The Blue Zones: Areas where people are living better and longer
Updated on March 15, 2019
Life expectancy at birth in Canada in 2015 was 84.1 years for women and 80.2 years for men. It has been steadily rising for half a century: in 1960 life expectancy was 74.1 years for women and 71.1 for men. However, it is far from the exceptional longevity observed in specific areas of our planet where we find a large proportion of centenarians. These regions, named “Blue Zones”, have been identified by two demographers, Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, and journalist Dan Buettner, author of the article The Secrets of Long Life in National Geographic magazine and the book The Blue Zones.
The five Blue Zones identified in the world.
By studying the longevity of the inhabitants of Sardinia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea, the demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain and their collaborators have located the areas where morecentenarianslive. These longevity hot spots, or Blue Zones (the researchers initially used a blue marker to delineate these areas on a map), are located in a mountainous area of the island, the Barbagia, which was still difficult to access a few decades ago. This geographical situation discouraged immigration and promoted consanguinity, reducing the diversity of the genetic heritage. In the area of exceptional longevity, in the southeast of the Province of Nuoro, 91 people have become centenarians among the 18,000 people who were born in the region between 1880 and 1900. In one village in particular, Seulo, 20 centenarians were identified between 1996 and 2016. In comparison, according to Statistics Canada, there were 17.4 centenarians per 100,000 inhabitants in Canada in 2011.
The analysis of genes involved in inflammation, cancer and heart disease did not reveal any significant difference that could be related to the exceptional longevity of the Sardinians. Researchers therefore suspect that environmental characteristics, lifestyle and diet are much more important than genetic predispositions for a long and healthy life. Many of these Sardinian centenarians are shepherds or farmers who have been doing a great deal of outdoor physical activity throughout their lives. The Sardinian diet, which is part of the Mediterranean diet, could play an important role in the longevity of the inhabitants of this Blue Zone. Indeed, the Sardinian diet consists of homegrown vegetables (mainly beans, tomatoes, eggplants), whole-grain bread, Pecorino cheese made from whole milk from grass-fed sheep, and local red wine particularly rich in polyphenols. The traditional Sardinian diet included meat once a week at most.
When journalist Dan Buettner asked some of these centenarians the reason for their exceptional longevity, many mentioned the importance of family and social ties; in Sardinia, elderly people live with their family rather than in retirement homes. The elderly who live in the Sardinian Blue Zone believe they have excellent mental well-being and report few symptoms of depression. An Italian study of 160 elders of the Sardinian Blue Zone reports that the trait of resilience was significantly associated with markers of good mental health. For these seniors, resilience and satisfaction derived from social ties are predictors of all markers of good mental health.
Japan has one of the largest concentrations of centenarians in the world, more than 34.7 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010. The inhabitants of the islands of the Okinawa archipelago in southwestern Japan have a particularly high life expectancy, and 66.7 centenarians per 100,000 inhabitants have been recorded in this prefecture. Women living in Okinawa are 3 times more likely to live to age 100 than North Americans. The Okinawa diet is plant-based, and includes many leafy green vegetables, sweet potatoes, fish and seafood. The majority of Okinawa’s centenarians maintained a vegetable garden during their lifetime and moderate physical activity, which helps reduce stress and stay in shape. The people of Okinawa traditionally practice self-restraint when it comes to food, by following the Confucian teaching hara hachi bu, which recommends eating so as to be 80% satiated at the end of a meal. Older people in Okinawa are very active and maintain strong family and social ties, for example through regular meetings called moai. It is very important for them to make sense of their life. To have an ikigaiis to have a reason to get up every morning.
Nicoya, Costa Rica
Life expectancy is relatively high in Costa Rica (82.1 for women and 77.4 for men), especially in the region of the Nicoya Peninsula where men aged 60 are 7 times more likely to become centenarians than other Costa Ricans. Like Sardinia, Nicoya is a region that has been relatively isolated for hundreds of years. The cancer mortality rate is 23% lower than in the rest of the country, and Nicoya residents have a plant-based diet (squash, black beans, corn tortillas, plenty of local fruits), but that also includes eggs and meat (chicken and pork). The centenarians of Nicoya are very physically active, have strong family ties as well as strong religious faith, and like to work. Their stress level is low and they are generally very positive and happy.
Loma Linda, United States
The only identified Blue Zone in North America is located in Loma Linda, a city in Southern California, located 100 km east of Los Angeles, where there is a community of 9,000 members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In California, a 30-year-old Adventist man will live on average 7.3 years longer than a white Californian of the same age. A 30-year-old Adventist woman will live on average 4.4 years longer than a Californian of the same age. Knowing that about two thirds of Americans die from cardiovascular disease or cancer, it is not surprising that Adventists are living longer as their way of life means they are less at risk of developing these diseases. About half of Adventists are vegetarians or rarely eat meat, and non-vegetarian Adventists are twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease. The majority of Adventists are non-smokers and do not drink alcohol. As a result, they have a lower incidence of lung cancer than Americans in general. Adventists are physically active and have a very developed community spirit, as they are very religious and their church encourages its members to help one another.
Icaria is a Greek island in the Eastern Aegean Sea where one in three inhabitants will reach the age of 90. The incidence of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia is significantly lower than the rest of the world. As in Sardinia, Okinawa and other Blue Zones, Icarians maintain a vegetable garden at home and lead a low-stress life. Their diet, of the Mediterranean type, is composed of vegetables (potatoes, peas, lentils, green leafy vegetables), fruits, olive oil, fish, goat milk, dairy products, and a little meat. Icarians eat little sugar and drink coffee, red wine and herbal teas made from rosemary, sage, oregano and artemisia daily. Icarians who observe the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church must fast regularly, and caloric restriction is known to slow down the aging process in mammals.
The inhabitants of the Blue Zones, Okinawa, Sardinia, Nicoya, Icaria and Loma Linda, share characteristics in their lifestyle that contribute to their longevity. In his book The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner lists 9 common features:
- Moderate and regular physical activity, throughout life.
- Caloric restriction.
- Semi-vegetarianism, food largely sourced from plants.
- Moderate alcohol consumption (especially red wine).
- Give meaning and purpose to life.
- Reduced stress.
- Engagement in spirituality or religion.
- Family is at the centre of life.
- Social commitment, integration in the community.