The Blue Zones

I have just finished reading a very interesting book called The Blue Zones (second edition): 9 lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest, by Dan Buettner. In accessible language Dan recounts his experience as a journalist for National Geographic magazine, travelling to visit regions of the world with unusually high numbers of centenarians (people over 100 years old): the so-called Blue Zones. Five Blue Zones were profiled in the book: Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), the Loma Linda Valley (California), the Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), and Ikaria (Greece).

Dan Buettner and his team interviewed centenarians and tried to identify common features of their lifestyles that might give them the edge when it comes to living long and healthy lives. They came up with nine lessons for creating your own personal Blue Zone:

  1. Move naturally: be active without having to think about it
  2. Hara hachi bu: painlessly cut calories by 20%
  3. Plant slant: avoid meat and processed foods
  4. Grapes of life: drink red wine in moderation
  5. Purpose now: take time to see the big picture
  6. Downshift: take time to relieve stress
  7. Belong: participate in a spiritual community
  8. Loved ones first: make family a priority
  9. Right tribe: be surrounded by those who share Blue Zone values

The book is not a scientific study, although it does make some references to studies that have been done, such as the Adventist studies from Loma Linda University. It is very readable (if a little too flowery in places for my taste) with characters and storylines to keep you entertained while encountering some actually quite difficult information – or at least, information with some quite challenging implications.

The Loma Linda Valley in California stands out from the other four Blue Zones, as it is located in a Western setting, not far outside Los Angeles. However the geographical location is not really the main cause for the longevity of its citizens, many of whom are Seventh Day Adventists. Adventists do not smoke or drink alcohol, and many are vegetarian or vegan. They live in close community with other Adventists, and observe the Sabbath.

Three of the remaining four Blue Zones are islands, and Nicoya is a remote peninsula. The centenarians profiled in all four lived lives of poverty and hardship. They spoke about frequently not having enough to eat. In Okinawa they subsisted almost entirely on sweet potatoes during the first half of the 20th century. In Nicoya peasants ate tortillas with rice and beans, along with locally grown fruits and vegetables, every day.

One of the few things that is generally accepted in the field of longevity research is that calorie restriction increases lifespan. Buettner comments that there is no brake pedal when it comes to ageing: only an accelerator. We live long healthy lives to the degree that we avoid pressing the accelerator. The accelerator pedal – things that speed up aging – consists of toxins and free radicals that damage the body and that the body has to deal with in some way: to neutralise or eliminate. Lots of these enter our body in food. Food is, in effect, a poison that we should eat as little of as possible while still being able to maintain our bodies’ functions.

The only exception to this rule may be plant foods containing high levels of antioxidants: the compounds plants make to combat those damaging free radicals. Plant foods high in antioxidants are the brightly coloured ones: sweet potatoes and green leafy vegetables for example. Hence the increasingly common incitement to “eat a rainbow”.

Some of the centenarians profiled were really small, suggesting possible caloric restriction during childhood and adolescence (although this could also be genetic). There is increasing awareness in some quarters now about the harmful effects of rapid early growth (and correspondingly early puberty), particularly in terms of breast cancer risk in girls, but this is hard for us to hear. We are so culturally programmed to view rapid growth in childhood as a good thing, but it may not be.

None of the centenarians ate the kind of varied diets that we are generally encouraged to eat today. Their diets were limited, repetitive and largely stable over the course of their lives. They were subsistence farmers or gardeners, eating what they grew themselves and only consuming meat very occasionally, between once a week and once a year. While they were (apart from the Adventists) not vegetarian or vegan, the vast majority of their calories came from fresh, unprocessed plants.

I’m not sure my lessons would have been quite the same as the author’s. Only the Sardinians and Ikarians actually drank red wine, for example, so I think this practice was more appealing than it was scientific, and there were no lessons on moving to remote islands in the northern hemisphere, of between 10 and 40 degrees latitude, with spotlessly clean air and water, where you have to walk up and down mountainsides all day. I was interested in the anecdotal story of a man who moved from America to Ikaria after a lung cancer diagnosis in his forties. The cancer went away (we can only speculate as to why, but it is worth holding on to the fact that it did), and he went on to live to 100.

But even more interesting to me is the idea that we can create our own personal Blue Zone right where we are, just as the Adventists have. I’m not sure that I agree that we need to take faith necessarily, but belonging to supportive family and community networks certainly makes sense. I also wonder if we are beginning to see the emergence of internet Blue Zones, as people come together virtually to share their ideas and experiences, and to support one another to live happier, healthier lives? Only time will tell.

[View Dan Buettner’s TEDMED talk (2011) here]

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