When you imagine your life at 90 years old, how do you see yourself? Do you envision sitting in a rocking chair watching television, or do you see yourself running foot races, climbing trees, and dancing? You might think it’s a strange question. Who in the world is that healthy when they’re 90 or 100 years old?
Although it might seem impossible, there are in fact certain places in the world where elderly people are that healthy—and active. They’re called Blue Zones, and as of now, we know of just five of them in the entire world. Blue zones are known for not only having more people reach 100 years old; they also have more people living healthily and actively in old age.
So what’s the secret? The answer to that is something scientists have sought for decades, and now some of their findings are coming to light. Today we will examine the people of the Blue Zones in an effort to understand the key to their long lives. We will go over their culture, diet and value systems so that you can find ways to adopt a ‘blue zone’ lifestyle yourself without having to pick up and move.
You might be thinking, “Is it really possible for us to live as long as these people?” You might think that genetics are the main factor behind their longevity. But according to researcher Dr. Ruairi Robertson, the genes of those living in the Blue Zones likely only accounts for 20-30% of their long life (source.) This claim was also validated by an Italian study in 2016. So although genetics do play a role, a much larger basis for their longevity comes from lifestyle factors and diet. What does that mean? It means that whatever they’re doing, we can do also. Let’s look at what scientists are finding about the secrets of the Blue Zones.
Get Familiar With The 80% Rule
To the south of Japan lies a tiny chain of islands where people live longer than anywhere else in the world. It’s a region called Okinawa. For more than four decades, the government of Japan has conducted a massive research study to uncover why these islanders live so long. What did they find? There are many factors, but one of the main ones is called Hara hachi bun me, or the “80% rule.” It’s actually an ancient teaching of Confucius that instructs people to only eat until they’re about 80% full. It’s not an exact science; it’s more of a guideline. But researchers believe it could be a major factor in why Okinawans are living so long.
You might be wondering from a scientific perspective why this is so important. The reason it matters is because generally it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to catch up to your stomach. In other words, your stomach doesn’t immediately signal to the brain when it’s full. The 80% rule allows time for your stomach to let your brain know when it’s time to stop eating.
This practice creates a few practical effects. On the one hand, Okinawans consume between 100-200 fewer calories per day than we typically do in the Western diet (source.) This self-imposed calorie restriction creates a lower Body Mass Index, which in of itself contributes to longevity.
Yet there’s another reason why the 80% rule could be key. Stopping before you’re completely full ensures that the digestive tract isn’t taxed from overeating. Scientists are discovering that gut health plays a much larger role in your overall health than previously thought (read more here.) Your digestive tract is the factory where key neurotransmitters are produced; it’s also responsible for a large portion of your immunity. Overeating places undue stress on the digestive system, and over time it can take a toll (source.) It is believed that the effect of Hara hachi bun me on the digestive system is one of the little-known reasons behind the Okinawans’ longevity.
The Power of the Tribe
Who is your tribe? Are you connected to people who resonate with you? One of the common factors across the Blue Zones is a heavy emphasis on friendships and community. In fact, a study conducted at Northwestern University revealed that trusting relationships were a common factor in ‘superagers,’ or individuals over 80 with superior brain function. One of the researchers, Emily Rogalski, said that social relationships were vital to healthy aging and that they might play a role in preserving cognition (source.)
Most of us believe or understand that community is key to good health, but part of what makes Blue Zones so special is how they’re structured around relationships. In Okinawa there is a tradition called the Maio, which are groups of four or five people who commit to be friends for life. Often times these groups begin in childhood and can last over 90 years! The Maio groups have multiple functions. Firstly, they are a built-in friend circle for anyone living on the islands. Secondly, they exist to be a sort of social network for anyone who falls on hard times. If someone’s spouse dies, for instance, and finances become a struggle, then the Maio is there to commit resources and help each other out.
While we may not have a Maio system in place in the United States, the Okinawan community can teach us about the importance of friendships and a group-oriented approach to life. Inviting others for lunch or to take a walk in the evenings can over the long term have a major impact on our mental health. Simply thinking of ways to include others in our everyday activities can enrich our lives, and it also can help us live healthier, longer.
Get in Touch with Your Spiritual Side
What’s another ingredient in the Blue Zone formula? Most, if not all of them are built upon a strong foundation of faith or spirituality. One good example is the Blue Zone community of Loma Linda, California (the only one located in the U.S.!) This Blue Zone is not so much a civic community as it is a spiritual community. Around 9,000 Seventh-Day Adventists make up the core of the Loma Linda Blue Zone (source.) On average, they live around 10 years longer than their surrounding neighbors. Among other factors, such as a strict vegetarian diet, they cite their faith as a major reason for their longevity.
What is it about spirituality that increases longevity? Although scientists may not ever understand conclusively, we do know that on average people of faith live longer. It’s possible that a number of factors work together to create this effect. According to researcher and former dean of Loma Linda University Medical Center Brian Bull, ‘observing the sabbath’ may be a practice that boosts healthy aging. In a recent interview, he offered a possible explanation: “I don’t think the human organism is designed to work seven days a week (source.)” He went on to explain that Adventists’ strict observance of rest on the Sabbath could be an ingredient in their particular recipe for long life.
But beyond just getting a day of rest, why is it that faith seems to be linked to a long life? According to National Geographic fellow and Blue Zones expert Dan Buettner, “We know that people who are showing up to church, temple, or mosque four times a month live four to fourteen years longer than those who don’t.” In his view, this could be linked to the power of faith as a stress-coping mechanism. He explains it this way: whenever we’re worried, it triggers an inflammatory response in our body that releases damaging chemicals. This process is at the root of every age-related disease. He states that being able to relinquish worry, concern or control to a higher power over time has a colossal impact on our health (source). There are other related factors that Buettner points to as well: faith communities offer greater social connection, and religious people tend to engage in less risky behavior overall. The true reason why people of faith live longer is still a mystery. Whatever it may be, however, spirituality is a pillar of Blue Zone longevity.
Why Diet is Key
You’re probably not surprised to learn that diet plays a huge role in living longer. What people eat in each Blue Zone is thought to be a major factor in their exceptional health. Since Blue Zones are spread throughout the world, their diets vary widely with culture and also climate and plant life.
Sardinians and Ikarians swear by the Mediterranean diet, which has enormous health benefits. Okinawans eat traditional Japanese foods, such as sweet potatoes, miso soup, tofu, and seaweed (source.) In the Blue Zone of Loma Linda, California, residents regularly consume fresh fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries, along with with whole grain oats, flax seeds and nuts (source.) While diets vary across each Blue Zone, there are some general things that they all (or mostly) have in common.
If you want to adopt a Blue Zone diet, the main thing to keep in mind is that they are mostly plant-based. Fresh fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes are standbys in every Blue Zone society. Although we tend to think of islanders consuming large amounts of fish, they actually eat less than you may think. In general, across the board, “retreat from meat,” and boost your produce (source.) That doesn’t mean cutting out meat entirely per se, only that Blue Zone residents eat far less meat than we typically do in the U.S.
Here are some other guidelines to keep in mind:
- Cut down or eliminate processed foods — The more ‘whole foods’ the better.
- Reduce your sugar intake — Many Blue Zones are traditional cultures that don’t include processed sugar in their diet. Overall, try to stick to 28 grams of added sugar or less per day.
- Snack on nuts instead of chips — About two handfuls of nuts per day is a good guideline to follow.
- Stick to water — This is a big one. In our soft-drink laden culture it can be tough to stick to water. To adopt a Blue Zones diet, water needs to be the mainstay (source.)
Generally speaking, in the Blue Zones families are tight. In 2009, researcher Dr. Archelle Georgiou traveled to the Blue Zone of Ikaria, Greece in an effort to uncover their health secrets. In a 2014 Ted Talk, she reported her findings. Among other things, she cited strong family ties as a significant factor in longevity. Of the Ikarian community, she said, “...The elderly are honored and everyone has a purpose. Regardless of whether you’re young, or middle age or aging, everyone has a purpose and a responsibility to the family (source.)” This sense of belonging, both to the community and also to family is a common thread throughout the Blue Zones.
A related element is the prevalence of intergenerational living, where three generations often live in the same household. According to Dan Buettner, there are physical benefits to this trend. He said that having aging grandparents along with children in the same home lowers disease and mortality rates of every generation—including children (source.) His claim is backed up by research as well. According to Richard Rogers, a sociology researcher at the University of Colorado, “Living with other family members can promote compliance with group norms, encourage health practices and reduce stress through emotional reassurance or a helpful appraisal of a difficult situation (source.)”
Although each Blue Zone community differs somewhat in its structure, all of them make family a priority. But what’s interesting is that this ‘family bond’ can be had with people even beyond our immediate kin. According to Paige Lapen, marketing specialist for the Blue Zones Project, “...Not everyone has the opportunity to be surrounded by blood-relative family members. So we often explain to people in the community that family is how you define it and can include both close friends and family members (source.)” No matter how family is defined, it seems that living with and investing in close kinships can not only add meaning and purpose but also add years to our lives.
Final Thoughts on Blue Zones
What’s interesting about Blue Zones research is that scientists are only in the beginning phase. There is much more to be learned. In fact, there may even be more Blue Zones out there that are yet to be discovered.
It’s also worth noting that while Blue Zones all have health and longevity in common, they don’t all follow the same formula. In the Blue Zone of Sardinia, for instance, residents swear by a daily glass of wine. In Loma Linda, California, the community abstains from alcohol entirely.
Although there may be no ‘one way’ to reach 100, there are common factors throughout all of the Blue Zones. Perhaps the most significant takeaway is that people who live well into old age have a healthy overall approach to life. This includes a program for their physical, mental, and spiritual/emotional wellness. If you’re interested in healthy aging, keep reading in our resource section. There you can find articles and research to give you guidelines for how to put together your own healthy program!