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The secrets of the Blue Zones for a longer life

January 2020

Elderly Japanese Couple
The Japanese enjoy some of the longest lives

2020 – and many of us will have wished our friends and family the best of health as well as happiness for the new year. As we get older, every year really counts and many of us will also be doing what we can to ensure we live the longest active life possible.

Adjusting our diet, reducing alcohol, taking more exercise, ensuring we socialise... there is a heap of advice out there to help us all live longer. But there are still countries in the world where the people live longer than average.

From the latest Human Development Report from the United Nationals Development Programme, the country that currently has the longest life expectancy at birth is now Hong Kong, with 84.7 years, just longer than Japan with 84.5 years of life expectancy from birth. Here in the UK we are not too far behind, with an expectancy of 81.2 years. At the bottom of the table are many African countries where life expectancy is still under 60 years.

But along with these overall assessments, there are also small and sometimes isolated pockets in the world which see an especially large numbers of healthy active 80 and 90 year olds and exceptionally high numbers of centenarians.

One man who has tried to pinpoint the secrets of longevity is active travel author and National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner. An American, he has worked with National Geographic researchers to examine the areas in the world where people live especially long and healthy lives with less chronic illness than average.

As a result of his investigations, Dan came up with the concept of Blue Zones: areas where cardiovascular problems, cancers and many other diseases associated with ageing are lower than anywhere else in the world and where many of the people continue to enjoy life with minimal cognitive decline well into their 90s.

After writing several books on the subject including the best seller Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Dan came up with some recognised areas of Blue Zones: Ikaria in Greece; Nicoya in Costa Rica; Loma Linda in California, Okinawa in Japan and Sardinia in Italy.

His observations from these regions included the facts that many of the people from these Blue Zone regions spend a lot of time out of doors; they are part of a strong social group; they eat a lot of beans and they also drink a reasonable amount of wine. Dan’s observations have helped to identify some key aspects that seem to play an important part in longevity that have been supported by many other researchers in this area. These include:

  • Do not overeat. With such an abundance of food all around us, it is easy to eat more than we need. The problem is that is takes time, maybe half an hour or more, for the signals from the stomach saying you are full to reach the brain. This means over eating is very easy. In Okinawa in Japan for instance, a region which experiences exceptional longevity, many of the people stop eating well before they feel they are full, knowing that in 30 minutes or more they will realise they have eaten more than enough. Fasting every so often can also help the body, giving it time to repair itself.

  • Find your ikigai. Still from Japan, researchers suggest you need to find your Ikigai. This is a Japanese word that loosely means finding a reason to live, or finding a purpose for life. Researchers agree that people with a real interest or a purpose can enjoy better physical as well as mental health. Being an enthusiastic and helpful grandparent can be enough; or helping with a charity you believe in; or becoming passionate about a new interest or hobby. The type of purpose doesn’t seem important as long as that Ikigai exists.

  • Getting outside. People living in these special Blue Zones spend a lot of time outside. One aspect is ensuring you get enough vitamin D; this is especially important in our climate in the UK when our winters can be so grey and sunless. Vitamin D can help to boost metabolism, fight inflammation and even, according to some reports, help to engage longevity genes to increase lifespan.  You may need to put on sun protection of course, but getting out and about every day seems a main aspect of people who enjoy especially long lives.

  • Walk. People in Blue Zones are walkers. They tend to do a lot of walking in their everyday lives plus many do other activities such as gardening or growing crops plus walking to markets and shops and carrying their purchases home. It all means that physical activity plays an important part in their lives. For us, the key is to keep moving...housework and going to the gym all count. It seems a real secret to longevity is not to live a sedentary life.

  • Connect. Communities in the Blue Zones have close social connections. Family ties are very strong; friends and meetings play a huge role in their everyday lives. With our modern entertainment systems and planned housing, we tend not to live on top of each other or have too many family members crowding around us in our home; so it is important to ensure we all enjoy considerable social activity every week.

  • Eating plants. Blue Zone populations eat a lot of seasonal plants and local colourful natural produce, especially legumes as well as vegetables. Most people now know that adding more plants and vegetables to a diet will have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and help to increase the antioxidants you need to fight inflammation and disease. People living in Blue Zones underline the importance of this advice.

Other findings have included a glass or two of wine everyday can be useful, especially with friends; allowing a quiet time for yourself, perhaps to meditate, is beneficial. There can also be local reasons for special longevity. For instance Ikaria, an island in Greece, has been recorded as having an exceptional number of nonagenarians (aged between 90 and 99) and up to a third of Ikaria’s population live until their 90s. Blue Zone researchers have concluded that the local hot springs which are used for bathing by many of the island’s residents could play a part. These springs contain some key useful minerals which offer a range of benefits including helping to increase circulation and aiding digestion. People on the island also drink a local herbal tea that is full of nutrients and antioxidants.

At the moment there is no single message that will help us live longer and healthier lives. But certainly knowledge is improving and by making a few small changes in our lifestyles, maybe we can all add a few more healthy and enjoyable years to our lives.

Dan Buettner’s Blue Zone books, including his top seller: The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living like the World’s Healthiest People, are available from Amazon and many bookshops.

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