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Blue zones: the secret to living longer

Health and Wellbeing

Did you know that around the world, there are certain locations where people live longer? Much longer, infact. It sounds implausible at first – perhaps a small quirk in the science and data. A few anomalies and not much else. But there’s real truth to it.

There are five locations around earth that are home to unusually high concentrations of people who are over 100 years old, as well as clusters of people who have grown old without any health problems such as heart disease, cancer, obesity and cancer – diseases and issues that plague so many of our societies.

These locations have been specially designated as ‘blue zones’. Scientists have confirmed that within these ‘longevity hotspots’ is the secret to a longer, healthier life.

Where are they?

There are five designated blue zones around the world and interestingly, nearly all of them are coastal.

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Home to the second highest concentration of men living to 100 and beyond, as well as the world’s lowest rate of middle-age mortality, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica is a special slice of paradise. It’s known as a bit of an eco-travel destination with surfing beaches & abundant wildlife such as monkeys, parrots & turtles.

Interestingly, it’s thought that a lot of the reason for their longevity lies in their strong faith communities, deep social networks and habits of regular, low-intensity physical activity.

Ikaria, Greece

Ikaria, Greece

Sitting eight miles off the coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea, Ikaria is an island with some of the world’s lowest rates of middle-age mortality and dementia. Research has linked their increased longevity with their traditional Mediterranean diet, which is heavy in vegetables and healthier fats. They also consume much smaller amounts of dairy and meat products when compared with other nations and areas around the world.

Okinawa, Japan

Okinawa, Japan

Another island, Okinawa is the largest of a subtropical archipelago situated south of mainland Japan. Home to the world’s longest-lived women, it’s thought that certain food staples help the Okinawans to live longer and healthier lives. These include Okinawan sweet potatoes, soybeans, mugwort, turmeric and goya (bitter melon).

Ogliastra Region, Sardinia (Italy)

Ogliastra Region, Sardinia (Italy)

Another island! There’s a pattern developing here. In the highlands of Sardinia, you’ll find the highest concentration of men living to 100 and over. Why? The population consumes a low-protein diet that’s been linked to lower rates of diabetes, cancer and death for people under the age of 65. They also love to drink wine and it seems to be working wonders for them…

Loma Linda, California (USA)

Loma Linda, California (USA)

Loma Linda is interesting – it’s the anomaly on this list. A built-up urban city not far from Los Angeles and nowhere particularly close to the ocean. Residents within this community live 10 more healthy years than the average American. The secret? You guessed it – following a diet of grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

What’s the secret?

Over the years, scientists have carried out comprehensive research and interviews, looking to discover the secrets of these longevity hotspots. Through time, they’ve arrived at these 9 simple, easy-to-follow lessons. These are the secrets to living longer, confirmed by the people who are already past 100!

  1. Keep moving. A lot of centenarians within these blue zones have said that they ‘move’ every day – whether that’s walking, gardening, pottering around the house, it doesn’t matter. Moving is a core part of the blue zone lifestyle.
  2. Have a purpose. The people of the Nicoya peninsula call it ‘plan de vida’. The Okinawans call it ‘ikigai’. They say that knowing why you’re waking up in the morning and having a purpose in life ensures that you’re healthier and happier. Scientists reckon this can add up to seven years extra to your life expectancy!
  3. Chill out. Whilst easier said than done in today’s hectic world, blue zoners tell us that you need to relax. Stress is a part of life, of course. But the centenarians of these blues zones have built stress-relieving rituals into their daily routines. Religious folk in Linda Lima pray, Ikarians in Greece nap and Sardinians do ‘happy hour’ – a time of the day where they gather with their friends and family and discuss the day’s event (over several glasses of fresh Cannonau wine, of course).
  4. Eat less. Perhaps not what you wanted to hear, but apparently it’s important. People in blue zone areas seem to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. They also consume their smallest meal of the day in the early evening. Food for thought.
  5. The diet. As you’ve probably gathered by now, a huge part of longevity comes down to the diet. Beans seem to be a cornerstone for more centenarians with fresh fruit, whole grains and vegetables round out the rest. As for meat? It’s eaten in far smaller amounts.
  6. Wine o’clock. As we just highlighted with Sardinians and their ‘happy hour’, you’ll be pleased to hear that wine really is important – especially with friends and food. It’s part of the blue zone lifestyle. Just don’t overdo it. Moderate but regular consumption is the best balance, apparently.
  7. Praise on high. Apparently, being part of a faith-based community can add anywhere between four to fourteen years of life expectancy!
  8. Family first, always. Having close, strong family connections is really important and very common amongst blue zone centenarians. Whether it’s your spouse, your parents, grandparents, siblings or grandchildren, it can make a real difference.
  9. Find your people. People who live the longest almost always have a very strong social network – friends who are close and always there.

The blue zone diet

It’s pretty clear then, that food plays a major role in your longevity. So, what are some of the most common and most healthiest food staples from these five locations?

Okinawan sweet potatoes from Okinawa, Japan

Okinawan sweet potatoes from Okinawa, Japan

High in Vitamin A and C, as well as manganese, Okinawan sweet potatoes are a great source of copper, dietary fiber, vitamin B6, potassium and iron. They’ve also shown to improve blood sugar regulation and insulin production. Furthermore, they’re incredibly high in antioxidant levels. Antioxidants help guard against things such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

They’re also rich in DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) – a substance that remains latent until it converts into a hormone that the body needs. DHEA can become estrogen, progesterone or testosterone – all essential hormones in your body’s anti-aging defence! Scientists have identified how, in Western cultures, the body’s level of DHEA drops dramatically. Interestingly, in Okinawa, the drop is at a much, much slower rate.

Black beans from the Nicoya peninsula, Costa Rica

Black beans from the Nicoya peninsula, Costa Rica

Every single day, Nicoyans are eating black beans (often paired with their rice). Similar to the sweet potatoes found in Okinawa, black beans are very high in antioxidants.

Furthermore, they contain iron, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, manganese, copper and zinc that all contribute to building and maintaining good strength and bone structure. They can also lower blood pressure, manage diabetes (people with high-fiber diets have lower blood glucose levels), prevent cancer and encourage healthy weight loss. Not bad, eh?

Lentils from Ikaria, Greece

Lentils from Ikaria, Greece

It’s no secret that health researchers and scientists have been long banging the drum about the Mediterranean diet because it promotes brain and physical health, helping to keep chronic diseases at bay.

Lentils are a key part of the diet in Ikaria. They’re low in calories, yet packed full of iron, folate, protein (25%!), fiber, iron, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and potassium. They’re also packed with health-promoting polyphenols that have been linked to reducing several heart disease risk factors.

Nuts from Loma Linda, California

Nuts from Loma Linda, California

A lot of the Loma Linda population are on plant-based diets. They eat nuts at least five times a week! Those who do this have about half the risk of heart disease and live about two years longer than those who don’t.

At least four major studies have confirmed that eating nuts has a positive impact on health and life expectancy. They’ve also found that eating nuts on a regular basis strengthens brainwave frequencies that are associated with cognition, healing, memory, learning and other key brain functions.

Goats milk and wine from Sardinia, Greece

Goats milk and wine from Sardinia, Greece

Scientists have found that goats milk contains vital components that can help protect against inflammatory diseases and alzheimers. Studies show that goat’s milk improved rats’ memory and when given to d-galactose-induced rats, it solved memory deficits! Drinking this regularly either early on or during old age can result in protection from memory decline.

Meanwhile, Cannonau wine (so popular with the Sardinians), contains two to three times the level of important flavonoids when compared with other wines. These flavonoids are very useful in scrubbing arteries. Moderate wine consumption amongst Sardinians may also help to explain the lower levels of stress amongst the men (who have a great shot at living over 100 years).

Interested in finding out more about healthy superfoods and living longer? Check out our articles below:

How to cook lentils

The medicinal and wellbeing properties of herbs and spices

Best spices to boost your brain health

Inspiration…recipes for healthy eating

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