The secret of the blue zones: The five places in the world where the healthiest and happiest people are. Keys to longevity without a gym or counting calories.
There are five places in the world where turning 100 is no exception, where people do not go into the gym to lift weights or obsessively count the amount of calories from each food. In these populations, life expectancy is above the world average and the rates of ailments associated with old age are among the lowest on the planet.
In Okinawa (Japan), Icaria (Greece), Sardinia (Italy), Loma Linda (California) and Nicoya (Costa Rica) people simply forget to die. The secret? Despite being very different cultures, the research found a number of common factors that would serve as a guide to understanding why they live longer and better: in all these places, their inhabitants live simply, walk instead of using the car, harvest their own food and give superlative importance to faith, family and friends.
The team of researchers coordinated by National Geographic journalist Dan Buettner, author of the book “The Secret of the Blue Zones,” reached these places. One question runs through his research: is it possible to replicate the way of life of blue-zone dwellers elsewhere in the world? According to the expert, yes, and the recipe is really simple: eat well, stress less, move more and love a lot.
Knowing the blue zones, apprehending their way of life is perhaps the best mechanism to reach the goal proposed by Buettner: “To die young being as old as possible”. It is not only a question of having many years but of maintaining the best quality of life until the last days.
Age and vitality. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in blue areas in science. One of the reasons for the inclination towards these studies is that there is a new vision of old age, when for some it starts at 60 and for others at 70.
According to a study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the region’s largest population is growing exponentially. In 1990, there were 32 million people over 60 on the continent and it is estimated that by 2050 this number will grow to 195.87 million. This is a worldwide phenomenon.
However, the fact that more and more people reach old age does not necessarily mean that populations will become healthier. Juan Hitzig, a gerontologist and director of the Longevus programme, says that blue areas are characterized by being “pockets of longevity”. “They are places where people live many years and their quality of life accompanies that state. The medical advances made us gain years of life, that is to say, we have conquered longevity.
Now, what we have to achieve is that the years we stole from death serve to spend more time in the club and not more time in the geriatric hospital,” says the specialist.
The blue zones are characterized by precisely that: there people over 70 years old continue working, taking charge of their homes and their families and with life projects. In these places, to be old is not to wait for death.
Icaria is an island located in the Aegean Sea, just 13 kilometers off the coast of Turkey, which has one of the world’s lowest rates of mortality in middle age and the lowest rates of dementia. Okinawa is a Japanese island that is home to the world’s longest-lived women.
The Italian province of Ogliastra, in Sardinia, is home to the largest concentration of century-old men in the world. In Loma Linda, an Adventist community in California, its inhabitants lived up to 10 years longer and in better health than the average American. And the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica had the lowest mortality rates during middle age as well as the second highest concentration of centenarian men.
Walk, eat well and love. Although it sounds trite, the researchers who participated in the elaboration of “The Secret of the Blue Zones” confirmed scientifically that the pillars of a healthy life and, consequently, of a healthy old age reside in exercising regularly, eating healthy and prioritizing social relationships.
A common factor among Okinawa, Icaria, Sardinia, Nicoya and Loma Linda is that their inhabitants live in environments that often motivate them to move. In these places, the automobile is only used to travel very long distances and, on a daily basis, people shop and visit their acquaintances on foot. In addition, all of the long-lived interviewees said that they tend their own garden and that they do not have electrical appliances or lawnmowers to make their work easier.
In addition, the experts agreed that there is another thing that is repeated in all communities: a healthy diet. Meat (whatever it is) is not present in every meal and, on average, is only eaten five times a month and in small portions (the size of the fist of the hand). The possibility of having one’s own vegetable garden or a place where one can buy fresh fruit and vegetables is essential, since vegetables are the basis of all these diets. Pulses and nuts are consumed daily in all blue areas as well as one or two glasses of wine.
Buettner insists that this doesn’t mean that people in blue areas don’t like junk food, sugar and salt added to meals or soft drinks. They just happen to be out of reach. In all these places the outings to the restaurants or the sweets are “tastes” that the people give themselves for very punctual celebrations and do not form part of the day to day.
However, it’s not just a matter of exercising and eating well that makes these people live so long and well. Social and spiritual aspects are just as important as nutritional aspects. Having a reason to wake up every morning (both in youth and old age) increases vitality. In Okinawa it is called “ikigai” while in Nicoya it is called “life plan” and can be related to new work, domestic or family projects.
In all blue areas they have techniques to reduce stress, which causes chronic inflammation and is associated with almost all age-related diseases. Meditation or yoga have become popular in recent years in major Western cities, but Buettner insists that there is no single way to slow down. For example, Okinawa’s inhabitants take a few minutes a day to remember their ancestors, Loma Linda Adventists pray, icarians take a daily nap, and Sardinia’s habit of taking an hour a day for a drink.
Buettner’s team interviewed 263 people over the age of 100 and discovered that 258 belonged to a believing community and attended a religious service at least four times a month. In addition, they confirmed that these people had very close ties to their families and friends. This well-being translates to the whole group, as the results showed that young people who keep their parents or grandparents close reduce infant mortality and disease rates in children.
Gerontologist Hitzig shares Buetnner’s view that while chronological age depends on time, biological age depends on five aspects: health, food, movement, thought and feeling.
If you were to use just one concept to understand why longevity and quality of life go hand in hand in these places, it should be “enabling environment”. In today’s big cities, Buettner says, “people continue to drown in a sea of cheap calories that is inescapable. It’s impossible to walk through an airport or pass a gas station without being confronted by a torrent of salty snacks, sweets and soft drinks. There are even high-sugar treats disguised as ‘healthy bars.
That is why “The Secret of the Blue Zones” is not only an individual guide, but also a wake-up call to the states of the world. Agreements with food industries to reduce sodium and added sugar in products, incentives for citizens to abandon cars and reduce stress are collective actions to achieve a healthy population. Collectively it is easier than individually as smoking, obesity and loneliness have been shown to be “contagious”.
In the world there is a model that successfully demonstrated that changing habits improves health indices. In North Karelia (Finland), a project started at the beginning of the ’70s achieved surprising numbers, based on agreements between the State and the private sector, the incidence of heart disease deaths in men was reduced by 85%.
A blue home. The need for public policies does not imply, however, that there is not much to be done individually. For this reason, Buettner recommends creating “blue homes”, that is to say that everyone can make their home a small healthy environment in the middle of a big city. Eat wisely, incorporating so-called “suprazule foods” (vegetables, fruits, leafy green vegetables, beans, etc.) and distributing them in a healthier way. Breakfast is recommended to be the most abundant meal of the day and to include proteins, complex carbohydrates and fats of vegetable origin.
In addition, the expert insists on improving social relations, visiting friends, taking walks in the open air and trying to have moments of the day to disconnect from the screens and obligations. Basically, to reach the age of one hundred and continue to have the same vitality as in youth, you have to understand the mystery of the blue zones.