Many researchers seem to think we can.
Based on research of Danish, Finnish, and Swedish twins and other studies, it has been estimated that for humans, perhaps 20% – 30% of life expectancy is linked to genes and perhaps 70% – 80% is linked to environment & total lifestyle. Hum Genet (2006) 119: 312–321.
(Image of Chinese character for longevity crafted from azalea root courtesy of assiewin at rgbstock.com)
The term “Blue Zones” is attributed to having been coined by researchers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain. They and others have sought to find communities of persons in the world with the longest life expectancy. Exp Gerontol. 2004 Sep;39(9):1423-9.
Those locations where elders exhibit extreme or exceptional longevity while enjoying a higher level of overall wellness (relative absence of chronic diseases) have been studied by anthropologists, demographers, epidemiologists, medical researchers, etc.
Teams of these researchers have received support from National Geographic, The US National Institute on Aging, etc.
Where Are the Blue Zones Located?
The five locations that have received world-wide publicity since being deemed Blue Zones include:
- California’s Loma Linda area with a high concentration of Seventh Day Adventists;
- Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula where many men have lived to age 100;
- Greece’s Ikaria (a remote Aegean island) where an aging population remains mentally alert;
- Italy’s Sardinia where in the Barbagia mountainous highlands regions many men have lived to age 100; and
- Japan’s island of Okinawa noted for its elderly population of active women.
What Are Some of the Common Factors Found in Blue Zones?
Previous to current day, what’s been different about living in these locations that might possibly contribute to the longer life expectancy documented for their elders?
Of all the Blue Zones, only the one in Loma Linda, California where the Seventh Day Adventist population has flourished has really been connected with the trappings of an industrialized society.
The other Blue Zone locations typically have been considered a bit remote and removed from the influences of the outside world as much as possible. In the other Blue Zones, elders have typically been involved in physical labor all of their lives in order to survive and have had much simpler, more agrarian lifestyles.
Researchers have noted that elders living the longest in those Blue Zones have historically had some of the following factors in common during their lifetimes:
- Physical labor has been involved in aspects of everyday life d/t the environment and overall more agrarian lifestyle. Equipment has been powered by humans and not by high tech machines. Humans didn’t have to seek out other sources of daily regular exercise; rather in order to live their lives, they had to do the physical work associated with activities of daily living sans labor-saving devices. In primarily agrarian societies, the environment is such that members typically marry earlier and have children earlier and those children grow up typically doing a lot of physical labor in their lifetimes.
- Longer lived society members utilized different ways to “shed stress” and each society has had its own traditions that translated into community embraced habits. These have varied from the Seventh Day Adventists praying, to the Ikarians napping, or the Costa Ricans staying in synch with their natural peninsula habitat, the Sardinians enjoying their “happy hour” or the Okinawans intentionally remembering their ancestors during specially set aside time each day.
- Dietary habits of longer-lived elders have been highly plant-consumption based. Elders have had a lifetime of exposure to lots of pulses/dry beans that were soaked, cooked & eaten. Most of the elders grew their own food and incorporated vegetables & fruits regularly into meals. Any meat, which was usually pork, was only consumed on average 4-5x each month and a cooked serving size typically didn’t exceed 3-4 oz or the size of a typical deck of cards.
- Historically, everyone ate the food the family prepared & served at home or within the homes of other family members &/or friends in that community. Virtually all food would be grown right there in the community. Note: since “fast food restaurants” have become accessible to younger community members now growing up in these Blue Zones (Sardinia and Okinawa), it has been noted that the younger population is now experiencing increasing concerns of obesity.
- In most of the Blue Zones, the elders have continued living decade after decade the same (primarily agrarian) lifestyle they have always known. In non-US Blue Zones, people don’t even think about “retirement” per se, rather they just continue to live the same lives they have always lived for as long as they can.
What Are Some Key Environmental Differences Between Non-Blue Zones vs. Blue Zones?
Although stress is encountered in any living situation, in an industrialized society, stress is well known for its associations with chronic inflammation and disease incidence. Various approaches to dealing with inevitable stress may make a real difference in the outcomes a society and its people experience during a lifetime.
In the environment of modern day industrialized nations, some people pursue their professions first and put off marriage and put off having children. Demanding professional level jobs require initial higher education and then continuing professional education to keep up job skills & professional networks, which in turn can lead to greatly increased levels of stress in everyday life. For many persons living in modern fast-paced societies, avoiding stress or shedding stress has become quite complicated.
Members of modern industrialized societies acquire labor-saving and time-saving devices and that’s considered the norm. More people seem to prefer high-tech to low-tech even when low-tech is a very viable option. Professionals tend to hire others to do manual labor and then in turn in their non-work time head off to become runners or else gym rats, etc. to get their exercise and clear their heads of life’s daily stresses.
What is considered “local” food production is also a different concept in industrialized societies vs. on say small, self-sufficient islands. Locavore is a term in our society that refers to anything fresh that is grown within a 50 mile radius of where it is ultimately consumed, not something grown in your’s or your neighbor’s yard.
People in industrialized nations also tend to eat out–sometimes frequently. They tend to eat more commercially processed & prepared food and more total calories overall.
Industrious, responsible people in industrialized societies tend to do all they can to put away savings for retirement, hoping to experience monetary security, a better pace of life, and happiness in what has been portrayed by society as the “Golden Years” so-to-speak.
Governments and businesses have all continued to promote that idyllic vision of aging despite factual evidence of disease incidence to the contrary, while also asking citizens to carry insurance (such as long term care insurance) and make plans to prepare for less desirable later-life alternatives. Living the American forefather’s ideal of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” can be a bit more complex in an industrialized society setting vs. an agrarian setting.
(Image of Chinese character for money crafted from azalea root courtesy of assiewin at rgbstock.com)
Additionally, the perception of what is a more desirable quality of life may be quite different for many persons living today in an industrialized society from that of the elders who have lived to exceptional ages in the researcher-designated more agrarian Blue Zones per se.
What Else Did Researchers Learn About Elders Living in Blue Zones?
In Part 2 of this blog series we’ll discuss the other traits exhibited by elders living in the Blue Zones and noted by the researchers who studied them; touch on additional research done elsewhere not specifically in the area of longevity, but focusing on happiness; and mention a tool you can use if you desire to try applying any of the lessons learned from the Blue Zones longevity research to your own life.
Remember there’s still time this year to change your habits if you really want to.
Note that the above is only offered for infotainment purposes, as is all content on this site. As always, we urge you to discuss any health related concerns you or your family members may have with those health care practitioner(s) who are credentialed along with being certified/licensed to practice in your location. Being under their care gives you the opportunity to discuss specifics unique to your own and/or your family’s health situation accordingly.
One thought on “Blue Zones, Habits, Longevity (Part 1)”
In-depth research done.Thanks for bringing clarity in a very concise and precise way. I liked the blog.