Neuropsychologist Diana Carolina Gomez Blanco explains in this article what the blue zones (BZ) are and the secret to the longevity of their inhabitants, emphasizing the characteristics, key factors, and lifestyles of the populations in the BZ.
The blue zones and the secret to longevity
Since ancient times, the search for eternal youth has captivated humanity, and many have sought that magical formula to increase years of life and overcome the dreaded death. Even today, there is an unrestrained desire to stay young, and diets, medical procedures, and beauty articles claiming to stop the passage of time are increasingly common. However, what is a reality is that, in the last 150 years, life expectancy has increased dramatically, with more and more people reaching old age.
“Longevity is increasing worldwide faster than many of us can imagine. In fact, demographers say that the baby who will live to be 200 years old has already been born” (Figueroa Suarez et al., 2019, p.281). It is additionally highlighted that an unprecedented aging of the population is occurring in human history. Although cardiovascular mortality has decreased, mortality due to nervous system diseases and mental disorders has, on the contrary, increased.
Considering the latter, the lifestyle of modern life, in which sedentary lifestyles are mainly promoted, as well as the inclusion of technologies that make life easier, both physically and cognitively, a diet based on processed foods, high in sugars, sodium, calories and saturated fats, as well as a stressful pace of life, is causing this dream of long longevity to fail in terms of its duration and quality. However, there are some places in the world where this dream of great longevity seems to be fulfilled (Yáñez-Yáñez & Mc Ardle Draguicevic, 2021, p. 155).
In these zones, not only do people live longer, but they live better, where reaching an advanced age is not synonymous with disability, but on the contrary, they reach very advanced ages with high levels of functioning. These zones have been called “blue zones”.
A blue zone (BA) is a geographically delimited area in which its population has exceptionally high longevity, although this is not related to high economic income or specialized health care. Initially these zones were so named because their early researchers used the blue marker pen to mark them.
The map below shows the blue zones that have been detected so far.
Now then, the longevity and life expectancy data in the Blue Zones are currently inconclusive, although they do show a higher proportion of centenarians compared to even the most developed countries, both socially and economically.
Similarly, one of the difficulties in studying these populations is that they share genetic characteristics and lifestyles, so it is necessary to study the relationship with longevity in greater depth. It should be clarified that human aging is attributed to a combination of genetic and epigenetic factors, so it is important to pay attention to lifestyle factors that are easier to modify (Navarro-Pardo, 2015, p.79).
Variables in the Blue Zones
Among the variables involved, it should be mentioned that only 20% of longevity is related to genetic factors, while 80% is influenced by the environment and lifestyles. Other authors suggest that this genetic factor accounts for 25-30% of the variability in longevity.
Characteristics of Blue Zone populations by zone
The following are the main characteristics that these populations have in common:
1. Ikaria (Greece)
The populations in the Blue Zones have certain habits and lifestyles that appear to contribute to their high longevity. For example, in Ikaria, a Greek island measuring 255 km2, the inhabitants are three times more likely to reach the age of 100 than anywhere else in the world. Additionally, they have a tenfold proportion of 90-year-olds compared to the European average.
- The cancer incidence rate is lower than 20%.
- The rate of cardiovascular diseases is 50% lower.
- There are no cases of depression.
- There are no cases of dementia.
Keys to longevity in Ikaria (Greece)
A study has compiled possible keys to this longevity. Rodríguez – Pardo del Castillo & López Farré (2017, p.71-72) state the following:
- One possible cause is the isolation, as the elderly on the island still maintain the same habits as half a century ago, such as walking in the rugged mountains of the area.
- The Mediterranean diet has also been highlighted. Many centenarians claim to only eat what they grow and catch, avoiding meat. It is also considered rejuvenating to have a glass of wine instead of water. According to a study in The New York Times, cooking with olive oil, the climate, and the absence of stress may be the common cause of their secret. In addition to the Mediterranean diet, they also attribute their longevity to the daily consumption of a mountain tea infusion with dried herbs such as sage, thyme, mint, and chamomile.
- A 30-minute nap a day, five times a week, reduces the probability of developing cardiovascular disease by a third. Additionally, Islanders can sleep deeply for up to 10 hours.
- The mortality rate is nearly halved for those who have sexual relations at least twice a week after the age of 50.
- Engaging in daily physical activities such as gardening, which involves watering, weeding, and harvesting.
- In Ikaria (Greece), they only use hand tools, prepare bread by hand, and walk to the supermarket or work.
- Living deliberately and without haste, Islanders live at a leisurely pace, taking their time to observe and live, much like meditation exercises.
2. Okinawa (Japan)
In Okinawa (Japan), in addition to their longevity, they have also shown lower rates of arteriosclerosis, stomach cancer, as well as a low risk of breast and prostate cancer. Lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease have also been identified.
Diet in the Okinawan Blue Zone
Various authors have focused on eight elements of the diet of these inhabitants:
- Water: they consume between eight and twelve glasses daily.
- Infusions: specifically green tea and black tea, usually consumed without milk or sweeteners of any kind.
- Foods rich in calcium.
- Red meat and eggs once a week.
- Frequent consumption of soy.
- Fish: one to three servings daily, especially fatty fish such as salmon or tuna.
- Three to five cups of rice, corn, or pasta per day.
- Consumption of fruits and vegetables, preferably raw, especially carrots, cabbage, onions, peppers, and seaweed.
In addition to a low-calorie diet, the elderly in Okinawa practice Ikigai, which refers to having a purpose in life. They engage in physical exercise and often have family responsibilities. The elderly are embraced by the family, and Japanese spirituality is also present.
Just as their friendships are highlighted, they form groups called “moais,” consisting of five committed friends that promote social interaction.
Okinawa is a closely-knit community, where “yuimaru,” meaning a circle of relationships, is important. For example, they have family and community gardens.
All these activities, along with fishing and other labor-intensive tasks, keep people active even at very advanced ages (90 years and older), considering that they are performed outdoors, allowing them to get sunlight and synthesize vitamin D, which promotes bone strength.
Lifestyle factors that enhance Okinawa’s Blue Zone status
Finally, other lifestyle factors identified that seem to contribute to their longevity are:
- 80% of the elderly live alone and are not dependent, as their health allows.
- They often travel by bicycle or on foot.
- It is highlighted as a curious fact that the hormone DHEA, precursor of estrogen and testosterone, presents decreased levels.
- They wake up very early and go to bed very early.
3. Loma Linda (California – USA)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in the American continent, the town of Loma Linda has a particular characteristic: more than half of its inhabitants are connected to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and apparently, belonging to this community seems to be the main factor explaining longevity.
For example, they designate Saturdays (Sabbath) for rest and do nothing that could be considered work. Likewise, they have social habits such as not smoking, not drinking alcohol, and most of them do not eat meat. Their diet is mainly composed of whole grains, fresh fruit, and nuts. They don’t consume caffeine or foods with saturated fats.
Religiosity is also noteworthy, as it is believed to add 4 to 14 years to life expectancy. It has been evaluated that this factor allows for the modulation of emotions by growing up with a higher purpose, thus reducing stress situations.
It has been concluded that the inhabitants of Loma Linda die from the same diseases, but at much older ages, where they exercise, go to bed early, live without alcohol and tobacco, and pray to God.
4. Nicoya (Costa Rica)
This peninsula is considered the largest blue zone of longevity in the world, which contrasts with being an extremely poor area with problems of malnutrition and hygiene.
A study conducted to evaluate the existence of a genetic factor that influences this identified that Nicoyans lose more pairs of telomeres per year but have lengths almost similar to those who benefit from certain healthy habits such as exercising.
Additionally, in Nicoya, some habits have also been identified, such as consuming fresh and unprocessed foods, prioritizing rest and friendships, and including regular physical activity in their daily lives.
Their diet is mainly rich in whole foods such as squash, corn, plantains, and they have relatively low meat consumption. A considerable portion of their food is harvested by themselves.
It has also been identified that a particular characteristic of this zone is the presence of calcium-rich water, which results in lower rates of heart diseases, stronger bones, and fewer hip fractures.
5. Sardinia (Italy)
Finally, in this last blue zone, the key to longevity is considered to lie in the Mediterranean diet, which is abundant in the consumption of olive oil, nuts, vegetables, and fresh fruits.
Moreover, the isolation in which this population lives has led to the emergence of genetic markers linked to longevity.
Similarly, this population still maintains many manual jobs, which themselves require physical effort even more exhausting than a gym session.
They are a community that maintains healthy relationships with the people around them – no one lives alone, although they may live without company at home. They remain independent, take care of their homes, walk to their neighbors’ houses, so their metabolism operates at a higher level.
Common characteristics of the blue zones
These five blue zones share the following characteristics that reinforce these healthy lifestyles and habits (Cavallini Solano et al., 2022, p. 99):
- Naturally everyday physical activity.
- Sense of purpose in life.
- Routines to combat stress.
- Reduced calorie intake and consumption of legumes.
- Moderate alcohol consumption.
- Belonging to faith communities.
- Dedication to family.
- Supportive social networks of family and community.
Studying these populations is important. Without a doubt, they define the milestones of what has been considered healthy aging and highlight lifestyles that allow for a long life without disability, illness, or loneliness.
These zone areas are relevant in a population that is aging more and more, with an increasing prevalence of neurological and cognitive diseases. By following changes in lifestyle, they can effectively prevent the onset of these diseases.
- Figueroa Suarez, J. A., Bravo Cevallos, D. M., & Guillen Mendoza, R. V. (2019). Salud, la esperanza y el coste de vida Health, hope and cost of living. Revista Arbitrada Interdisciplinaria de Ciencias de la Salud. SALUD Y VIDA, 3(6), 278-299. http://dx.doi.org/10.35381/s.v.v3i6.322
- Navarro-Pardo, E. (2015). ¿Por qué nos interesan las Zonas Azules? Conversas de Psicologia e do Envelhecimento Ativo, 77-91. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283625085_Por_que_nos_interesan_las_Zonas_Azules
- Rodriguez – Pardo del Castillo, J. M., & Lopéz Farré, A. (2017). Longevidad y envejecimiento en el tercer milenio: Nuevas perspectivas (1st ed.). Fundación Mapfre. https://www.escueladepensamiento.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/00000001_compressed.pdf
- Yáñez-Yáñez, R., & Mc Ardle Draguicevic, N. (2021). Zonas azules: longevidad poblacional, un anhelo de la sociedad. Rev Med Chile, (149), 147-158. https://www.scielo.cl/pdf/rmc/v149n1/0717-6163-rmc-149-01-0154.pdf