The world average life expectancy is 73 years. How can we have a longer, healthier life than this? Is it just a matter of good genes and lots of money? These things definitely help, however The Danish Twin Study determined that only 20% of life length is determined by our genetics, and the rest we can change depending on how we live.
Blue Zones are areas throughout the world where there are large numbers of centenarians (people who live to over 100 years old). The current identified zones are Ogliastra Region (Sardinia), Okinawa (Japan), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Ikaria (Greece) and Loma Linda (California). What do these Blue Zones have that I do not have in Brisbane?
There are NINE different diet and lifestyle areas that are consistent among these centenarians that we can bring into our own life. At the end I will also list some of the key foods that these areas include.
1. Natural movement
This means growing gardens, doing manual work rather than relying on machines of convenience to make things easier for you. Ditching the robot vacuum? The physical activity of these communities is in everyday activities, rather than the sitting down all day, spend an hour at the gym lifestyle many are accustomed to in the west.
Due to how physically isolated the Blue Zones in Okinawa and Sardinia were able to maintain a very traditional lifestyle, maintaining high levels of physical activity above 80 years of age.
Knowing the reason you wake up in the morning can add up to 7 years to your life expectancy.
“Ikigai” means “a life worth living”, and in a cohort study, Japanese residents with a lack of ikigai had higher risk of mortality (from cardiovascular disease mainly), increase inflammatory blood markers and decreased levels of HDL (the ‘good’ cholesterol).
3. Manage stress
Everyone experiences some level of stress, even those in the blue zones. The difference is the stress management practices employed by these centenarians. This may be taking time out to pray, nap or celebrate. Stress leads to hormonal shifts that promote chronic inflammation, which is the major cause of age related decline. This has a profound effect on mental health. Chronic unmanaged stress promotes chronic cortisol secretion which can lead to arterial hypertension, central obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.
4. Leaving real estate in Tummy Town: the 80% rule
The practice of stopping eating when you feel 80% full. These people also eat their smallest meal in the evening, rather than the big dinners we are often accustomed to in a western diet.
5. Mostly vegetarian
Centenarians eat less than 5 servings of meat a month, with a diet mostly made up of beans and lentils. On average you should be eating a full serving of protein of some sort with your main meals, with a serving of protein being a full cup of beans, chickpeas or lentils.
6. Wine in the right environment
Most Blue Zones practice moderate alcohol consumption, this means 1-2 glasses of wine a day, shared with friends over food.
7. Belonging and faith
Most centenarians belong to a faith/religious community. Attending four services a month is shown to add 4-14 years to life expectancy.
8. Family First
Family always comes first in these communities. This means multigenerational homes or loved ones living close by. This is shown to decrease childhood mortality rates in these homes too. Committing to a life partner can add 3 years to your life expectancy.
9. Right Tribe
These groups have friends around them that support healthy behaviours. Is community around you supporting health and happiness? What behaviours do you engage in with your loved ones? Is it too many little treats? Or is it connection and support?
A healthy diet containing a balanced amount of macronutrients, vitamins and minerals, adequate in calories and rich in nutrients has an essential role in reducing inflammation associated with chronic disease and ageing.
Ikaria in Greece has a diet with key inclusion of potatoes, goats milk, legumes (lentils, black eyed peas, garbonzo beans), wild greens, some fruit, small amounts of fish and the herbs marjoram and sage. In Okinawa they include bitter melon, tofu, garlic, brown rice, green tea and shitake mushrooms.
The Sardinians lifestyle of shepherding in the mountains has a lot to do with their longevity, with a diet of goats milk, sheep cheese, fennel, fava beans, chickpeas, tomatoes, almonds, milk thistle tea and wine from Grenache grapes.
The Californian blue zone is a Seventh Day Adventist community that follow a “biblical” diet focused on grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables, and drink only water. They only have sugar in the form of fruit. These communities found that pescatarians in the community lives longer than their vegan Adventist counterparts.
In Costa Rica, beans, corn and squash, plus nutrient rich papaya, sweet potato, banana and a native fruit called peach palms were the key inclusions.
Check out a huge archive of blue zone recipes here.
What are you going to change for longevity?
These behaviours lead to less chronic disease, more purpose, connection and better life physically and mentally. My goals to live more in alignment with these philosophies is to reduce red meat intake and adhere to more of a pescatarian lifestyle. I am also wanting to connect more with nature and have a lively garden to tend to with my kids (so that they will be forced to take me in when I’m old and grey). How can you enhance your life to be healthier and longer?
This study has a great blue zones checklist with practical changes you can make for everyday: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/18/2/837/htm
Official Blue Zone website: https://www.bluezones.com/1-blue-zones-life-why-what-where-who-how/
This NPR article: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/11/398325030/eating-to-break-100-longevity-diet-tips-from-the-blue-zones
I just loved this study on comparing the blue zones to lifestyle medicine: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/15598276221118494