The concept of Blue Zones has been around for almost 15 years. Still, when mentioning it to colleagues this week, many seemed not to know about their existence.
So, what are Blue Zones?
Dan Buettner defined Blue Zones as ‘hotspots of human health and vitality’. National Geographic have found 5 areas with the highest life expectancy and those with the greatest proportions of people living to 100 or more. These regions are in Sardinia, Japan, Greece, Costa Rica and a Californian Seven Day Adventists community.
The research into Blue Zones is fascinating and has highlighted key ubiquitous traits shared across these areas with long, healthy, life expectancies. There are 9 healthy habits, dubbed the ‘Power 9’:
- Natural movement – not exercise you say! These populations have movement integrated into their every day lives, not a gym in sight!
- A sense of purpose – knowing your role in life seems to add years onto your life span. This doesn’t mean a job, some of these cultures don’t even have a word for ‘retired’, it’s more about a reason to get up in the morning.
- Stress reduction strategies – we cannot escape stress in life, but what these communities share are routines which help de-stress them, from a mid-afternoon sleep to prayer.
- Not getting full – the Japanese community only eat to 80% full, and the others tend to not eat late into the evening.
- Primarily plant-based – there is a wide variety of diets between these communities and meat consumption does vary. They all tend to be more ‘plant-focused’ and eat fresh, local and seasonal produce.
- Alcohol, in moderation – every Blue Zone community drinks a moderate amount of alcohol regularly. They do not binge their entire weekly amount in one sitting and it tends to be consumed in a social manner. They often drink wine which is rich in polyphenols.
- A sense of belonging – the majority of those over 100 had a faith which was practiced in their community. Which faith didn’t matter.
- Families first – a life partner who you are committed to and live monogamously with added 3 years of life expectancy. Having older family members engaged with family life and devotedly caring for children are also common practice in these communities.
- Healthy & supportive friends – individuals living in these areas either create or are born into committed friendship circles. Lifestyle habits and even happiness are contagious (Fowler and Christakis, 2008). So being in a healthy social sphere guides healthy habits.
Whilst genetics play a role in longevity, we can learn so much about healthy lifestyles from these communities.
What struck me the most:
- None of the nine individual elements from these communities are identical or ‘perfect’ – for example their diets vary in meat/fat/carbohydrate intake. This highlights to me how it is the amalgamation and synergistic effects of targeting every aspect of lifestyle medicine – sleep, movement, diet and relationships – which leads to the healthiest life, not the newest supplement.
- Being healthy was easy – the default option. This emphasises to me how we need to strive to make healthy lifestyle choices easier.
- Finally, how important a sense of belonging and purpose are to health and wellbeing. I find this particularly poignant given the mounting research about the negative effects of loneliness (which I am hoping to write about for you soon!).
Some resources to leave you with:
An excellent TEDx talk summarising the research by Dan Buettner, which I highly recommend.
Primary reference and for more information if interested see the Blue Zones website.
Fowler, J. H. and Christakis, N. A. (2008) ‘Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study.’, BMJ (Clinical research ed.). British Medical Journal Publishing Group, 337, p. a2338. doi: 10.1136/BMJ.A2338.