September is Healthy Aging Month—Lessons From “Blue Zones” Around the World

September 5, 2019

September is Healthy Aging Month—Lessons From “Blue Zones” Around the World

It might sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but many scientists believe the first person to reach 150—or even 1,000—years old is already alive today. It’s no secret that medicine and technology have become crucial to extending human lifespans. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that global life expectancy increased 5.5 years between 2000 and 2016. But are we living healthier? And even more importantly, are we aging well?

Let’s look at a recent report by the UK’s Office for National Statistics. Researchers found that the average life expectancy in the UK has increased by over 30 years during a century of medical advancements. By 2035 over 4% of the population will be 85 or older, and one in four people will be 65 or older. But, the report also found that the number of people diagnosed with four or more chronic diseases will increase over the next 15 years. “We are living longer,” health journalist Danny Buckland writes. “But, for many, those extra years are blighted by ill health.” 

Thomas von Zglinicki, a professor of cellular gerontology, echoes this view. “Research says that we are expanding the lifespan, but we are not expanding healthy lifespan,” he writes. “People live longer, but they have more diseases for longer.” von Zglinikci refers to it as the longevity trap, emphasizing that longer is not necessarily better. More and more seniors are struggling with chronic conditions such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart problems.  

For Canadians, at least, the healthy aging statistics are slightly sunnier. By 2031, there will be 9 million Canadian seniors, making up about 25% of Canada’s population. A 2007 study found that we’re living three years longer than Americans, and can expect to be in full health until around 73—or 90.5% of our lives. But what about that other 10%? 

Many believe that the solution to the longevity trap lies in blue zones around the world. Since September is Healthy Aging Month, we’ve gathered tips and tricks from some of the world’s longest-living populations. These insights teach us how to live longer, healthier lives.

What are “blue zones”?

“Blue zones” are geographic regions around the world that support some of the longest-living populations in the world. The term was first introduced by Dan Buettner, an explorer, National Geographic Fellow, award-winning journalist and producer, and a New York Times bestselling author. In 2004, Buettner teamed up with National Geographic and leading longevity researchers to discover the secrets of healthy aging. 

To qualify as a blue zone, the community needs to have extremely high rates of nonagenarians and centenarians—people living to be 90 to 100 years old. In his book, The Blue Zones, Buettner identifies five such areas around the world:

  • Ikaria (Greece)
  • Ogliastra, Sardinia (Italy)
  • Okinawa (Japan)
  • Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica)
  • Loma Linda, California (USA)

Interestingly, in Loma Linda, California, the blue zone designation was reserved for a specific religious community. Buettner found that the city’s Seventh Day Adventist community showed the same longevity and health as any of the other geographically diverse regions. Even though these are the only zones Buettner discusses in his book, there may be more that are still undiscovered. 

During their research, Buettner and his colleagues found that each of the blue zones had nine things in common. They call them the Power 9Ⓡ and believe they are the key to not only living longer but living better. 

Move naturally

Many of the world’s longest-living populations have never set foot in a gym. They don’t lace up their sneakers and hit the treadmill a few times a week. Instead, they have movement built into their everyday lives. Buettner writes, “They live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.” For example, men in the Sardinian blue zone raise farm animals, live on steep slopes in the mountains, and walk long distances to work. 

There are countless small ways to work movement into your lifestyle. Consider swapping out your electric mower for a push mower. Walk or bike to work instead of driving. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. If you have a desk job, take a few minutes to walk around the office every hour. These small changes to your lifestyle will have a much more significant impact on your overall quality of life than setting aside time devoted to fitness.

Live with purpose

During his research, Buettner found that the longest living populations have a strong sense of purpose that motivates them day in and day out. He writes, “The Okinawans call it ‘Ikigai’ and the Nicoyans call it ‘plan de vida;’ for both it translates to ‘why I wake up in the morning.’”

Research has shown that people living with a sense of purpose will outlive their peers. What energizes you? What unique gifts do you have to share with the world? To discover and start living a more purposeful life, the Blue Zone team recommends starting with a Purpose Checkup.  

Reduce stress

Stress is a natural part of life, and it impacts every one of us. But chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation and affects our immune systems. Buettner found that, even though people in blue zones experience stress, they also have methods to deal with it. He notes, “Adventists pray, Ikarians nap, and Sardinians do happy hour.” 

How are you coping with your daily stresses? Do you have a ritual or process that helps you breathe easier? According to the study, a daily “downshift” can reduce chronic inflammation, which contributes to nearly all age-related diseases. This downshift could be something as simple as a walk around your neighborhood, or something you enjoy doing, like cooking an elaborate meal. 

Follow the 80% rule

If you’ve ever sat down to a heaping plate at the family dinner table, you know how easy it is to break the 80% rule. We’re not telling you to avoid holidays—after all, occasional indulgence is part of what makes for a happy life. But populations living in the blue zone tend to follow the 80% rule. That means they eat until they’re 80% full. They also adhere to the mantra: “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper,” eating their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening.  

Eat more plants

Many centenarians stick to a plant-based diet. Buettner found that these populations ate a small amount of pork or chicken about five times each month. Not only are they eating meat infrequently, but they’re also eating very little of it. Most servings were 3-4 oz. (about the size of a deck of cards). That’s nothing compared to the 76.32 pounds of chicken most Canadians eat each year.

Buettner found that beans were the cornerstone of most blue zone diets, along with vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. 

Drink moderate amounts of wine

We’re not encouraging you to smoke cigars and drink whiskey like this centenarian. But the blue zone study did discover that most healthy, long-living populations drink a moderate amount of wine each day. Buettner defines moderate as two to four glasses of wine, preferably with shared with friends or family while enjoying a meal. Loma Linda’s Adventist population are the exception to daily moderate drinking. As part of their religious practice, they don’t drink alcohol or caffeine. 

Join a community of like-minded people

We already know that having a sense of purpose can increase longevity. But belonging is just as important. The blue zone study found that of 263 centenarians interviewed, all but five belonged to some sort of faith-based community. This idea is supported by a Harvard study that found women who attended religious services at least once per week were 33% less likely to die during a 16-year follow-up than women who never attended. 

Buettner’s research found that denomination was not important. The real benefit comes from belonging to a community. Attending religious services creates a social safety net and fosters a sense of community that non-religious folks might not experience. If you’re not a religious person, you may be able to get the same benefits by joining a fan club or cultivating group-based hobbies. 

Put family first

Each of the centenarians in the blue zones valued family connection and found ways to put family first in their lives. Often, this means multigenerational living—supporting aging parents and grandparents and raising children in the home.

The study also found that, more often than not, centenarians had committed to a life partner. According to a new study published by the Association for Psychological Science, being part of a happy couple lowers mortality risk

Find your people

The final commonality between the blue zones is a robust social system. Studies have shown that certain behaviors—positive and negative alike—are contagious. Smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are all impacted by who we spend time with.

The world’s longest-living populations all have social circles that support healthy behaviors. For example, Okinawans have “moais,” or groups of five friends that commit to each other for life. The members of the moai support each other socially, financially, spiritually, and emotionally. According to a 2010 review of research, the effect of social ties on our lifespans is twice as significant as exercising and could be equivalent to quitting smoking. 

Do blue zones hold the blueprint for healthy aging? 

While not all of us can—or would like to—live on a tiny Greek island in the Aegean Sea, there’s still plenty we can learn from Ikaria and its companion blue zones. By integrating movement into your daily routine, focusing on friends and families, and finding better ways to cope with stress, you might be Canada’s next centenarian. In a society that often celebrates youth, it’s just as important to focus on healthy aging. This September, try adopting some of the practices of these long-lived populations. The team at Lumeca is here to support you.