Longevity blues: learning from people in the world who live the longest

Blue zones are areas on the planet with the highest number of centenarians. People in these areas not only reach and live past 100, but they do it with a surprisingly good quality of health. The stories one hears from people in the blue zones are quite surprising. In Loma Linda, California, Frank Shearer still likes to hop on his water skis once a week. At the time of the picture he was 99. When asked about longevity, he says he has always stayed very active, practicing all kinds of sports year-round.

The first blue zone to be discovered and studied was the island of Sardinia. In the late 90’s, the demographer Gianni Pes noticed how people in the mountains of the island lived to an unusual old age. Together with researcher Michael Poulain they narrowed down the area with the highest longevity to a small cluster of villages (in the mountainous Nuoro province) and coined the term blue zone.

In 2004, Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic and set out to investigate other regions on the planet where people live exceptionally long lives. He worked with a number of experts on longevity, including Pes and Poulain, and they identified 4 new blue zones in the world.

These are the main 5 blue zones:

  • Barbagia region of Sardinia — Here they found the highest proportion of male centenarians on the planet. It is a mountainous region with a very ancient culture going back to the bronze age. There is a culture of treating the elderly with respect and care.
  • Ikaria, Greece — This is a very isolated place, not far from Turkey. Like all blue zones, they grow their own food. It has one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and one of the lowest rates of dementia.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica — The area has the lowest rate of middle age mortality in the world. They have a simple diet: corn tortillas, beans and a type of squash. They spend 1/15 the amount the US spends on health care.
  • Seventh Day Adventists — They are concentrated in Loma Linda, California. They practice a 24h “sanctuary in time”, every weekend. During this time they stop everything and focus on their religion and family. They walk in nature a lot and have strong knit communities.
  • Okinawa, Japan — Here the oldest living female population on earth is found. The islands of Okinawa have the longest “disability free” life expectancy in the world. They have a tradition called “Moai”, a group of friends they are born into and with whom they travel through life.

What the blue zones have in common

When Buettner started studying these blue zones he knew that the reason for their longevity resided in their lifestyle and environment.

This idea is based on a famous study, called the Danish Twins study, which established that only about 20% of a person’s longevity is determined by genes, the other 80% being environment and lifestyle. As Buettner likes to remind us, people in these communities are not trying to become centenarians. They don’t turn 50 and decide to start being healthy so they can reach 100. However, their environment and lifestyle is set up in a way that is optimal for longevity. The idea that you can “try to live to 100” is a myth, says Buettner. Only 1 in every 5000 Americans reaches 100. You not only need to win the genetic lottery (the 20%), you also need the right environment to nudge you in the right way (the other 80%). And the way most people live in the western world is quite different than the way people live in the blue zones.

Buettner puts it this way: longevity is a product of the environment, the kind of environment that “makes the healthy choice the easy choice” on a daily basis.

This isn’t meant to discourage anybody. In fact, Buettner’s work is also about helping people live healthier lives. He works with communities showing them how they can adopt a healthier lifestyle. The average capacity for the human body is about 90 years, and the average life of a US citizen is around 78 years. So here we have a margin of 12 years! Many people could add them by following some of the lifestyle lessons of blue zones.

These are the common denominators of all the blue zones:

1. Natural movement

In Okinawa, people don’t really exercise the way we do. They don’t join gyms, pump iron or run marathons (at least traditionally), but their lifestyle is set up in a way so that they are constantly moving. They sit on the floor and they stand up many times a day. They walk almost everywhere, have few machines for housework and many of them garden. Movement and exercise are done is small bursts throughout the day.

2. Purpose

Having a clear sense of purpose adds years to your life. In these cultures, they don’t make a big separation between work and retirement. Their whole life has a sense of usefulness, of purpose, even though it may change with time. The Okinawans have a specific word, “ikigai”, to define one’s life purpose. The people of Nicoya in Costa Rica call it “plan de vida”, which means “life plan”.

3. Relaxation

They have rituals and practices that relax them and allow them to unwind. The people of Ikaria, in Greece, do the very Mediterranean act of napping. The 7th day Adventists of Loma Linda disconnect from all work related stress for a good 24h, focusing on family and prayer. The Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors. And the people of Barbagia, Sardinia, do something a bit more fun: enjoy a good glass of wine!

4. 80% rule

People in the blue zones don’t eat until they are completely full. They have little strategies to keep them from overeating. They eat from small plates and eat fewer calories. Instead of eating family style with big servings at the table, they serve at the counter and then put the food away.

There’s an old saying in Okinawa called “Hara hachi bu”, an idea that comes from Confucius. It reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. It takes about half hour for the feeling of being full to travel from your belly to the brain, so stopping at 80% is very useful.

5. Natural, plant based diet

This is where Dan Buettner’s work arouses passions. Native Americans ate a diet heavy on meats and fats and surprised Europeans with their great health and endurance. There’s so many theories about nutrition today, and all kinds of systems seem to work for different people. I think what is most compelling about Buettner’s work is the fact that food is only a small piece of the puzzle. Actually enjoying and living is very likely to be the greatest tonic.

People in the blue zones eat natural foods that they themselves grow. Until recently, almost all blue zones where isolated and didn’t have access to a lot of meat. Because of this, it was eaten a few times month and not a lot more. The basics of their diet are whole grains and garden vegetables. Legumes, for example, are often used in blue zones. They don’t eat processed foods and they have the habit of eating small portions.

6. Moderate consumption of alcohol

The key is moderation. In Okinawa they drink a daily glass of sake with friends, and in Sardinia they drink a glass of red wine with each meal. In general, more than a glass or two a day has a negative effect on the body.

Much has been said about the health risks of drinking alcohol. Some decades ago the idea spread that alcohol in moderation could improve heart health. People observed how in France, despite ample consumption of cheese and other fatty foods, people had lower risks of heart disease. This is known as the French Paradox. One theory is that wine has a kind of polyphenol called resveratrol which has an anti-inflammatory effect on the cardiovascular system. Sardinians, for example, drink a type of wine called Cannonau which is very high in polyphenols.

However, there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence to support the claim that wine improves heart health.

7. Belong

All centenarians in blue zones belong to a religious or spiritual community. There was a study by the Journal of Health and Social Behavior which looked at 3617 people for 7 and a half years and found out that those who attended religious services at least once a month reduced their risk of death by 1/3. There’s different possible explanations. People who have faith might be more likely to take care of themselves and avoid things like smoking, drugs, and drinking and driving. Belonging to a spiritual community offers a way of socializing and meeting new people. And finally, spirituality related practices offer a way for people to destress, reflect and focus on appreciation.

8. Family

This is probably one of the most important points. In all blue zones people keep their loved one’s close. Younger generations and older generations tend to share the same home. This is important because, as Buettner says, “studies have that elders who live with their children are less susceptible to disease, eat healthier diets, have lower levels of stress, and have a much lower incidence of serious accidents”. In blue zones, there is also a sense of reverence for old people, for the wisdom and experience they carry.

9. Tribe

It’s hard to live the way you want when your not part of the right tribe. As Buettner emphasizes, longevity isn’t about applying specific behaviors, but about lifestyle and environment. Be it because of isolation, or in the case of Adventists strict adherence to a spiritual practice, people in blue zones tend to associate with one another. This makes living a healthy life easy because it’s just part of the environment and lifestyle of your social group. In Spain we have a very old saying, “dime con quién andas, y te diré quien eres”, which means, “tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are”.

Strong and lasting friendships is one of the fundamental traits of blue zone cultures. In Okinawa, the tradition of a “moai”, originally created for financial reasons, helps people have a supportive group of friends until a very old age. And in the mountainous region of Barbagia, Sardinia, friends gather at the local bar after a day of work. Robert Butler, pulitzer-prize winner and longevity expert, believed this is one of the reasons why women tend to live longer than men. They tend to have better social networks, they actively engage and help each other and are more willing to open up about difficult emotions.

For further learning and enjoying:

Dan Buettner, Blue Zones: lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest, National Geographic, 2008.

Reflections on longevity

Since 2004, journalist and explorer Dan Buettner has been studying the longest lived populations in the world. These people live in areas called “blue zones”. These are places where people tend to live exceptionally long lives, many living past 100. They also enjoy impressive health and vitality until a ripe old age.

The stories of the individuals that Buettner has met through his travels are surprising and inspiring. There’s Frank Shearer, who water skis at the age of 99, or Marge Jetton, who at 100 begins every single day with a good dose of exercise. A few of the blue zones are the islands of Okinawa, in Japan, and the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean. In the US, there’s the 7th day Adventists of Loma Linda, California.

The oldest person in my family is my grandmother Jane. She is 91 and lives with my aunt Deb in a beautiful house near Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Growing up as a city kid in Barcelona, Spain, one of my favorite things was our yearly family trip to Ohio, usually in august. I know you must be thinking “Barcelona! That sounds a lot more interesting than Ohio!”. But modernist architecture, gothic churches and Mediterranean cuisine aren’t super exciting for a 10 year old.

“Bella Vista” (the name my grandparents gave their home), is a lovely wooden house surrounded by lush green forest. I couldn’t have phrased it this way back then, but I think for me and my brothers, it offered such a wonderful sense of space, freedom and connection with nature. We loved playing outside in the garden, and nature is so full of life there. Some mornings, we would look out the window and be greeted by a deer in the back yard. There were also groundhogs, foxes, moles and squirrels. And all kinds of beautiful birds too: blue jaysnorthern cardinals, as well as woodpeckers, chickadees and an occasional owl.

Through the years, we have kept visiting my grandmother at “Bella Vista”. We love it because it’s a place where we can just relax and unwind for a couple of weeks. We joke that it is our family’s “health and wellness resort”. Perhaps we should start calling it our family’s blue zone. We always leave refreshed, full of energy and plans. I’ve also come to see my grandmother Jane as an example of how to live a healthy life.

The average life for an American today is around 78 years. At 91, my grandmother is still in fairly good health. Her legs aren’t working that well anymore, so she can’t walk very far. But she still drives downtown to the local grocery shop. Her mind is clear and sharp: she reads a lot and most importantly, she keeps a positive and cheerful attitude about things. In her mid 80’s you could have said she had the energy of some 65 year old’s. Cooking, reading, going to church, driving out to restaurants, visiting friends and relatives, concerts and jazz clubs, were all part of her routine.

My grandmother never really ran, cycled, did keto, or went to the gym. Although she gardened for many years and until the pandemic was very socially active. Since there seemed to be a kind of mystery here, I always thought living close to nature was one of the reasons for her good health. It seemed common sense to me that living in a natural environment (where we slowly evolved for millions of years), would have a positive influence on one’s health. And there is in fact growing evidence that nature has a tremendous effect on our brain and health. (Look up Florence Williams).

study done in Japan measured how the levels of a kind of immune cell that kills disease agents (called NK), responded to time spent in nature. They took a group of middle aged Tokyo business men into the mountains and they hiked for a couple of hours each morning. After the 3 days the blood tests showed a 40% increase in NK cells. A month later they still had 15% more than before the experiment.

However, according to Buettner’s research, nature is one piece of a much larger puzzle. All the people in the blue zones live close to nature and eat their own natural foods. Until recently, they were quite isolated so processed foods weren’t common. But they don’t think of nutrition and health as we do. They’re not taking tons of supplements, obsessing about their diet and keeping up with the latest trends. As Buettner likes to remind his audiences, they are not even trying to live long lives. When it comes to longevity, Buettner likes to put the emphasis on an active life, a sense of purpose and meaningful relationships.

People in these areas have lives where movement and moderate exercise are integrated on a daily basis. They are constantly exercising in small ways. For example, in Okinawa, people sit on the floor, so they sit cross-legged and stand up many times a day. Many of them garden and they don’t have a lot of machines for housework. In the mountainous region of Barbagia, Sardinia, people have traditionally been shepherds. They are very used to walking up and down the hills and mountains of the region.

Buettner talks about how in Okinawa, people are born into a “moai”, which is basically a group of close friends for life. They also cultivate a strong sense of purpose and have a specific word for it, “ikigai”. Their purpose can be simple, but it’s always clear and tangible. Families in the blue zones are often very close to each other, so there is a “sense of tribe” and people feel supported.

At least in terms of longevity, I think I might have been over romanticizing the connection between nature and health (things like fresh air, sunlight, natural foods and rhythms, etc.). Of course, they are important, but our sense of purpose and belonging also plays a role. My grandmother Jane has indeed spent much of her life surrounded by forests, but she also has been very active and involved with her friends, family, and community. At the same time, she has always cultivated a youthful and positive attitude about life. Actually living and enjoying, after all, might be the best source of good health.

Buettner tells the fascinating story of Stamatis Moraitis, a hardworking man from the island of Ikaria, Greece (Ikaria is one of the blue zones). At age 66 he became very sick and was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He was told he had six months to live.

He was living in the US at the time, and decided to move back with his parents in Ikaria. Once there he started reconnecting with his friends and his faith. He enjoyed drinking the wine and eating the local foods. He also began work on a grape vine, in hopes of leaving it to his wife. 34 years later, when Buettner asked him, “What is your secret to longevity?”, he said “I don’t know, I guess I just forgot to die”.

For more learning and enjoying:

Dan Buettner, Blue Zones: lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest, National Geographic, 2008.