There are 5 so called “blue zones” in the world, where people consistently live—nursing home free—all the way up until a ripe old age: the southern Japanese islands of Okinawa, Italy’s Sardinia, Costa Rica’s Nicoya, the USA’s Loma Linda and Greece’s Ikaria.
These communities come from about as different cultures as you could find—which makes the similarities even more powerful. Clearly we are missing something over here in Australia, where the average life expectancy for a woman is 85.7, and just 80.3 for men (in the US it’s even worse: 81 for women and 76 for men).
Compare that to Japan’s Okinawa, whose residents are five times more likely to live past 100 as their compatriots elsewhere in Japan (where the average life expectancy is already quite good: 90 for women and 84 for men).
Or, if you need further convincing, compare Italy’s Sardinia, where men live the longest and healthiest of anywhere on the planet (especially with regards to cardiovascular disease, or the lack thereof), to Australia and its heart disease statistics, which are enough to give anyone a coronary…
So what is it about these communities’ rural approach that allows them to live disease and illness free for so long, and to have more ‘centenarians’ than anywhere else in the world? Well, despite their differences, there are some interesting similarities.
This is what we can learn from them.
Okinawa, a group of 160 islands off the south coast of Japan, has been dubbed ‘the land of immortals’—and become a global centre for longevity research—as it is home to more than 400 centenarians. Their success has been attributed to two things.
Firstly: the nutritious local diet. Okinawans consume lots of tofu and sweet potato, and a small amount of fish. They are also the only known culture with a tradition of self-imposed calorie restriction (hara hachi bu), on top of a traditional diet that has few calories to start with.
Secondly: the strong sense of community. Okinawans don’t just sign over their ‘rents to a nursing home—they maintain active social circles (both intergenerational and among older residents) and this strong community has been found to reduce stress and foster a strong sense of belonging.
In terms of applying this to your own life, try adding a couple of their recipes to your weekly rotation, and invite some friends round to eat them. And be good to your parents. Remember: you’re next…
Sardinia—a large Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea—has one of the highest percentage of people living to 100 or beyond in the world. While genetics play a role in this (Sardinia was first settled around 6,000 BC, and is home to one of the world’s few “founder” populations, which scientists have called a “genetic goldmine”), there are also a number of habits we can learn from Sardinia’s “100 club.”
“Most reports seem to agree that a glass a day of the local wine helps keep the doctor away. An active life in the relatively stress-free environment of the beautiful Sardinian hillsides probably also contributes,” (The Guardian).
Even if we can’t magically imbue Sardinia’s healthy mountain air, fresh milk, organically grown vegetables and startlingly pure groundwater, we can certainly quaff a glass of wine and lead a more active life (or at least try to). That, plus eating good food (something that, if we are honest, we all know how to do, but lack the willpower to enact).
“We ate what we grew. If you wanted vegetable soup one day, you had to go collect the ingredients yourself… We didn’t need to think about eating healthy. We ate what we had, and it was healthy,” one resident told USA Today.
And in terms of the wine, Zelinda Paglieno, a local Sardinian centenarian, added that you should not abuse her secret, lest it backfire: “Two fingers width of red wine, and no more, at lunchtime every day.”
Costa Rica isn’t far from the U.S. geographically, but it’s miles ahead when it comes to longevity—particularly the elevated town of Nicoya, a city on the Peninsula of the Guanacaste province. In this town, residents possess a remarkable “plan de vida,” which translates “reason to live,” which Blue Zones reports, “Propels a positive outlook among elders.”
This is built on a strong focus on family, and—as visitors attest—a unique ability to listen and laugh. “Nicoyan centenarians,” the Blue Zones report points out, “Frequently visit with neighbours, and they tend to live with families and children or grandchildren who provide support, as well as a sense of purpose.”
In addition, they drink water high in calcium, do physical labour their whole lives, take in the sunshine (sensibly), live a relatively stress-free life, eat a light dinner and consume lots of whole grains, un-sweetened dairy & vegetables.
“Their traditional diet of fortified maize and beans may be the best nutritional combination for longevity the world has ever known,” (Blue Zones).
Loma Linda, a city in San Bernardino County, California, United States, is home to a community of about 9,000 Adventists. These guys adhere to a strict version of Protestant Christianity, take their health very seriously, and bring their city’s average life-expectancy up.
“They live as much as a decade longer than the rest of us, and much of their longevity can be attributed to vegetarianism and regular exercise. Plus, Adventists don’t smoke or drink alcohol,” (Blue Zones).
But their advice expands beyond exercise and diet—and can be applied whether your hero is Jesus or Richard Dawkins.
Foremost among it is to find a “sanctuary in time.” While this doesn’t have to be a 24-hour Sabbath, it does involve a weekly break from the craziness of life; to focus on your family, God (if you’re not religious, insert nature here), and camaraderie with your mates.
Doesn’t sound too bad, right? It also relieves stress, strengthens your social networks, and provides consistent exercise, which all add up to keep you ticking along.
Their next piece of wisdom, while slightly left field, is to snack on nuts. Studies show Adventists who consume nuts at least five times a week have about half the risk of heart disease (and live about two years longer) than those who don’t.
As they are not significantly genetically different to the rest of America (unlike some of the other centenarian communities, which live on islands), there’s no reason this shouldn’t work for you too.
Same goes for giving back to your community, consuming meat in moderation, eating light dinners (and more fruit & veggies), and drinking plenty of water.
Ikaria is a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, 10 nautical miles southwest of Samos, where; “One third of (the) population lives past the age of 90 – and they spend every day doing what they love,” (BBC).
This, like the previous “blue zones” mentioned, comes down to the trifecta of: healthy diet, active lifestyle and strong family ties.
As the BBC reports, “Ikarians make an effort to stay closely connected to their families and neighbours, and the elderly play significant roles in the community.”
“Grandparents often help raise grandchildren or run businesses.”
When asked, residents also credit their longevity to following their passions well into old age, with one 81 year old man excitedly telling the BBC about the Ikaria Senior Regatta, a boat race for which the minimum qualifying age for captains is 70: “Twenty participating crews sail a 14-nautical-mile route from neighbouring Samos island to Ikaria and back.”
“It’s not really a race… The regatta shows we can still do it and we are capable.”
“There’s always something to do with your time,” he added. “But when you do things that make you happy or others happy, how can you not feel healthy, feel better or feel good?”
“Do something in your life that stirs your passion.”
Another theory the same man points to, is the island’s lack of stress: “No-one really sets appointments here… It’s more like ‘see you in the morning, afternoon or evening’. We don’t stress.”
“Time is an important part of life on Ikaria… but not the way most people think,” (BBC).