residents belong to the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, and among them, life expectancy is four to ten years higher than in other parts of the state. In addition, Adventists also show a greatly reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. Apparently they, too, have found the recipe for longer and healthier life.
Blue Zone in Costa Rica: Peninsula Nicoya
Dan Buettner found the second-highest concentration of male centenarians – after Sardinia – in Costa Rica, specifically on the Nicoya Peninsula. It is the world’s largest Blue Zone, which also has the world’s lowest mortality rate among middle-aged people. For example, Dr. Simone Ecker of University College London found that a 60-year-old resident of Nicoya is seven times more likely to reach his or her 100th birthday than elsewhere in the country. Very likely, the concentration of centenarians will even grow, as today there are already more than 900 people over the age of 90.
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Blue Zone in Greece: Ikaria
Buettner was able to spot the latest Blue Zone in Greece. The island of Ikaria, eight miles off the coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea, has the world’s largest concentration of people who have reached at least age 90. In fact, one in three islanders lives to see their 90th birthday – a record! That’s why their life expectancy averages a whopping eight years higher than that of U.S. residents, though Greeks on Ikaria suffer only half the heart disease. Dementia even plays almost no role at all among Ikarians.
Why do people in Blue Zones live longer?
The secret to Blue Zones is a mix of the following factors: a healthy diet, an active lifestyle with plenty of exercises, a busy social life with close family ties, having a purpose in life, and not smoking. Researchers have found that these aspects explain up to 75 percent of longevity, while genes influence only 25 percent.
The basis for a long life is the right diet, which consists mainly of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Meat and fish, on the other hand, are consumed rather rarely. Additionally, sufficient exercise every single day is sufficient to strengthen muscles, the cardiovascular system and promote mobility. However, none of the people in the Blue Zones usually go to a gym or do regular endurance sports, because this damages the joints in the long run. Rather, regular daily activities such as walking, field and garden work, raising livestock, and climbing stairs are essential.
Another crucial reason for longevity is the positive outlook of the older generation. It comes from giving meaning to every life, even in old age. Each person plays an important role in the community, whether it is tending to grandchildren, helping neighbors, or simply socializing with friends. No one vegetates there in a care facility, but there is always a reason to look forward to the next day. But social ties outside the family also enjoy a high priority in the Blue Zones. The People there are actively involved in their community and have regular personal contact with their friends.
These principles, identified by Dan Buettner during his travels in the five Blue Zones discovered so far, he summarizes as Power 9®. This unites the nine aspects that are evident in all Blue Zones. The 80 percent rule refers to the fact that one should not eat so much until one bursts, but until one feels easily satiated. The consumption of red wine, while not found everywhere, was still included in the list.
In the next few paragraphs, we’ll show you what sets the lifestyle apart in each Blue Zone.
Explanation of longevity in Sardinia
In Sardinia, life is quiet and natural. People exercise a lot, keep close contact with family and friends, and eat natural foods. This is the traditional lifestyle that the Sardinians have always maintained, and the island’s remoteness has helped to preserve it.
Compared to the diet now widespread in the Western world, the menu in Sardinia is characterized by the almost complete absence of industrially processed foods. As a rule, the Sardinians still hunt, fish, grow and harvest the food they consume.
In addition, they drink one or two glasses a day of Cannonau red wine, which contains two to three times as many flavonoids as other wines. These substances protect against free radicals, which are partly responsible for cancer and other diseases, and can even bind metals. Regardless of the lifestyle in Sardinia, however, from a medical point of view, it is recommended not to drink alcohol at all at least two days a week.
Another drink that, like red wine, is said to protect against certain diseases of old age is goat’s milk. This is also popularly consumed in Sardinia and proven to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and heart disease. For this, however, the milk doesn’t have to be drunk plain; it can also be processed into tasty cheese.
Sardinians tend to move around a lot out of everyday activities. They walk to their joy’s houses, herd sheep, go fishing, hunt, or raise pigs. Through daily exercise, they walk an average of six to eight kilometers, which is equivalent to the 10,000 steps a day recommended by medical professionals. This provides crucial cardiovascular benefits and also has a positive effect on muscle and bone metabolism, without stressing the joints through excessive exercise.
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The family is the most important thing in Sardinia. Careful attention is paid to each member and one always receives support and affection from the others. Thus, a healthy family life also ensures a healthy body, as the risk of stress, depression or even suicide is greatly reduced. Especially the older family members play an important role. Not only do they give their children love and the motivation to live a good and successful life, but they also assist with childcare, provide financial help, share their wisdom, and thus help keep the old traditions alive.
Explanation of longevity on Okinawa
On Okinawa, it is believed that healthy food can have as healing an effect as medicine. That is why Okinawan cuisine is based almost exclusively on plant foods such as sweet potatoes and other vegetables, tofu, rice, legumes and grains. Just two percent of their diet is distributed among fish, meat and dairy products.
Even fresh vegetables, often harvested from your own garden, are rich in antioxidants that can help prevent cancer. But mugwort, ginger and turmeric – which can be found in any Okinawan garden – also contribute to the health of residents, as all foods are said to have positive medicinal effects. Last but not least, soy-based foods such as soy sauce, tofu, and miso soup, with their plant-based proteins, have a beneficial effect on lifespan.
Okinawans maintain an active lifestyle. They regularly go hiking or engage in physical activities in their gardens. While doing so, they also get their daily dose of sunlight to boost the production of vitamin D. This is known to help maintain a good mood and strengthen bones, preventing osteoporosis. It is also customary there to sit on straw mats on the floor to eat. Thus, even in old age, one is forced to get down regularly in order to get up again later. Doing this day after day under one’s own power helps to keep the muscles efficient.
Ikigai – A Reason to Live
Naturally, it is not desirable to live a long life unless it serves some purpose. That is why it is important, especially for Okinawans, to give meaning (ikigai) to their lives. Those who know why they get up in the morning usually have duties to fulfill, know their social role and responsibilities, and are valued in the community. Thus, even at 100 years old, one still feels needed and enjoys life.
Many Okinawans swear that Moai is also one of the cornerstones of their long lives. This is how the Japanese refer to a solid circle of lifelong friends in the neighborhood, with whom people meet once or several times a week. They help each other with advice and assistance, but also with money, should that ever be necessary. They say it’s just a lot easier and less stressful to live when you know there’s a safety net that will always catch you.
The two scientists Lisa Berkman and Leonard Syme were able to prove that social contacts are actually beneficial to health and are not only perceived as such by respondents. They published their study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, which examined the mortality risk of almost 7,000 people in Alameda County, California. In it, they concluded that the risk of death is about 2.3 times higher for highly isolated men compared to those with strong social ties. For women, this value is as high as 2.8.
Explanation of longevity on Ikaria
The Mediterranean diet on the Greek island provides mainly homegrown vegetables, but also wild vegetables, legumes, goat’s milk, red wine and, of course, olive oil. Unlike the four other Blue Zones, meat and fish have a share of over ten percent here. Fresh teas brewed from wild herbs also play an important role in the Ikarian diet. Depending on the herbs contained, the teas can have anti-inflammatory, blood pressure lowering, and antioxidant effects. Even a cancer-preventing effect is said to be present in some herbs.
But in addition to the diet, the fasting is said to have a positive effect on longevity. If calorie intake is reduced at regular intervals, it can slow down the aging process. In addition, cells undergo an adaptive stress response during fasting, which contributes to a reduction in the risk of cancer and age-related diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Because Ikarians count themselves among the Greek Orthodox Christians, a period of fasting twice a year is one of their regular habits.
Due to the nature of the island, the fitness of the inhabitants is good. The interplay of mountains and valleys provides a regular workout effect during walks and errands. In this way, the Ikarians remain active even into old age. This is also helped by cultivating their own gardens, where vegetables, fruits and legumes are grown for consumption. Due to the digging, sowing, weeding and harvesting that goes along with it, physical work is part of the residents’ everyday life.
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Another crucial factor for longevity on Ikaria is the tight bonds within the family. On the Greek island, people are convinced that it is unhealthy to live alone. Therefore, houses are often inhabited by several generations, which brings benefits to all. Grandparents can look after their grandchildren and thus still play an active social role. In addition, this relieves the burden on their children, thereby reducing their stress levels.
Most Adventists eat an exclusively vegetarian diet – fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are on their menu. Studies have shown that a plant-based diet reduces the risk of cancer by about one-third. In addition, many Adventists consume nuts at least five times a week. This has been shown to increase life expectancy by an average of two years compared to other Adventists. But there are also church members who indulge in meat consumption – but then in moderation, because for them meat is merely a side dish and not the main meal. What Adventists completely refrain from for religious reasons, however, is the consumption of alcohol or tobacco.
But the secret of their diet includes not only what is eaten itself, but also the timing and the quantity. In the community, it is customary to eat an early and light dinner. This way, the body does not struggle with digestion during the inactive time of the day, ensuring better sleep and also maintaining a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index).
Speaking of BMI. Compared to the average American, members of the Adventist church have a lower BMI, which has a positive effect on longevity. The reason is that people with a reasonable weight for their height show lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. This is another reason why Loma Linda residents incorporate an adequate amount of physical activity into every single day, such as extended walks or light exercise. This not only reduces the risk of heart disease, but even certain cancers. But of course, physical exercise has also been shown to increase well-being and thus help maintain a positive attitude.
Time for rest
It is well known that stress is poison to health. The weekly sabbath of 24 hours can work wonders in this regard by consciously using it to spend some reflective time with family and friends or in nature. This reduces stress and at the same time strengthens social life.
Explanation of longevity on Nicoya
On Nicoya, the morning already starts with a healthy and rich breakfast that provides enough energy and nutrients for the tasks of the day. Rice and beans (Gallo Pinto) are typical, accompanied by freshly prepared corn tortillas and coffee. Rice and tortillas provide the body with complex carbohydrates, while the beans provide proteins and antioxidants. This keeps muscles well-fed and at the same time reduces the risk of disease.
But even throughout the day, Nicoyans don’t lack close-to-nature foods. Predominantly, sun-ripened fruits, fresh vegetables and dairy products are on the menu here. Meat and fish, on the other hand, rarely make it onto the plate on special occasions. Whatever they feel like, the same golden rule applies on Nicoya as with the Adventists in Loma Linda: dinner is early and tends to consist of light fare.
But what stands out, unlike the other Blue Zones, is the region’s special water. This has the highest calcium content in the country, ensuring strong bones, fewer hip problems in old age, and reduced risk of heart disease.
As important as a healthy diet is physical exercise. Therefore, for Nicoyans it is quite normal to walk from one place to another instead of using the car. During the walk, the muscles get going and the body produces plenty of vitamin D, thanks to the sunshine.
More muscle is challenged when the men ride their horses daily – some even past their 100th birthday. But regular work in the fields, vegetable gardens or raising livestock are also key contributors to the health and longevity of peninsula dwellers.
The community in focus
Centenarians on Nicoya tend to live together with their families. They are supported by their children and grandchildren and thus remain involved in an active social life. In addition, Nicoyan centenarians often receive visits from neighbors and know how to listen, laugh, and appreciate what they have.
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Have a plan
Whoever wants to reach a ripe old age can only do so if there is also a worthwhile goal in life. The centenarians on Nicoya therefore dedicate themselves to actively supporting and promoting their community. In this way, they always feel needed and their lives have meaning.
The “Blue Zones” diet-what-do-people-eat-in-the-blue-zones?
The diet is very different from the diet common in the Western world. People in these places rarely eat meat and fish, but they do eat a lot of whole grains, fruits, legumes as well as nuts and drink very little alcohol.
All vegetables are an ideal source of fiber and contain a variety of vitamins and minerals. Therefore, eating vegetables several times a day can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and premature death. The best longevity foods are leafy greens such as spinach, kale, beets, Swiss chard, and kohlrabi.
Legumes include beans (fava, soy, and black beans), peas, lentils, and chickpeas. They are also rich in fiber and also contain plenty of protein. Several studies have shown that consumption of legumes is associated with lower mortality.
Whole grains are also rich in fiber and, with their long-chain carbohydrates (multiple sugars), provide sufficient energy for an active lifestyle. In addition, whole grains are said to have a blood pressure-lowering effect and are associated with lower rates of colon cancer and mortality from heart disease.
Nuts are eaten in all Blue Zones and contribute to normal muscle function thanks to their high protein content. They also contain digestive fiber and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. When combined with a healthy diet, they are associated with lower mortality and may even help fight belly fat and high blood pressure.
Little meat and fish
In all Blue Zones, very little meat and fish is eaten. A large proportion of Adventists in Loma Linda even make their diet entirely vegetarian for religious reasons. One study was able to confirm that these Adventists have a higher life expectancy than those Adventists who indulge in occasional meat consumption.
Fish is also eaten less often than one might suspect, although its high satiety with valuable omega-3 fatty acids is thought to have a positive effect on heart and brain health. In Blue Zones, up to three small servings of fish are consumed per week, if at all.
Zac Efron Visits the Blue Zones
Even actor Zac Efron has already taken an interest in the Blue Zones. In the fourth episode of the first season of the Netflix docu-series “Down to Earth with Zac Efron, he and his companion Darin Olien are drawn to the first Blue Zone. In Sardinia, they discover together what distinguishes the way of life of the many centenarians there. Zac, in particular, was very surprised to find that the diet was different from what all the fitness trainers had taught him. For years he ate a diet very high in protein, but ate almost no carbohydrates. In Sardinia, on the other hand, he learned that balance is important to enjoy a long and healthy life.
But also the joy of life of the people, the inner peace and balance inspired the actor. Likewise, that on the island no hard workout is necessary to stay fit. The daily routine is active enough, whether it’s making nougat, herding sheep, or preparing food.