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Nine Keys

Not too long ago, we looked at green and blue spaces and how they can affect our health, but have you heard about “blue zones” and what they could mean for our longevity? Could they really hold the secret to a longer life?

What are Blue Zones anyway?

According to a review published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, a ‘blue zone’ is a nonscientific term given to geographic regions where people supposedly have higher longevity. 

Researchers first outlined the longevity hotspot concept in a 2004 study published in the journal Experimental Gerontology when they identified the Italian island of Sardinia as the region with the highest concentration of male centenarians or people who live to be 100 or older. 

National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner and author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” along with other researchers, identified four more blue zones. Although the regions are geographically and culturally detached, these longevity hotspots share many characteristics, which may be the key to understanding why their inhabitants tend to live longer.

Where are the Blue Zones?

  • Icaria: A small Greek island in the Aegean sea 
  • Ogliastra, Sardinia: A region of an Italian island in the Mediterranean 
  • Okinawa: An island off the coast of Japan 
  • Nicoya Peninsula: A peninsula in eastern Costa Rica
  • The Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda: A community in the hilly valleys of California  

What do they have in common?

According to Buettner, Blue Zones share nine common features:

Physical activity: We talk about this all of the time on Generation Health; Blue Zone centenarians sustain high physical activity levels and regularly engage in manual labor. For example, it is common in Sardinia’s community of shepherds to walk more than 5 miles daily. 

Purpose: Okinawans call it “ikigai,” and Nicoyans call it “plan de vida,” both of which communicate the idea of “why I wake up in the morning.” This sense of purpose has been deemed the source of life satisfaction, contributing to a longer and happier life. 

Sleep: Blue Zones centenarians prioritize rest and sleep. For example, Ikarians are known to take midafternoon naps, while the Loma Linda community recognizes the Sabbath, or a day of rest and worship, once a week. 

The 80% rule: People living in Blue Zones do not tend to overeat. The rule’s name stems from an old Okinawan mantra spoken before meals, which reminds people to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full.

Plant-based diet: The diet of Blue Zone centenarians is based mainly on plants.

Moderate alcohol consumption: Moderate alcohol consumption of some Blue Zone centenarians contributed to their long life span. 

Sense of community: Strong community ties promote longevity, according to Buettner. For example, Okinawans are known to create secure social networks that financially and emotionally support community members. 

Loved ones first: Strong family ties are the cornerstone of Blue Zones communities. The Seventh Day Adventists live in tight-knit communities where children care for their aging parents.

Social encouragement: Blue Zones centenarians live in social networks that promote healthy behaviors, thus making it easier to stick to a healthy lifestyle.

However, science suggests people in the Blue Zones don’t necessarily live longer. For instance, according to a 2012 study in the journal Gerontology, while people in Japan, on average, have the highest longevity of any country in the world, men in Okinawa don’t live as long as their counterparts elsewhere.

But, some of Buettner’s overall conclusions still hold up. He contended that lifestyle factors are more important for human longevity than genetics, which is largely supported by evidence. MedlinePlus suggests that genes contribute about 25% to differences in lifespan between people, while in a 2018 article published in the journal Genetics, the heritability of human longevity may be as low as 10%. 

However you want to look at it, there are definitely longevity hotspots across the globe with some spry centenarians who know the secrets of living life to the fullest. So maybe we should take a few notes from them?