Living to a wise old age is an aspiration many people have and in some parts of the world, it appears to be much easier to accomplish. Blue Zones are areas of the world where people more commonly live to become centenarians (a person who lives to 100 years old or more). In these areas dubbed Blue Zones, people reach age 100 at 10 times greater rates than in the United States. (1) Despite vast cultural differences between these societies, Loma Linda (California, USA); Nicoya (Costa Rica); Sardinia (Italy); Ikaria (Greece); and Okinawa, (Japan) (1) all appear to have a way of life that is synonymous with ageing well.
Let’s take a look at the diet and lifestyle factors that are believed to influence the health, wellbeing and longevity of these populations and how to take a leaf out of their book to help achieve living a more natural life.
The Power 9
There are nine characteristics common to all Blue Zone regions that can be used to make healthy lifestyle changes. Importantly, these elements encompass all aspects of wellbeing including physical, mental, social and emotional health and spiritual wellbeing. They include a daily routine of low-intensity physical activity, finding purpose, stress reduction techniques, eating less, eating predominantly plant-based and moderating meat intake, drinking wine, having a sense of belonging, putting family first and having good relationships with friends. (2)
Most of these characteristics may seem quite natural and relatable to aspire to in our own daily life and making small changes now can have a big impact. Believe it or not, by optimising your lifestyle, you may gain back an extra decade of good quality of life. In fact, by adopting any one of these aspects of the Power 9, you can immediately improve your life expectancy at any age. (2) That’s good news considering how relatively easy these characteristics are to achieve. After all, drinking wine (and coffee) with friends comes naturally to many of us and are beverages many people would like to justify consuming!
Eat and drink your beans.
Legumes and coffee are on the centenarian menu. A heavily plant-based diet featured in each Blue Zone community, with beans, including fava, black, soy, and lentils, was found to be the cornerstone of most centenarian diets.(1) In the community of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, their vegetarian diet is thought to be the most likely cause of their extraordinary longevity. (3) Perhaps the most famous of ‘beans’ (but actually classed as a fruit), coffee is one of the most popular and widely consumed beverages worldwide. Daily coffee consumption was found to be abundant among more than 85% of the Nicoyans and more than 75% of the Sardinians observed in one study. With a complex mixture of more than 800 volatile compounds, research suggests that coffee consumption may help to prevent several chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes mellitus and liver disease. (4)
A guilt-free Sunday roast.
Further comparative studies of Sardinian and Nicoyan elders showed that like coffee, potato consumption was high in both populations and that in both groups the most consumed type of meat was pork, in moderate quantities. (4) While potatoes and pork may seem like unusual contenders for longevity, there is some perceived logic in relation to why these particular foods might be healthier than commonly perceived. Since potatoes are mostly boiled and consumed with fats this reduces their glycemic index, while meat may preserve the elderly from excessive loss of muscle mass, indirectly promoting longevity. (4)
Testament to both a healthy diet and lifestyle, Blue Zone centenarians are shining examples of how to live well. The take-home message is simplicity. Walk when and where you can as often as you can, make time for friends and family on a regular basis, develop your own daily ritual to help to reduce stress – whether it be taking a nap, listening to music or meditation practice and nurture your sense of purpose. The age-old saying respect your elders rings true and when it comes to leading by example, the path has been paved.