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Blue Zones & Longevity: What's Their Secret

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Blue Zones & Longevity: What's Their Secret

Blue Zones have been popping up in popularity lately, but what are they? The National Institute on Aging, together with a team of scientists, discovered that Loma Linda, California, Nicoya, Costa Rica, Sardinia, Italy, Ikaria, Greece, and Okinawa, Japan are the five areas in the world with the highest percentage of centenarians (a person who is 100 years or older). These five regions have been labeled "Blue Zones." Strikingly, in these Blue Zones, ten times more people reach age 100 than in the US.

This finding encouraged a team of scientists to investigate and identify the lifestyle characteristics that explained such longevity. They found that the Blue Zones' lifestyles shared the "Power 9" characteristics.

Keep reading to learn more about the Power 9, lifestyles, and diets practiced by centenarians from the Blue Zones.

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What is a Blue Zone?

Let's explore the Blue Zones, the world's longevity hotspots:

Sardinia: is a large Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea, home to the world's longest-lived men. Walking over five miles a day is typical for the Sardinian men, which benefits bone, muscle, and cardiovascular health. The Sardinian diet consists of "whole-grain bread, beans, garden vegetables, and fruits." Meat is eaten sparingly, usually once a week. Sardinians drink wine moderately. Cannonau wine, in particular, has a higher level of healthy flavonoids than other wines.

Okinawa: is a Japanese island in the East China Sea, home to the world's longest-lived women. The Okinawa centenarians have a culture of social safety nets that provide financial and emotional support, giving their members the security of knowing that there is always someone there for them. Okinawans attribute their longevity to reminding themselves to stop eating when they feel 80% full.

Loma Linda: this Seventh-day Adventist community in California lives a decade longer than the average American. They have a primarily vegan diet of "leafy greens, nuts, and legumes." They are mindful of the need to relax and take 24 hours off work every week.

Nicoya: is a city in Costa Rica where they spend a fraction of what the US does on healthcare and have more than double the chance of living to 90. Their reason to live, faith, and family play vital roles in Nicoyan culture. Nicoyans avoid processed foods and instead eat tropical fruits, which are rich in antioxidants. Their water is rich in the electrolytes calcium and magnesium, which may decrease the risk of heart disease and optimize bone strength.

Ikaria: is a small island off of Greece where the lifespan is eight years longer than that of Americans. The residents of Ikaria have a fraction of the cancer and heart disease seen in the US, and dementia is almost non-existent. Ikarians eat "a variation of the Mediterranean diet, with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, potatoes, and olive oil."

What is the Blue Zone Diet?

The Blue Zones Food Guidelines introduce us to how the world's longest-lived people eat. Here are some principles:

  1. Eat a 95-100% plant-based diet: garden vegetables when in season, greens such as kale, spinach, turnip and beet, chard, and collards. Whole grains, seasonal fruits, and beans lead Blue Zones meals. People also use oils derived from plants. In four of the five Blue Zones, people consume meat, but only very occasionally as a celebratory food.  
  2. Reduce meat and fish consumption: in the Blue Zones, people eat about two ounces or less of meat five times per month and less than three ounces of fish up to three times a week.
  3. Reduce dairy consumption: milk from cows is not commonly used in the Blue Zones. The Ikarian and Sardinian Blue Zones use milk from goats and sheep. Most goat's milk is fermented as yogurt or cheese.
  4. Reduce egg consumption: People in all Blue Zones only consume about two to four eggs per week.
  5. Choose legumes (beans) daily: eating half a cup of cooked beans daily is recommended. On average, people in the Blue Zones eat at least four times as many beans as Americans.
  6. Reduce sugar: people in the Blue Zones have minimal added sugar consumption of no more than 28 grams daily (7 teaspoons).
  7. Nuts are a great snack: Blue Zones centenarians eat two handfuls (roughly four ounces) of nuts daily.
  8. Choose sourdough or whole wheat bread: Blue Zones centenarians eat only sourdough or 100 percent whole wheat bread.
  9. Eat the "whole food": these foods are "made of a single ingredient, raw, cooked, ground, or fermented, and not highly processed."
  10. Drink mainly water: Adventists in Loma Linda consume seven glasses of water daily. Many other Blue Zones centenarians drink coffee, tea, and red wine in moderation.

What Are The Power 9?

Scientific studies confirm that our genes direct only a little more than 20% of how long we live, whereas the environment, diet,  and chosen lifestyle dictate the other 80%.  The Power 9 refers to nine lifestyle habits common among Blue Zone inhabitants.

  1. Move Naturally: studies of the Blue Zones revealed that inhabitants have daily movement (like gardening, chopping firewood, walking to the shops, or taking long walks) instead of intense workouts.
  2. Have Purpose: this is a fundamental Blue Zones trait. A study of US adults older than 50 demonstrated that a sense of purpose was associated with a lower risk of death from all causes.
  3. Downshift: Stress can lead to stress-related disorders and mortality. Finding strategies to manage and decrease stress can help to minimize physical and mental health issues. Blue Zone inhabitants have routines that naturally help them reduce stress through napping, praying, or socializing.
  4. Stop Eating at 80% Full: In addition to following the practice of stopping eating before achieving complete satiety, Blue Zone inhabitants usually eat the smallest meal of the day early in the evening, and consume nothing else after this meal.
  5. Eat a Plant-Based Diet: most of the proteins in the diet come from beans, soy, and lentils.
  6. Wine in Moderation: Not all Blue Zones inhabitants consume alcohol (for instance, the Adventist community in Loma Linda), but some centenarians have 1-2 small glasses of red wine daily. Most functional medicine practitioners do not recommend drinking alcohol due to the effects of long-term alcohol consumption.
  7. Belong to a Faith-Based Community: Scientific studies have shown that attending religious services is associated with living longer.
  8. Keep Family Close: People who live in Blue Zones work to keep the family united, which can mean caring for aging parents or grandparents and having a life partner.
  9. Find the Right Tribe: Blue Zone inhabitants also have strong community ties. Surrounding yourself with people who support shared goals and values can improve your health.

Summary

Many people constantly search for the "recipe" for a longer life. The centenarians from the Blue Zones have the ingredients for the recipe. Simple lifestyle changes, including dietary modifications, daily movement, and community, can improve health and increase longevity.

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