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Thursday, September 7, 2023

Blue Zones

Inside the top 5 places in the world where people live the longest —past 100

By Mary K. JacobSeptember 7, 2023

In the quest for longevity and the elixir of everlasting youth, the world has turned its gaze to the remarkable regions known as “Blue Zones.” These enclaves of vitality and well-being have ignited curiosity and wonder across the globe — and it’s time to delve into their secrets.

Blue Zones are those magical corners of the world where people seemingly defy the aging process. They possess a playbook for life that involves a harmonious blend of healthy living, strong communities and a sense of purpose that rivals a New Yorker’s determination to catch a cab in the rain.

The story of Blue Zones begins with researchers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, who stumbled upon the first of these remarkable locales. But it was the indefatigable Dan Buettner who took the baton and ran with it, identifying more Blue Zones and diving deep into their secrets of a long, healthy life.

In a world where fast food and sedentary lifestyles often take center stage, there are pockets of the globe where residents are not only living longer, but also thriving in the process. Enter these regions where centenarians are not the exception, but the norm.

The Sardinian secret: where centenarians roam

Nestled in the rugged landscapes of Sardinia, Italy, the first Blue Zone unveiled its timeless secrets. Here, male shepherds are the undisputed champions of longevity, their daily routines including traversing mountainous terrain and feasting on plant-based fare.

But it’s not just about diet and exercise in Sardinia; it’s about strong family bonds that permeate the culture.

agliary cityscape and architecture with Mediterranean Sea in Sardinia island, Summer Italy
Cagliari cityscape and architecture in Sardinia island.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

When it comes to living a long, healthy life, the people of Sardinia have cracked the code. This enchanting Italian island is home to some of the world’s oldest and healthiest individuals. So, what’s their secret?

At the core of general Sardinian longevity is the classic diet, a wholesome blend of nature’s bounty. Whole-grain bread, hearty beans, garden-fresh vegetables, an abundance of fruits and in some regions the unique touch of mastic oil. But it doesn’t stop there; Sardinians also eat pecorino cheese crafted from grass-fed sheep, packed with omega-3 fatty acids. Meat? Reserved for special occasions and Sundays.

In Sardinia, family isn’t just a word; it’s a way of life. Strong family bonds also ensure that every member is cared for, a potent defense against depression, suicide and stress. Research shows that those living in such nurturing environments enjoy improved mental well-being and overall life satisfaction.

Tourists at a street cafe on Corso Umberto Street in Olbia, Sardinia, Italy.
Getty Images

Grandparents additionally hold a cherished role in Sardinian society. They offer love, childcare, financial support and a wealth of wisdom. Their influence motivates the younger generation to uphold traditions and strive for success, contributing to healthier, more well-adjusted and longer-lived children. It’s a recipe for a population-wide life-expectancy boost.

As for those Sardinian shepherds, they know the value of a good walk. Covering 5 miles a day, their cardiovascular health thrives, along with improved muscle and bone metabolism. No need for joint-pounding marathons or triathlons. And don’t forget the daily glass or two of red wine.

Typical fresh pasta filled with potatoes and mint, Sardinia, Italy.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Children usually take in their parents as they get older, which shows a higher life expectancy rate.
JONATHAN – stock.adobe.com

Sardinians also enjoy wine in moderation, and it turns out, it’s good for more than just raising spirits. Cannonau wine, a local favorite, packs two to three times the artery-scrubbing flavonoids of other wines. It’s no wonder stress levels among the island’s men remain impressively low. Gather with friends, share a laugh and let your worries melt away.

Last but not least, the islanders swear by goat’s milk. This dairy delight contains components that may ward off age-related inflammatory diseases, including heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Sip on a glass and embrace the Sardinian secret to a vibrant, disease-free life.

Okinawa: The land of age-defying women

In Okinawa, Japan, women hold the crown for longevity. Their diet, laden with superfoods like tofu, miso and seaweed, is complemented by the concept of “ikigai” — a deep sense of purpose that infuses every aspect of life.

Okinawans also thrive through “moai,” lifelong social networks established from childhood that provide emotional and financial support. It’s a community ethos that keeps spirits high and stress levels low.

The inhabitants of Okinawa hold a treasure trove of wisdom. Despite facing years of adversity, they have crafted a lifestyle and environment that foster remarkable longevity.

An aerial photo of Okinawa, Japan.
leungchopan – stock.adobe.com

One of the defining characteristics of older Okinawans is their unshakeable sense of purpose. Ask them why they rise each morning, and they’ll readily articulate it. This imbued sense of purpose infuses their lives with responsibility and the feeling of being needed, even well into their 100s. It’s a powerful motivator that keeps them active and engaged.

Okinawans have also long embraced a plant-based diet. Their meals brim with stir-fried vegetables, sweet potatoes and tofu, delivering an abundance of nutrients with minimal calories. The mighty goya, with its antioxidants and blood sugar-regulating compounds, takes center stage. While pork does make an occasional appearance in their cuisine, it’s reserved for special ceremonial occasions and consumed in moderation. Moreover, almost all Okinawan centenarians are or were gardeners, a practice that not only provides daily physical activity, but also yields a constant supply of fresh vegetables.

Elderly women standing on the beach in Okinawa, Japan.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
An aerial view over islands with beautiful water and reef surrounding them. From the Kerama island chain in Okinawa, Japan.
Getty Images

Soy also reigns supreme in the Okinawan diet, featuring prominently in dishes like tofu and miso soup. The flavonoids found in tofu may contribute to heart health and shield against breast cancer. Fermented soy foods promote a healthy gut microbiome and offer a cornucopia of nutritional benefits.

As for the moais, they offer both financial and emotional support in times of need. These tight-knit communities provide a profound sense of security, ensuring that no one faces life’s challenges alone.

Sunlight, a free and readily available resource, is a cornerstone of Okinawan life. Regular exposure to the sun stimulates the production of vitamin D, crucial for stronger bones and overall well-being. Even the island’s seniors maintain optimal vitamin D levels year-round by spending time outdoors daily.

Okinawan elders are no strangers to physical activity. With minimal furniture in their homes, they dine and relax on tatami mats on the floor, requiring them to get up and down numerous times each day. This routine builds lower body strength and balance, reducing the risk of debilitating falls.

Meanwhile, gardens are not just for beauty — they also serve as medicinal treasure troves. Mugwort, ginger and turmeric, staples of an Okinawan garden, boast proven medicinal qualities. Daily consumption of these herbs may offer protection against various illnesses.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable traits of Okinawans is their attitude. They exude affable smugness, embracing life’s simple pleasures and leaving the difficulties of the past behind. They radiate likability, drawing younger generations into their company, enriching their lives as they age gracefully.

In the pursuit of longevity and well-being, Okinawa stands as a beacon of hope and inspiration. Their time-tested practices offer a blueprint for a life filled with purpose, health and contentment.

Loma Linda: A Longevity Oasis in California

Despite America’s reputation for having one of the world’s highest obesity rates, there lies a small area in San Bernardino County, California that defies all odds.

In the city of Loma Linda, a surprising phenomenon emerges. Residents there live a staggering 10 years longer on average than their fellow Americans. Why? They’re predominantly Seventh-day Adventists, a community that draws its plant-based diet directly from the Bible — grains, nuts and legumes galore.

But that’s not all. These health-conscious folks avoid smoking, alcohol and often steer clear of red meat, shellfish, refined foods and caffeine. Their dedication to an active lifestyle, and their strong sense of faith and family, are cornerstones of their remarkable longevity.

Aerial view of the Loma Linda cityscape in California.
Kit Leong – stock.adobe.com

The Seventh-day Adventist church has been a cornerstone of the Loma Linda community since the 1840s. As the church thrived throughout the 20th century, so did its 430 members in this idyllic region, where they hold the belief that health is an integral part of their faith. The body is a temple.

(Today, approximately 9,000 Adventists call Loma Linda home — and they are at the heart of America’s Blue Zone region.)

The 24-hour Sabbath observed by Adventists is not just a religious ritual; it’s a weekly respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life. During this sacred time, they focus on family, spirituality, camaraderie and the wonders of nature. This break is a powerful stress-reliever, a builder of social networks and a source of consistent physical activity.

Adventists also find strength in numbers, often spending time with fellow community members who share their values. This sense of community and support enhances their overall well-being.

What’s more, the Seventh-day Adventist Church actively encourages and provides opportunities for its members to volunteer. This commitment to helping others not only keeps them active but also gives them a sense of purpose, staving off depression.

Maintaining a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) is an additional priority for Adventists. Those who combine a healthy BMI with regular physical activity and a sparing, if not entirely meatless, diet tend to enjoy lower blood pressure, healthier cholesterol levels and reduced cardiovascular disease risk compared to their heavier counterparts.

The Adventist diet pays off handsomely. Those who consume nuts at least five times a week experience about half the risk of heart disease and gain an extra 2 years of life compared to their nut-averse counterparts.

Their general dietary approach has been linked to other health benefits, including a 70% reduction in lung cancer for those who consume two or more servings of fruit daily. Legume lovers enjoy a 30 to 40% lower risk of colon cancer, while tomato enthusiasts reduce their chances of ovarian cancer by 70%.

The age-old adage “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper” is also woven into Adventist practices. An early, light dinner helps avoid an overload of calories during inactive hours, promotes better sleep and contributes to a lower BMI.

Studies show that Adventist men who sip on five or six daily glasses of water also reduce their risk of a fatal heart attack by a staggering 60 to 70% compared to those who consume less.

In Loma Linda, the secrets to a prolonged and vibrant existence are no secret at all. The Seventh-day Adventist community offers a blueprint for longevity rooted in faith, healthy living, and a commitment to nurturing both body and soul. So, whether you’re an Adventist or not, these practices can guide you toward a life filled with vitality, joy and many more years to come.

Nicoya: Costa Rica’s “Pura Vida” fifestyle

In Central America, Costa Rica boasts one of the world’s highest life expectancies, despite modest incomes. The “Ticos,” as natives are locally known, thrive on a mix of faith, family and what’s referred to as a “life plan.”

Of particular note is the nation’s Nicoya Peninsula, an 80-mile stretch of land just south of the Nicaraguan border. While economic stability and excellent healthcare certainly contribute, there’s more to the Nicoyan secret than meets the eye.

At the heart of Nicoyan longevity is that “plan de vida” life plan — or reason to live, a driving force that nurtures a positive outlook among the elderly and keeps them active. This sense of purpose is deeply rooted in their culture, propelling them forward and instilling a profound zest for life.

Playa Santa Teresa, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
David – stock.adobe.com

Nicoyan centenarians prioritize family above all else. They often live with their families, who provide not only support, but also a profound sense of purpose and belonging. This close-knit family structure is a cornerstone of their longevity.

When it comes to staying hydrated, Nicoyan hard water is rich in calcium, a vital mineral that may explain their lower rates of heart disease and their strong bones, resulting in fewer hip fractures. It’s a simple, yet impactful, element of their lifestyle that contributes to their health and well-being.

One of the most potent ways to extend your years may be simpler than you think: Eat fewer calories. Nicoyans embrace this wisdom by consuming a light dinner early in the evening, aligning with the concept of caloric restriction for a longer, healthier life.

Centenarians in Nicoya have also always known the value of hard work, deriving joy from their everyday physical chores. Their active lifestyle, which includes physical labor, keeps them physically and mentally engaged throughout their lives.

Regular sun exposure — the sun itself being an abundant perk in Costa Rica — is a Nicoyan practice that aids in the production of vitamin D, crucial for strong bones and overall health. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to numerous health issues, including osteoporosis and heart disease. The Nicoyans’ smart sun habits, about 15 minutes on the arms and legs, help ensure they maintain adequate vitamin D levels.

Nicoyans additionally maintain a strong connection to their indigenous Chorotega roots and their traditions. This cultural bond shields them from the burdens of stress, contributing to their overall well-being. Their traditional diet, anchored by fortified maize and beans, may well be the ultimate recipe for longevity.

Ikaria: A Greek island of immortality

The Greek island of Ikaria offers a captivating blend of natural beauty, social connectivity and dietary wisdom. Residents navigate mountainous terrain with ease, fostering robust physical health, while their close-knit communities promote emotional well-being.

Today, Ikarians stand almost entirely immune to dementia and the chronic diseases that plague many Americans. Remarkably, one in three of these islanders reaches their 90s. It’s a phenomenon that demands exploration, and it turns out the recipe for their long and healthy lives is a blend of geography, culture, diet, lifestyle and outlook.

For starters, the long-revered Mediterranean diet, featuring abundant olive oil, vegetables and fruits, adds to their vitality — as does their practice of regular fasting, rooted in Greek Orthodox Christianity. An afternoon siesta further reduces stress hormones and guards against heart disease.

Panoramic aerial view of the traditional picturesque Armenistis village as seen from a drone, one of the most popular holiday destinations on the Greek island of Ikaria located in the Aegean Sea.
NurPhoto via Getty Images
The Mediterranean Ikaria island is famous for the longevity and the alternative lifestyle closer to nature.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

That said, regular nappers have up to a 35% lower risk of heart disease-related mortality. The benefits may stem from lowered stress hormones or a rejuvenated heart.

The longest-lived Ikarians often come from the island’s highlands, where physical activity is a natural part of daily life. They tend gardens, walk to neighbors’ houses and do their own yard work. The lesson here is to engineer more mindless movement into our daily routines.

Ikarians also enjoy herbal teas with family and friends, and these brews pack an antioxidant punch. Wild rosemary, sage and oregano teas also act as diuretics, helping regulate blood pressure by removing excess sodium and water from the body.

Fierce Greek Orthodox Christians, Ikarians observe nearly half the year as a period of fasting. Caloric restriction, a form of fasting that trims about 30% of daily calories, is the only proven method to slow the aging process in mammals.

People taking coffee on Ikaria island.
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Theoktisti Monastery, Ikaria island.
UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Ikarians additionally place great emphasis on fostering social connections, which have been linked to overall health and longevity.

Instead of cow’s milk, Ikarians opt for grass-fed goat’s milk. Rich in potassium and the stress-relieving hormone tryptophan, it’s also hypoallergenic and is often tolerated by those who are lactose intolerant.

Ikaria, the island where age really is just a number, reveals a wealth of wisdom that can transform our lives. With a focus on simplicity, community and a connection to nature, the people of Ikaria have unlocked the secrets to a long and joyful existence.

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In a world where the quest for longevity has never been more tantalizing, the Blue Zones beckon as beacons of hope. These remarkable enclaves of vitality remind us that, perhaps, the secret to a long and healthy life lies not in the elixirs of youth but in the tapestry of community, purpose and natural living.

 

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." - John Quincy Adams