Blue Zones: how to live to 100

The desire to live a long and happy life is perhaps one of the universals of being human. Throughout history, we have sought out ways to both live longer and improve our lifespan’s quality. But what if the key to longevity was far simpler than we all thought? That’s the question Dan Buettner set out to answer when he travelled – with a team of researchers for National Geographic – to five ‘Blue Zones’: areas of the world identified as having significantly higher rates of people living past the age of 100. But can they teach us how to live to 100?

Location, location, location

Many factors are at play in determining how long we live – including our predisposition to diseases, lifestyle and luck. Interestingly though, studies suggest that around only 25 per cent of the variation in human longevity is due to genetics, with Dan also pointing out that ‘where you’re living is statistically the biggest non-genetic influence on how healthy you are’.

Blue zones are areas of the world identified as having significantly higher rates of people living past the age of 100.

Admittedly Dan’s recognised Blue Zones – Okinawa, Nicoya, Ikaria, Sardinia, and Loma Linda – in Japan, Costa Rica, Greece, Italy and the US respectively – are a far cry from the busy urban areas in which many of us live. And while we can’t all move to a remote island or community in the mountains, the aim of Dan’s Blue Zones Project is to bring the wisdom of the world’s centurions to everyone – wherever we may be. ‘Often, it’s small adjustments – those that make the healthy choice an easy one for people in their communities – that make the biggest difference.’

So what else do they have in common, that might help us live to 100?

Plant power

Across all Blue Zones, the focus is on a plant-based, unprocessed diet – rich in beans and greens. It can’t be a coincidence then that recent studes show that eating less meat contributes to lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Take Nicoya, an 80-mile peninsula just south of the Nicaraguan border in Costa Rica, with the lowest middle-aged mortality rate on earth. Here, Dan says, ‘the big secret of the Nicoyan diet is the “three sisters” of Meso-American agriculture: beans, corn and squash.’

Then there’s Okinawa – the southernmost islands in Japan – which have historically been known as the ‘Land of Immortals’. Today they are still home to the highest disability-free life expectancy, with women in particular living the longest of anywhere in the world. Aside from a diet rich in natural oestrogens, including soy, many older Okinawans still grow their own vegetables and medicinal spices such as mugwort, ginger and turmeric. In Ikaria, a quiet Greek island in the Aegean Sea, they eat a typically Mediterranean diet of fresh fish and vegetables, including lots of potatoes, beans and horta – a nutrient-rich wild green. With myriad studies suggesting that both men and women who adhere to a Mediterranean diet are 10-20 per cent less likely to die of heart disease, cancer or any other cause, it’s perhaps not surprising that they boast such longevity.

Take it slow

But, of course, other factors are at play – aside from eating habits. Dan explains: ‘A large part of longevity is shedding the stress that is so often associated with busy modern lives. We saw this done most effectively through meditation, belonging to a faith-based community, as well as getting daily natural movement like walking.’ Across all the Blue Zones, exercise is effortlessly interwoven into the day. In both Ikaria and Sardinia, the mountainous terrain means that walking everywhere is a given, whereas in Okinawa, low-intensity physical activity is an integral part of daily life, with activities such as karate, kendo, dancing, tai chi and gardening all popular into old age. ‘You won’t find any Blue Zones residents joining gyms, running marathons or taking supplements!’

What’s the point?

The Okinawans call it ikigai and the Nicoyans plan de vida – but both roughly translate to ‘why I wake up in the morning’. For Dan, this is one of the most central components to living long: ‘In the Blue Zones the elderly feel a sense of purpose and responsibility to help raise children and support the community, and research suggests this can add a good seven years to your life.’

Studies suggest that loneliness can take up to eight years off our life expectancy, and can be as harmful for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

It seems happiness and longevity also go hand in hand – a good reason to do what you love, as often as you can. ‘We rarely met any grouchy centenarians, and found that many of the principles that make us happy also keep us living.’

We’re all in this together

With studies suggesting that loneliness can take up to eight years off life expectancy, compared to the most connected people, and be as harmful for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, the importance of social engagement cannot be underestimated. It’s here that the Blue Zones offer a lesson in the importance of seeking meaningful connections. ‘Surround yourself with loved ones. In Okinawa, locals maintain a social network called a moai, which is a lifelong circle of friends that support each other – both emotionally and financially – throughout their lives.’ Surely something we can all take on board.

And surely, it is the enjoyment we find in our everyday lives that make us want to live to 100?

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Wellbeing Wisdom

  • Blue zones are regions where a population’s longevity has been accurately verified. The population shares a common lifestyle and environment.*
  • Base your diet around vegetables and legumes, and grow your own if you can. Keep meat as a side dish or save it for special occasions.
  • Remind yourself daily of your purpose in life, whether that’s your career, children, or a project you’re working on.

*The Blue Zones: Areas of exceptional longevity around the world, Michel Poulain et al, 2013