Some regions around the globe are giving Father Time a run for his money. Centenarians, defined as those who reach the age of 100, are commonplace in five distinct areas worldwide.
The “Blue Zones,” a term coined by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner, are home to some of the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California.
In a four-part series that debuted on Netflix at the end of August, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, Buettner takes viewers through each region with take-home lessons about why these specific zones have a life expectancy much higher than the US average.
Research on the Blue Zones shows that environment and lifestyle may impact healthy aging more than the genetic hand you were dealt; the Danish Twin Study established that only about 20% of how long the average person lives is determined by genes.
Beyond just diet and exercise, Buettner and his team uncovered nine lessons, dubbed the “Power 9.” Four distinct parts sum up the overarching message: move, have the right outlook, eat wisely, and connect. These evidence-based lifestyle principles are standard throughout all Blue Zones, yet are attainable regardless of where you live.
An environment where you are forced to move often, whether walking to the store, tending to your garden, or traveling by sidewalk to a friend’s house, is a key part of the Blue Zones.
Building movement into everyday life is vital, in or out of the home. JayDee Vykoukal, Doctor of Physical Therapy, says, “In modern society, we tend to think of ‘exercise’ as a chore… finding ways to move that feel good can make all the difference for our physical health.”
While many communities naturally encourage more movement, most of us will need to be more creative. Vykoukal notes, “Finding active hobbies can instantly change the mindset around the importance of getting the heart pumping daily. Find a walking or hiking club, sign up for a tennis or dance class, and start enjoying your active parts of the day.”
Know Your Purpose
In Okinawa, Japan, they call it “ikgai.” Nicoyans in Costa Rica call it “plan de vida,” which translates as “why I wake up in the morning.” Whatever you call it, the message is simple – understanding your purpose, not only in your life but also in your greater community, is associated with longevity.
Stress plays a critical role in stress-induced diseases; the accumulation of day-to-day stress can cause excessive inflammation, which is associated with aging diseases such as atherosclerosis and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
We all experience stress; the key is having a routine to help you manage life’s inevitable stresses. Centenarians find a way to shred both chronic and acute stress; Okinawans pause to remember their ancestors, Seventh-Day Adventist church members, which primarily make up the community of Loma Linda, Calif., pray, the Ikarians take a nap, and the Sardinans enjoy happy hour with friends.
Hara Hachi BU
Hara Hachi Bu, the Confucian teaching of eating until you are only 80% full, is said before meals in Okinawa for a more mindful eating experience. This is good advice for many, especially overeaters learning to stop eating before they are overly full.
Slowing down and giving your body time to register how much you’ve eaten can help you understand how much food you actually need.
While most Blue Zone residents do consume meat, it’s in much smaller quantities — about five times per month on average. Plant-based proteins, especially beans like fava, black, soy, and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets.
Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds has been associated with improved health outcomes, including reduced risks of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
This is likely because plants contain nutrients associated with immunity, longevity, and overall health: vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Antioxidants can ease oxidative stress, which increases inflammation and free radical damage to cells and DNA and contributes to chronic disease.
Plants average 64 times the antioxidant content of any animal-based food, yet most Americans fall short. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that only 1 in 10 Americans consume the recommended fruits and vegetables daily. Men, younger adults, and adults with lower incomes consume the least.
The Blue Zones demonstrate how eating a plant-rich diet can also be economical. They know how to make peasant food, like sweet potatoes, beans, and whole grains, taste delicious. In Sardinia, a simple bean soup made from garden vegetables, beans, barley, tomatoes, and olive oil is an almost daily meal. In Okinawa, tofu is a staple and eaten twice daily, often mixed with vegetables and fresh herbs.
Wine at 5
Except for the Seventh Day Adventist community, people in the Blue Zones drink alcohol regularly but moderately, especially with friends. In Sardinia, a glass of red wine is part of the downshift, a way to deal with chronic stress and relax with good company.
The moderate antioxidant-rich wine consumption may help explain lower stress levels among men in Sardinia, home to the world’s longest-lived men.
Longevity is often associated with diet and exercise do’s and don’ts. However, belonging to a faith-based community may also be part of the equation, although denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Several studies have examined the connection between belonging to a faith-based organization and health outcomes; one study showed an average of living four years longer for those who regularly attended faith-based services.
This may be because churchgoers often engage in other positive, health-promoting behaviors. Additionally, being part of a community, like a church, offers social support, which also helps. Positive social support can lead to lower levels of stress, increased immune function, and healthier lifestyle behaviors, all of which contribute to healthspan.
Loved Ones First
In addition to seeing themselves as part of their community, centenarians in the Blue Zones prioritize family. Parents and grandparents live nearby or in the home. A 2017 study published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior found that grandparents who cared for grandchildren had 37% lower mortality risk than non-grandparents or grandparents who didn’t provide child care for their grandchildren.
Since social isolation and loneliness are health risks similar to smoking or obesity, having older generations in constant contact with younger generations seems to prolong the lifespan.
Okinawans create “moais,” a group of five friends selected in early childhood who are committed to each other for life. Having this dedicated group further boosts their social network, which favorably impacts their health behaviors.
The Framingham studies have shown that many health behaviors, like smoking, obesity, and happiness, are contagious. Surrounding yourself with individuals who have positive health behaviors is likely to impact yours. The same is true with negative behaviors.
The Blue Zones offer a blueprint for a healthier, longer life with the flexibility to live nearly anywhere: nutritious food, good friends, an active lifestyle, and a sense of purpose are the key ingredients. There may be a fountain of youth, after all.
Alex Caspero | Wealth of Geeks
This article was produced by Media Decision and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.