If you are mindful of what you eat, you will definitely have heard of these blue zones. No, they have nothing to do with parking spaces… Although you’ll soon know why it’s a good idea to stay there. For a long, long time.
The year 2000 marked the beginning of the new millennium, and also the discovery of a part of the world populated by the highest concentration of centenarian men and women. Behind this surprising discovery was the meeting of two men: Italian academic Gianni Pes and Belgian demographer Michel Poulain. They made the discovery while travelling through the little villages of Nuoro province, Sardinia. To immortalise and pinpoint the area in question, they just highlighted it in blue on a map. And that was how the first blue zone came to be! And with it came a new avenue of research, since in 2002 they decided to explore the rest of the world, to seek out further similar zones. Because a question was niggling them: How come those people lived to be centenarians, healthily thanks to clean living habits, and on the face of it, happily?
In 2017, five blue zones were identified:
- Nuoro province, Sardinia
- The Greek island of Ikaria in the Aegean Sea
- The Japanese island of Okinawa
- The Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica
- Loma Linda in California
1 – Nuoro in Sardinia, Italy
- Where is it? This Italian island south of Corsica is home to a mountainous area slightly hidden away in the south-east of Nuoro province. And more precisely, a village: Seulo, where you can’t fail to notice the number of centenarians.
- The reasons for their longevity? According to researchers, these centenarians were almost all mountain-dwellers and shepherds, who had spent their days in the great outdoors and hiked from plains to valleys throughout their lives. The first clue: daily physical activity. As for food intake, they ate what was by definition a Mediterranean diet. It comprised very little meat (once a week), fruit and vegetables from their kitchen garden (not least tomatoes, aubergines and beans) along with simple, unprocessed fare. This was of high quality, since it too was homemade (like unrefined seeded bread, seeds, cheese made from the milk of grass-fed ewes) and red wine. This, when analysed, was shown to be among those with the highest polyphenol content. Beyond lifestyle, social and family links seem to promote good mental and overall health. Those questioned spoke first of all about the role of their family life, a very close-knit and cooperative family, which takes the parents in when they can no longer manage to live independently. It also seems that the idea of resilience was very much in evidence, as a watermark in their life stories.
2 – Okinawa, Japan
- Where is it? Ask where you’ll find the more than 60 centenarians per 100,000 of the country’s inhabitants and you’ll be directed straight to the archipelago of Okinawa in south-western Japan.
- The reasons for their longevity? A diet that’s certainly different to the Mediterranean diet, but is also based around plants (not least green leafy vegetables), fish, seafood and also sweet potatoes from their kitchen garden. Their food intake could easily be mistaken for frugality, but not with a dieting mindset. Their credo, according to the precepts of Confucius: during meals, stop eating when you’re still a little hungry. They are said to feel 80% full, which implies leaving a little less than a third of your meal the first time. The following times, on this basis of a “normal” serving, you’ll serve yourself 20% less food. The centenarians of Okinawa do not have a sedentary lifestyle. They practise moderate physical activity that allows them to stay in good shape and reduce stress. Like Sardinians, they draw nourishment from very enriching familial and social relations. Every morning, they cultivate happiness in getting up by setting a goal for the day, in line with their “ikigai”, their life’s mission.
3 – Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Where is it? While life expectancy is high in Costa Rica (around 82 years for women and 78 for men), it is off the scale on the Nicoya peninsula, where inhabitants aged 60 years are around seven times more likely to live to be centenarians!
- The reasons for their longevity? Nicoya is almost insular in nature due to its being hard to get to. The local diet is almost exclusively plant-based and always locally grown (black beans, sweetcorn and squash). It also includes home-reared chicken and pork, and eggs laid by their own hens. Other points in common with Okinawa and Sardinia: strong family links, a love of hard work, a very positive mindset and a lifestyle whereby stress is intentionally kept at a distance. In summary, people here cultivate happiness and have faith. And as the cherry on the cake, a sedentary lifestyle is right out of the equation. The centenarians are and have always been very active. As a result, this is the area of Costa Rica with the fewest recorded cases of lifestyle-related diseases (cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer).
4 – Loma Linda, USA
- Where is it? Surprisingly enough, the 4th blue zone is to be found in the USA, land of the hamburger. It’s Loma Linda in South Carolina, about 100 kilometres from Los Angeles.
- The reasons for their longevity? It’s clear that they are related to the lifestyle more than the location. Because Loma Linda is the cradle of a Seventh-day Adventist community. And? Well, to keep their pledges as regards the rules laid down by their church, Adventists are vegetarian or flexitarian (eating very little meat). Moreover, they abstain from alcohol and tobacco products. As for social relations, they are yet another point common to all the zones mentioned: mutual aid is very much in evidence. The inhabitants of Loma Linda who are followers of this church are also associated with the city’s university. It’s particularly advanced when it comes to the study of medicine. Moreover and most importantly, there’s a very closely-forged link between science, health and faith. The number of centenarians among the devotees living in Loma Linda can be accounted for by the quality of their lifestyle as much as human relations, which are at the heart of daily life.
5 – Ikaria, Greece
- Where is it? In Greece, surrounded by the Aegean Sea.
- The reasons for their longevity? Yet another red line linking all the blue zones together: their diet is essentially made up of healthy whole foods, with a large majority of vegetables from the kitchen garden, not least green vegetables, pulses, fruit, little meat, and fish eaten regularly. All drizzled with olive oil or washed down with ewes’ milk. This Mediterranean diet also favours local red wine and infusions of aromatic herbs from the kitchen garden. Echoing the frugal diet of their peers in Okinawa, Ikarians fast several times a year. The elders, when questioned, also talk about their wellbeing “together”, within a community where warm social relations and mutual aid are paramount.
What do the blue zones have in common?
In the various areas of the world, the inhabitants of the blue zones all have habits in common. It’s up to you to embrace them to get close to their inhabitants’ lifestyles:
- They avoid being sedentary and practise daily physical activity that comes naturally, and is incorporated into their lifestyle.
- They mostly spend their days outside.
- They have an existential (religious or spiritual) goal that inspires them and gets them out of bed in the morning,
- They don’t encounter stress, or don’t let it get to them.
- They eat a diet that’s essentially plant-based, unprocessed, healthy, locally sourced and seasonal, rein in calorie counts, drink very little alcohol and favour local wine.
- They maintain close, quality relations with their family, friendship and social groups. Moreover, they have very busy social lives.
Two books to take it further
Zones bleues (Blue Zones) by Angèle Ferreux-Maeght, a chef, naturopath and specialist in diet for wellbeing, and Vincent Valinducq, a general practitioner and researcher, published by First. The two authors went to meet the blue zone inhabitants and tried to see how inspiration could be drawn from them.
A precursor of a book, since in 2010, Dan Buettner, a researcher very much involved in tapping into the value of blue zones, shared the secrets to a healthy life with the public at large: centenarian edition! Blue Zones tells the story of those naturally living their centenarian lives in these areas.