Dan Buettner, the founder of Blue Zones is a National Geographic Fellow and author. He discovered five places in the world – dubbed “Blue Zones” – where people live the longest, and are healthiest:
Ikaria (Greece): Ikaria is an island in Greece where people eat a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, red wine and homegrown vegetables.
Ogliastra, Sardinia (Italy): The Ogliastra region of Sardinia is home to some of the oldest men in the world. They live in mountainous regions where they typically work on farms and regularly drink red wine.
Okinawa (Japan): Okinawa is home to the world’s oldest women, who eat a lot of soy-based foods and practice tai chi, a meditative form of exercise.
Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica): The Nicoyan diet is based around eating beans and corn tortillas. The people of this area regularly perform physical jobs into old age and have a sense of life purpose known as “plan de vida.”
The Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California (USA): The Seventh-day Adventists are a highly religious group of people. They are strict vegetarians and live in tight-knit communities.
Although these are the key areas identified by Buettner, there may be unidentified areas in the world that could also be Blue Zones.
The concept of Blue Zones grew out of demographic work by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, identifying Sardinia as the region of the world with the highest concentration of male centenarians. Pes and Poulain drew concentric blue circles on the map highlighting these villages of extreme longevity and began to refer to this area inside the circle as the Blue Zone. Building on that work, Dan Buettner pinpointed other longevity hotspots around the world and decided to call them Blue Zones. A number of studies have found that these areas contain extremely high rates of nonagenarians and centenarians, which are people who live over 90 and 100, respectively.
Research suggests that genetics likely only account for 20–30% of potential longevity. Therefore, environmental influences, including diet and lifestyle, play a huge role in determining your lifespan. Buettner and a team of demographers and researchers found that all Blue Zone areas share specific social and lifestyle habits:
People primarily eat a 95% plant-based diet
One thing common to Blue Zones is that those who live there primarily eat a 95% plant-based diet. Although most groups are not strict vegetarians, they only tend to eat meat around five times per month.
A number of studies have shown that avoiding meat can significantly reduce the risk of death from heart disease, cancer and a number of other different causes.
Diets in Blue Zones are rich in vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts.
They fast and follow the 80% rule
Long-term calorie restriction may help longevity. A large, 25-year study in monkeys found that eating 30% fewer calories than normal led to a significantly longer life. Eating fewer calories may be contributing to the longer lives in some of the Blue Zones.
Studies of the Okinawans suggest that before the 1960s, they were in a calorie deficit, meaning that they were eating fewer calories than they required, which may be contributing to their longevity. In addition, they tend to follow the 80% rule, which they call “hara hachi bu.” This means that they stop eating when they feel 80% full.
Periodic fasting appears to be beneficial for health. For example, Ikarians are typically Greek Orthodox Christians, who observe periods of fasting for religious holidays throughout the year.
One study showed that during these religious holidays, fasting led to lower blood cholesterol and lower body mass index (BMI). Many other types of fasting have also been shown to reduce weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and many other risk factors for chronic disease in humans.
Moderate alcohol consumption
Another dietary factor common to many of the Blue Zones is moderate alcohol consumption. There is mixed evidence about whether moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of death. Many studies have shown that drinking one to two alcoholic drinks per day can significantly reduce mortality, particularly from heart disease. However, a very recent study suggested that there is no real effect once you take into consideration other lifestyle factors.
The beneficial effect of moderate alcohol consumption may depend on the type of alcohol. Red wine may be the best type of alcohol, given that it contains a number of antioxidants from grapes. Consuming one to two glasses of red wine per day is particularly common in the Ikarian and Sardinian Blue Zones.
Exercise is built into daily life
Aside from diet, exercise is another extremely important factor in aging. In the Blue Zones, people don’t exercise purposefully by going to the gym. Instead, it is built into their daily lives through gardening, walking, cooking and other daily chores.
A study of men in the Sardinian Blue Zone found that their longer life was associated with raising farm animals, living on steeper slopes in the mountains and walking longer distances to work. The benefits of these habitual activities have been shown previously in a study of more than 13,000 men. The amount of distance they walked or stories of stairs they climbed each day predicted how long they would live.
Getting enough sleep
In addition to exercise, getting adequate rest and a good night’s sleep also seem to be very important for living a long and healthy life. People in Blue Zones get sufficient sleep and also often take daytime naps.
A number of studies have found that not getting enough sleep, or getting too much sleep, can significantly increase the risk of death, including from heart disease or stroke
Being religious or spiritual
Blue Zones are typically religious communities. A number of studies have shown that being religious is associated with a lower risk of death. This may be due to social support and reduced rates of depression.
Having a life purpose
People in Blue Zones tend to have a life purpose, known as “ikigai” in Okinawa or “plan de vida” in Nicoya. This is associated with a reduced risk of death, possibly through psychological well-being.
Older and younger people living together
In many Blue Zones, grandparents often live with their families. Studies have shown that grandparents who look after their grandchildren have a lower risk of death
A healthy social network
Your social network, called “moai” in Okinawa, can affect your health. For example, if your friends are obese, you have a greater risk of being obese, possibly through social acceptance of weight gain.