Why people in 'Blue Zones' are outliving all of us

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published March 21, 2019

Key Takeaways

Although no one has yet discovered Ponce de León's magical Fountain of Youth, the inhabitants of five zones in the world—known as Blue Zones—may have found a reasonable facsimile, and are enjoying longer than average lives compared with the rest of the world.

The term "Blue Zone" was first coined by author Dan Buettner, writing for National Geographic magazine about the "Secrets of a Long Life." It is thought to represent the blue circles researchers drew on the map to identify zones of the oldest and healthiest people in the world.

MDLinx explored these five zones, in the hopes of bringing our readers some of their secrets to long, happy, and relatively disease-free lives. Here they are, in no particular order:

Ikaria, Greece

Located 8 miles off the coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea, the island of Ikaria—named after Icarus, who fell into the sea when his wings melted from trying to fly too close to the sun—boasts some of the world's lowest rates of middle-age mortality and dementia. One in three residents live into their 90s, and—on average—Ikarians live 10 years longer than other Europeans.

Beaches with golden sand and beautiful waters surround the island, and its people—because they have been isolated—have maintained strong traditions and family ties. The pace of life here is slow. Ikarians are devoted to daily naps and are said to enjoy late-night socializing with friends and strong wine. The picturesque and mountainous terrain invites an active lifestyle.

Ikarians adhere to the Mediterranean diet, which is replete with fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and olive oil. Dairy products and meat are consumed only in small amounts. Smoking is avoided. Dementia and other chronic diseases are almost non-existent on this beautiful island.

Nicoya, Costa Rica

Nicoya, Costa Rica, is a Central American Caribbean nation that boasts economic security and excellent health care. Residents of this 80-mile peninsula found south of the Nicaraguan border have the world's lowest middle-age mortality rates, and the second highest number of male centenarians in the world.

Nicoyans ascribe to a "plan de vida"—a guiding life purpose—that they claim helps fulfill them both mentally and spiritually. Their plan de vida supports a positive outlook among elders and helps keep them active. They have strong faith communities and deep social networks. Nicoyan centenarians live with their families and are said to engage in frequent visits with neighbors. This focus on family and social ties bolsters their emotional well-being with support.

In addition, the Nicoyans' lifestyle involves plenty of regular, low-intensity physical activity. Even centenarians seem to enjoy physical work, and chores are fundamental to daily life.

Theirs is a traditional Mesoamerican diet, focused on squash, corn, and beans. Tropical fruits are also a mainstay. Nicoyans typically eat a light dinner early in the evening.

Interestingly, the water in Nicoya has a high calcium content. Along with the Nicoyan tendency to spend a lot of time outdoors in the sunshine—and thus, generate regular vitamin D production—their hard water, with its high calcium content, may account for the nation's low incidence of heart disease and hip fractures, despite its large, elderly population.

Okinawa, Japan

Okinawa is the largest island in a chain of subtropical islands of Japan. It is home to the longest-lived women in the world, with many exceeding the age of 100. Residents here also have markedly lower rates of heart disease, dementia, and cancer (including those of the colon, prostate, and breast) compared with Americans.

The island diet is surprisingly not fish-based. Rather, whole plant foods make up 90% of the traditional diet, which is also composed of less than 1% each of fish, meat, and dairy and eggs. Vegetables and beans are staples, and most calories come from purple and orange sweet potatoes. The Okinawan diet is highly anti-inflammatory and high in antioxidants; it also includes soybeans, turmeric, and goya (a bitter melon).

In this Japanese culture, the people are supported by moai, a small social circle that provides support during the ups and downs of life. This social support system serves to decrease the usual stressors of life and reinforce healthy behaviors.

Sardinia, Italy

With over 1,200 miles of coastline and white sandy beaches, Sardinia—the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea—is home to the largest concentration of male centenarians in the world.

What type of lifestyle do Sardinians have that may contribute to their longevity? Because their beautiful island is in the middle of the Mediterranean, much like the Ikarians, Sardinians remain culturally isolated. Family ties are strong among these islanders, and they have maintained a very traditional healthy lifestyle that includes hunting, fishing, and harvesting what they eat. Daily physical activity is prevalent, and the island's mountainous interior proves no challenge for the sheep herders there, who walk at least 5 miles a day.

The Sardinian diet is low-protein and primarily plant-based. Locally produced wheat is one of the main culinary ingredients, but Sardinia's sausages and cheeses are also delicious and highly recommended. Fish is a staple of the diet, as well.

Another secret may be the M26 marker, which is a genetic variant linked to extreme longevity. Due to their geographic isolation, Sardinian blood lines remain largely undiluted.

Loma Linda, CA

Loma Linda, CA, is the only Blue Zone located in the United States. This sunny area of Southern California is home to roughly 9,000 members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, who typically live 10 years longer than other Americans. Their longevity is thought to be due to their vegetarian diets, regular exercise, and abstention from smoking or drinking alcohol.

The diet of Loma Lindans is plant-based and taken from the Bible. It includes whole grains and nuts, and notably excludes meat. When they do eat meat, it is as a side dish rather than a main course. Adventists eat a rich breakfast, a smaller lunch, and an even smaller dinner.

Consider that researchers have found the following:

  • Adventists who consume nuts at least 5 times per week have a 50% lower risk of heart disease and a tendency to live roughly 2 years longer than those who do not.
  • Adventists who ate two or more servings of fruit per day had a roughly 70% lower incidence of lung cancer compared with nonsmokers who ate fruit once or twice per week.
  • Adventists who ate legumes (beans, for example) three times per week had a 30% to 40% reduction in the incidence of colon cancer.
  • Adventist women who ate tomatoes at least three or four times per week reduced their risk of ovarian cancer by 70% compared with those who ate tomatoes less often.

According to the Adventist Health Survey, regular, low-intensity exercise can reduce the risks for heart disease and certain cancers. The survey also showed that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may be protective against many cancers.

Adventist lifestyle places a strong emphasis on faith, family, friends, and nature. The residents of Loma Linda feel these beliefs and practices relieve stress, strengthen their social networks, and provide them with consistent exercise.

Blue Zone Secrets

Perhaps the take-away from these Blue Zones, where people are healthy and live longer than anywhere else in the world, is that close family ties, regular and continued physical activity even in later years, and a healthy, balanced diet—whether plant-, fish-, or protein-based—can all contribute to longevity.

Another commonality among these Blue Zones—with the exception of Loma Linda—is their proximity to water. Researchers have shown that being close to a large body of water, whether that's an ocean, sea, river, or lake, may significantly reduce mortality and be especially beneficial in older adults. Further, these effects of "blue spaces" were especially significant in protecting against stroke and respiratory-related mortality.

Other research has shown an association between health and the visibility of water, and that increased views of water—again "blue spaces"—were significantly associated with decreased psychological distress.

If you live close to a large body of water, great! If not, take heart in the benefits you can reap from a balanced diet, strong family and social ties, and daily physical activity. Who knows? Maybe you will live to see 100.

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