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LIFEMAG Original

Zoning in on blue zones

by Sasha Crowe Published on 17th Jun 2015

by Sasha Crowe Published on 17th June 2015

Does there exist, somewhere in the world, a mythical list containing the miraculous secrets to longevity? A ‘fountain of youth’ composed not of water but of knowledge as to how one should properly live in order to ensure, not only a long life, but vitality in those later years? How much control can be taken over one’s genetic fate? As it turns out, there are in fact people living in the world who have been unknowingly adding meaningful years to their lives simply by following the outlines defined by their society.

So far, 5 areas in the world have been designated as so-called ‘Blue Zones’. These are basically longevity hot-spots, where the local population lives not only measurably longer lives, but healthier lives. According to lead expert on the topic, Dan Buettner, these ‘longevity pockets’ are: Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya, Costa Rica. Together they hold the highest concentration of living centenarians in the world.

Whilst Blue Zones have been in the news since 2005, specific research into what causes such extended lifespan has continued to grow as interest into what makes these populations so robust has only increased. Ever since a group of researchers began the search to find and identify geographic regions that are characterised by extreme longevity, with the first Blue Zone found through the AKEA study in the mountainous region of Barbagia in Sardinia, Italy, a comprehensive look has gone into these distinct cultures to figure out what similarities in lifestyle are shared that may contribute to life extension.

The cumulation of research done on the Blue Zones has as of yet identified 9 specific lifestyle factors which are believed to be connected to longevity. These are characteristics which all 5 of the distinct Blue Zone cultures share among themselves. The list highlights some of the typical aspects of these peoples, such as natural movement and attention given to de-stressing activities. Ideally, adopting even just a few of these habits could potentially aid in achieving an optimized lifespan.

Blue Zones Diet

In Buettner’s most recent study, in which over 150 dietary studies conducted in the Blue Zones over the past century were analyzed, he proposed the top 15 dietary habits exhibited which are believed to increase longevity.

What he found includes maintaining a diet composed primarily from plants, getting essential amino acids from legumes, beans, and nuts, and drinking plenty of water. Whilst keeping a semi-vegetarian lifestyle and cutting back on sugar won’t come as a surprise to most, it turns out that lowering dairy consumption, particularly cow’s milk, is actually very beneficial to one's health. Instead of milk and cheese, it’s better to fulfill the body’s daily calcium needs from plants, such as Kale. However, if dairy is a must, just like it is for the Ikarians and the Sardinians, then like them, it’s preferable to go for goat dairy products as it is already naturally homogenized and is easier on the human digestion system. As for soy, a staple in the Okinawan and Loma Linda diets, despite some concerns of soy’s ability to act as estrogen in the human body, it has been found that the isoflavones found in soy also have anti-estrogen properties which can work to reduce cancer growth.

Buettner’s study also accords with the growing perception of red wine as a source of longevity, in this case citing the benefits of 1-3 glasses per day as helping to absorb plant-based antioxidants, as well as helping to keep stress levels down.
This study also falls in line with many recent findings, such as nuts and peanuts possibly being linked to lower mortality rates and the benefits found to be in a low-glycemic diet. Most importantly however, is that the study opposes many contemporary dietary theories, finding that it is better to eat food simply as it is. In this regard, there is seen to be very little benefit in health food ‘short-cuts’ such as taking extra supplements, juicing the pulp out of fruits, removing the yolks from eggs, and especially, calorie counting.

Blue Zones Lifestyle & Values

Food alone is only one piece of the puzzle, as the effects of eating better can only be magnified in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle. Before the 5 Blue Zones were established, in a separate study conducted on only 3 of the Blue Zones,  6 major lifestyle-factors were identified that are shared within those cultures. This includes placing family as a priority, reduced levels of smoking, diets being mostly plant-based, specifically consuming lots of legumes, and not only being physically active but also holding an active social role within the community.

The Blue Zone populations practice constant, low-intensity physical activity. For example, the Sardinians and Ikarians live in mountainous terrain, and many of them prefer to walk to the places they need to go to, like the local market or a friend’s house. In Okinawa it’s common to see the elderly practising tai-chi and kendo.  Basically, in all 5 cultures it is common for people to create a lifestyle that requires movement, like having their own gardens or taking care of livestock. Not only does keeping active help burn off stress and improve circulation, but all activity is done with a reason. No one here can be found running on a treadmill to nowhere.

In terms of social engagement, people tend to look after each other in the Blue Zones, neighbors know each other by name and whole communities form supportive links. Families keep their elderly at home and friendships are invested in. Okinawans even go so far as to create ‘moais’, which are a group of 5 friends who commit to each other for life. There appears to be benefits in keeping close contact with other people who also practise similar healthy habits, not to mention the safety created in having and giving support. Buettner has dubbed this as forming the ‘right tribe’, with a clear example given by the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda. By surrounding themselves with other like-minded people in their faith, which also happens to exercise many of the above outlined practices, the Adventists have created a society that lives up to 10 years longer than the average US-American.

What is arguably one of the more powerful tools for longevity, is knowing your purpose. The reasons that motivate you to continue are important factors in maintaining a healthy and stable mental state. Okinawa has low rates of dementia, which could possibly be contributed to their ‘ikigai’, or reason for getting up in the morning. They hold responsibilities and feel needed.

Essentially, Blue Zone inhabitants have their hobbies interconnected with their social networks, causing everything they do to have purpose. This in turn lends in giving their lives a grander sense of meaning, and connects them not only to their environments but also their community.


   source: 2006. Quest Network Blue Zones - Longevity Secrets.


Implications

Buettner and his team of researchers even went one step further, by seeing what effects would occur by applying some Blue Zone principles to a selected US town. In January 2009 the city of Albert Lea, Minnesota launched a 10-month long campaign, called the AARP/ Blue Zones Vitality Project, with the goal of adding 2 years of added life expectancy to those who participated. The town placed in more sidewalks and encouraged businesses to make work environments more health conscience. Several programs were created, such as ‘walking moais’, in which small groups of people met in order to walk to set destinations, and ‘walking school bus’, where elementary school students were walked together to school. Also new garden plots and cooking classes were made available to the community.

At the end of the successful city-wide experiment, it was estimated that participants ended up adding 3.1 extra years to their life expectancy. Many claimed to have made new friends and find renewed purpose besides just ‘living through their kids lives’. The true success of the project, however, was simply getting people to naturally choose the healthier, more community building options that are available to them.

A closer look

Buettner’s whole premise with the Blue Zones is based on a renowned study known as the Danish Twin Study, in which through the research done on the lives of twins, it was determined that only about 25% of variance in longevity can be attributed to genetic factors. This leaves the remaining 75% to environmental factors. Further studies give slightly different percentages, but the overall genetic-to-lifestyle ratio doesn’t vary by much.
Also, Buettner’s 9 factors are not the only prescribed lifestyle list available, there already exists within scientific literature an earlier and similar study conducted in Alameda, California in the mid 1960’s. In this case over 6,500 people were observed over a course of up to 20 years in order to come up with the Alameda 7, or the 7 most important health habits deemed to prolong life. This list included regular exercise, limited alcohol intake, and no smoking. It was found that by following 6 of the Alameda 7, life expectancy increased by 11 years more than that of a person who only followed 3 or fewer.

The Alameda 7, although not entirely mirroring what’s found in Buettner’s list, does follow the same research direction. As far as the aging debate is concerned, both place more weight on one’s environment/ lifestyle choices rather than on one’s genetics.
If that argument is ultimately true, then that begs the question: where does that leave genetics? Although it would be comforting to consider that by eating right and being socially active, that one’s history of family illnesses would not be a possible health issue, that may not be the case. Seeing as there are some issues with Buettner’s claims, that have not been officially addressed.The first comes from the fact that in the Danish Twin Study, the average age of participating twins was 70 years old. This could imply that the genetic material inherited by most of those twins were not ‘protective’ enough in nature.

The New England Centenarian Study found that siblings to centenarians had a higher chance of reaching 100 then those who did not have such similar familiar dispositions, with males being 17 times more likely and females being 8 times more likely. This provides some evidence to the theory that when surviving to extreme old age, having a preferable genetic pedigree seems to help out.

This leads onto something that was not readily mentioned in the Blue Zone studies known as the founder effect, in which isolated populations that splintered off from a larger population experience reduced genetic variation. In the case of the Blue Zones it seems as though their ‘founder effect’ kept or selected for genetic traits that maximised longevity effects.

Another point to consider with the Blue Zones lies also in what's lacking there . Yes, they eat more vegetables, but they also happen to be consuming less white flour. Could it be the the positive results attributed to one thing could just be the effect of something simply not being there. Also, could the lifestyle benefits hold over in the presence of say, white flour, in the diet?

Hopefully more perspective could be added to the Blue Zone findings with the results of the currently ongoing Supercentenarian Study. It would also be worth looking into why other areas of the world that also happen to abide by Buettner’s 9 factors are not themselves Blue Zones.

A combination of these factors

Whether reaching an extended age just comes from winning the genetic lottery or not, for those who would like to believe that lifestyle can hold its own weight in scientific discussion and taking everything to be known about the Blue Zones population, these studies suggest that, ultimately, what is keeping them so effectively alive is their ability to take the sharp edges out of life and do what so many of us find difficult to do: lead more relaxed, natural and fulfilling lives.  

In this sense, people within these blue zones seem to prioritize and value family, food, work, rest, and so on. Even if lifestyle is not in the end the most important aspect towards radical life extension, it appears there is nothing to lose from living a more enjoyable and easier-going life. No matter which point of view is held, the Blue Zone studies are trying to show if anything, what healthier, older populations do that the rest of the world could learn from.