Did you know there are several unique locations in the world where people typically live to be over 100 years old? Not only do the majority of the residents live past 100, they also remain physically active, mentally sharp, and are remarkably free from common diseases. Best of all they rate themselves happy. Called Blue Zones, these regions offer one of the most intriguing formulas for a long, healthy and vibrant life. Surely it’s SMART to explore the identifiable traits found in several Blue Zones to see how they might help us all create our own zone no matter where we live?
One of these locations is a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea named Ikaria. On this tiny and rocky island, dementia and other chronic illness are almost non-existent. One in three Ikarians lives to be over 90. Dan Buettner, lead researcher and author of The Blue Zones, believes the key to longevity on Ikaria, and all the Blue Zones, is lifestyle. According to Buettner, only 10-20% of an advanced long life is genetic, while the remaining 80% is a person’s lifestyle. The lifestyle of most Ikarians offer clues to how they avoid most common illnesses that plague Americans.
The lifestyle of the typical Ikarian includes:
- The clean air, warm breezes, and a rugged terrain of the island encourage an active and outdoor lifestyle.
- Residents stay active by necessity. Because Ikaria is mountainous and relatively poor, most people get their exercise by walking to most locations, few have cars, and they also garden for their food and do their own yard work. None of them formally “exercise” but all get plenty of daily movement.
- Ikarian’s eat mostly a Mediterranean diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, potatoes and olive oil. What the majority eats is either grown in their garden or grows wild nearby. They only consume small amounts of meat and fish.
- All residents regularly take a mid-afternoon break to nap. According to Buettner, “People who nap regularly have a 35% lower chance of dying of heart disease.” This is likely because when we nap it lowers our stress hormones and rests our heart.
- Ikarian’s regularly drink herbal tea, which acts as an antioxidant and keeps blood pressure in check.
- They fast on a regular basis due to their strong Greek Orthodox religion. This regular fasting cuts about 30% of calories out of their normal diet.
- On Ikaria, friends and family are a priority. Ikarians spend quality time with loved ones every single day.
Another Blue Zone is located on the island of Sardinia off the coast of Italy. This Blue Zone is unique because in this location men generally live as long as women do. Overall, there are over ten times more centenarians per capita there than in the U.S. A few of the characteristics that keep Sardinians alive to 100 years of age are:
- Sardinians typically eat a lean, plant-based diet accented with meat. They eat whole grain bread, lots of beans, garden vegetables, and fruits. Meat is usually reserved for Sunday or special occasions.
- Because many of the men on this island are sheepherders, they consume large amounts of cheese made from grass-fed sheep and regularly drink goat’s milk.
- Because sheep herding is so prevalent, they also regularly walk about 5 miles a day over hilly terrain.
- The culture puts great emphasis on family so everyone is cared for at all ages. Also, older individuals are celebrated and treated with great respect and appreciation.
- Sardinians typically drink a glass or two of red wine daily.
- The men here are famous for their sardonic humor and regularly hang out with friends to laugh and talk.
- Dancing and celebrations are a big part of daily life.
- People remain sexually active most of their adult life.
The final Blue Zone I will share today is also an island—the Island of Okinawa, Japan. (Hmmm…. is there a trend with islands?) Okinawa is known for its high population of long-living women. These women have less cancer, heart disease and dementia than women in Western Cultures and usually live a good seven years after the average American. Not only do they live a long time, they tend to die in their sleep rather than from any illness. A key is their active and challenging lifestyle beyond the comfort and ease of most women in the world. Other components of their long life include:
- Okinawan women all belong to (and maintain for their entire life) a Moai. A Moai is a group of half-a-dozen companions that remain constant for a person’s entire life. Not only do you share your good fortune with your Moai, you are also supported through bad times. Someone always has your back. This support system provides a secure safety net and reduces stress.
- All Okinawans remain very physically active by walking and gardening. They also eat meals and relax on tatami mats on the floor getting up and down several times a day.
- The Okinawan people make a concerted effort to spend time every day in the sunshine. This grants even the most senior Okinawans optimal levels of vitamin D year round.
- They typically eat a diet filled with soy, like tofu and miso soup, as well as eat fresh vegetables from their garden. While they also eat meat, it is in small, limited amounts.
- Okinawans have a distinct “purpose driven” life they call their “ikigai.” This clear and precise reason for getting up every morning is central to their lifestyle.
- More significant than what they eat is a habit or strategy they all use to avoid overeating. By habit, they attempt to stop eating when they are 80% full.
While there are two other Blue Zones, these three are perfect examples of ways to create a long and healthy life. But what is most interesting is that while there are similarities, there is no one single formula. Instead, as Buettner says, it’s a combination of social ties and deep connections, eating right, staying physically active, knowing how to relax and enjoy your life, and having strong sense of purpose.
In contrast, many in the U.S. promote that by going on the right diet or joining the gym we can live longer. But Buettner says, “Diets don’t work. No diet in the history of the world has ever worked for more than 2% of the population.” He also feels that exercise programs seldom last. “When it comes to longevity, there is no short term fix, no pill or anything else.” What works for the Blue Zones is a long-term lifestyle commitment filled with a combination of strategies that keep a person healthy, active and happy over the course of their entire life.
So how can we create a Blue Zone where we live? Buettner believes that only by putting systems in place that optimize our environment are we in Western Cultures likely to change. Otherwise, he says, “We live in an environment of ease and abundance.” Everywhere we turn there are companies trying to sell us stuff or even worse, convince us to eat things that are clearly not healthy. Most of our days are filled with either maximizing work or maximizing leisure. The only way to change that, in his opinion, is to create communities that are willing to “optimize their communities” for better health.
So how does this information affect you and me? Sure we can all do better with what we eat, and perhaps we’d all benefit by adding more natural movement to our lives. But on a deeper level, I think the Blue Zones research show us that for the most part the comfort and conveniences that are so highly prized here in the U.S. could be part of the problem. Maybe, instead of thinking we can buy good health by taking supplements and going to the gym we should be investing more in consistent daily movement. Instead of paying others to do our “chores,” maybe it is actually healthier for us to do them ourselves. Rather than going out to eat and letting other people “serve us,” maybe it is a better choice to grow our own food and then cook it ourselves.
In addition, perhaps rather than work long hours at jobs we often dislike so we can buy more things we don’t need, we find work that is less stressful so we can take a nap in the afternoon. And instead of sitting at home watching television by ourselves, we make the effort to reach out and connect with others on a deeper level. While I doubt many of us will want to give up all the comfort we have created and the habits that hold us back, I believe it is SMART to be aware that many of those may be keeping us from living as long and healthy as possible. Is it worth the trade off? Like so many other SMART things, the choice is always ours.
Okay your turn: Have you heard of Blue Zones before? What is something you think that might help create your own Blue Zone right where you live?