For centuries humans have tried to find a way to escape death. Philosophers, novelists, and physicians alike have toiled with the dream of many: how to achieve immortality. Or forgoing that, at least finding a way to live longer. Dan Buettner, a National Geographic explorer, and his team of demographers, scientists and anthropologists have done just that. They have studied which regions of the world have the longest lifespans and later came up with a list of habits that could help people live longer.
The team, which coined the term ‘Blue Zones,’ shared what they learned about the world’s longest-lived communities in journals, talks, articles and books.
Blue Zones are areas of the world where people live long lives, consistently reaching 100 years. In contrast, the average life expectancy in the United States is currently 77 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 6 in 10 adults in the United States have at least one chronic health condition, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and 4 in 10 have two or more conditions.
Buettner and his team identified five such Blue Zones:
- Barbagia region of Sardinia – Mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
- Ikaria, Greece – Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – World’s lowest rates of middle age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians.
- Around Loma Linda, California, where the highest concentration Seventh Day Adventists can be found. They live 10 years longer than their North American counterparts.
- Okinawa, Japan – Females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.
According to Buettner, the Blue Zones’ team is now dedicated to creating healthy communities across the US. The first effort, in Albert Lea, Minnesota, was a success, and formed the blueprint for the Blue Zones Projects.
Buettner’ team identified nine specific lifestyle habits that are common to people who live in areas with the highest life expectancy.
1. Natural movement throughout the day
The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. They live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.
4. The 80% Rule
“Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the blue zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.
5. Plant Slant
Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of a deck of cards.
6. Wine at 17:00
People in all blue zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all week and have 14 drinks on Saturday.
All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.
8. Loved Ones First
Successful centenarians in the blue zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).
9. Right Tribe
The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.