Several areas in the world have been identified where clusters of people live past age 100. Termed “blue zones,” these areas are the culturally isolated islands of Sardinia, Italy; Icaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; and the Costa Rican peninsula of Nicoya. In addition, the Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California, are considered a blue zone demographic. What gives these people higher life expectancies? Is it their diet, exercise or genetics? Or is there more to it?
Researchers found that people in the blue zones eat a mainly plant-based diet high in complex carbohydrates and low in protein. In Icaria, for example, 95 per cent of the elders’ diet consists of organic vegetables, fruit, beans and seeds. They raise free-range chickens for eggs, and sheep for milk and cheese. Only on special occasions do they slaughter an animal and eat its meat. They don’t follow any fad diets such as low-carb or gluten-free. These old folks eat a wide range of healthy, unprocessed, homegrown, home-cooked foods. Sardinians hunt, fish, harvest their own food and drink lots of wine; this is what we call the Mediterranean diet. While Sardinians have a genetic marker linked to longevity, research suggests that lifestyle plays a bigger role than genes.
Instead of moving to retirement homes, the elderly in blue zones continue to live independently and productively. They hike and garden. They remain functionally fit by living physically active lives out of necessity. Unlike many of us who consider ourselves active, they don’t exercise a few times per week in a gym or do the weekend warrior thing, and then sit on a sofa or at a desk the rest of the time. They remain constantly and moderately active throughout their lives.
Another contributing factor to their longevity is a close-knit family and a sense of community. Their children and grandchildren typically live nearby and visit regularly, if not daily. They share meals together, often with the older people preparing food for the younger generations. That gives the centenarians a sense of purpose and a feeling of love and appreciation. They also have a close circle of friends with whom they regularly socialize. They don’t have hundreds of “friends” as many of us do on social media. They have real world, meaningful interactions. Blue zones have a less frenetic pace with less stress, more naps and more time to sit and chat with friends.
The Seventh Day Adventists are a bit different because they live in a more modern environment in California. They eat a vegetarian diet, abstain from alcohol, tobacco, soda and junk food, and adhere to a physically active lifestyle. Because they tend to associate with people of their own religion who share their values, they aren’t tempted by outsiders to indulge in bad habits.
Seventh Day Adventists have a strong faith. So do the people in the other blue zones. It doesn’t seem to matter which religion one subscribes to, or whether one engages in organized religion, a sense of spirituality appears to contribute to longevity.
The blue zone people don’t just live longer. They have much lower rates of depression, dementia and heart disease due to their lifestyles.
After learning about the blue zones I thought, “I don’t eat a predominantly plant-based diet. I don’t grow my own food. I don’t hike every day. Am I doomed?” Instead of thinking about how my life is different from the blue zone inhabitants or how I should pack up and move to a blue zone, I reflected on what I’m currently doing or can do to enhance my odds of living a long and high-quality life. I’ve already made significant strides in recent years with lifestyle changes, but there’s always room for improvement. Small changes can make a big difference.
Until recently, the geographical blue zones were cut off from progress, from the “improvements” (e.g., fast food) of the past 50 years. The elders live traditional lifestyles. However, progress is starting to make its way to those zones, and the younger generations who’ve abandoned the traditional lifestyle in favour of a more modern one may have shorter lives than their grandparents.