Five places in the world are now considered so-called “Blue Zones” – geographic areas where people are living much longer and more active lives. The first Blue Zone identified was Sardinia’s Nuoro province, which researchers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain found to have the greatest number of male centenarians. Four other Blue Zones have since been identified by National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner and his team of longevity researchers. In these Blue Zones people are reaching the age of 100 at a much greater rate than anywhere else in the world. So what exactly sets these places apart from the rest? In his book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Dan Buettner discusses the lessons he learned from the people inhabiting the Blue Zones and what specific lifestyle characteristics allow these people to live longer and better lives.
The tiny Mediterranean island boasts nearly non-existent rates of dementia and chronic disease and an isolated culture with a focus on socialization. Residents often drink goat’s milk and herbal teas and eat a Mediterranean diet full of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, potatoes, and olive oil. Because this population is comprised traditionally of Greek Orthodox Christians, many fast for nearly half the year (caloric restriction has been linked to a slowing of the aging process in mammals). They also exercise by gardening, walking, or completing yard work but also nap regularly.
Loma Linda, CA
It may be surprising that one of the Blue Zones is located in the U.S., but Loma Linda is home to about 9,000 Seventh-day Adventists who form an extremely close community. Many Seventh-day Adventists adhere to a vegetarian diet rich in fruits and vegetables and consume water and nuts in lieu of soda and unhealthy snacks. They also spend time with family and friends, particularly during the weekly 24-hour Sabbath, and give back by volunteering.
Nicoya, Costa Rica
Besides their diet, the secret to a longer life for Nicoyans may be in their sense of purpose and strong social connections. They eat a traditional diet of fortified maize and beans, drink water with the country’s highest calcium levels, and eat a light dinner early in the early evening. Nicoyan residents often live with family members for support and strongly wish to contribute to a greater good. Their physical work keeps them fit and is embraced in everyday life.
Although this area is experiencing a decline in life expectancies from the influence of factors like fast food, older residents have consumed a plant-based, soy-rich diet most of their lives and eat pork only for infrequent ceremonial occasions in small amounts. Okinawans spend time outside every day and nearly all grow or have grown gardens (a source of vitamin D and fresh vegetables). It is also traditional to form a moai, or social network, for emotional and financial support.
Sardinia has nearly 10 times more centenarians per capita than the U.S., which could be attributed to a combination of genetics and a traditional lifestyle. The rare genetic M26 marker is common in this population and has been associated with longevity; due to the geographic isolation of the island, this gene is not prevalent in other areas worldwide. Sardinians eat a plant-based diet with pecorino cheese made from grass-fed sheep that is high in omega-3 fatty acids and drink wine in moderation. Laughter may be good medicine on this island – men in particular here are known for their afternoon laughing sessions in the street.