Will the secrets of the Blue Zones help us live longer? National Geographic researcher Dan Buettner decided to find out.
Much like Ponce de Leon's expedition to the Americas to find the fountain of youth, Buettner traveled to the places on earth where people live the longest seeking their secrets to longevity. He found these "Blue Zones" cultures share several healthy traits that seem to promote longer, happier lives. He shared the results of his research in a well-received National Geographic article, "The Secrets of Long Life," followed in 2008 by the best-selling book, Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest."
Four years later, communities across the United States are trying to apply the Blue Zones' lessons to create healthier environments for their citizens. Will these Blue Zones initiatives result in longer lives?
What Are the Blue Zones?
Buettner's research took him to four corners of the globe where people are more likely to reach their 100th birthdays than anywhere else in in the world, and three times more likely than the average American. These places of remarkable longevity are Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; and the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
Where Are the Blue Zones?
On the Italian island of Sardinia, one village of 2,500 people in the rugged Barbagia region boasted seven centenarians in 1999, far exceeding the U.S. ratio of one in 5,000.
The residents of Okinawa, Japan, a remote group of islands hundreds of miles from Tokyo, enjoy the highest life expectancy, the most years of healthy life, and one of the highest centenarian ratios in the world.
The Seventh-Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California, leads the nation in life expectancy. On average, they outlive their fellow Californians by more than four years for women and seven years for men.
On Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula, people have a higher life expectancy than most developed countries, despite the infectious diseases and political instability that shorten lifespans elsewhere in Central America.
Buettner later added a fifth, newly discovered Blue Zone to his list. In Ikaria, Greece, people are more likely to live to age 90, and have significantly reduced rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and dementia than Americans.
What Are Their Secrets?
Through his research, Buettner identified nine healthy traits shared by residents of the Blue Zones that may hold the secrets to their longevity. Physical activity and diet play a role, he found, but emotional and social well-being also are factors. The Blue Zones' nine lessons for a long- and well-lived life, Buettner concluded, are:
Natural movement: Residents of the Blue Zones get regular, low-intensity exercise as part of their daily routine. While much of this exercise is part of the work day in the Blue Zones (Sardinian shepherds tending to their sheep), you can reap substantial benefits by adding low-key activities like walking, gardening, and hiking (or even parking at the back of the lot) to your day.
Follow the 80% rule: Blue Zones residents eat smaller meals. Cut calories the painless way simply by stopping eating when your stomach feels 80% full. Eat more slowly to recognize when you no longer feel hungry. Use a smaller plate so you take less food in the first place. Sit down to eat and focus on your food so you are better able to react to your body's cues.
A plant slant: Diets in the Blue Zones are largely plant-based, with few meats and processed foods. Adopt this healthy diet by getting at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. If you eat meat, limit your intake by going meatless on some days. In place of meat, add beans and nuts as alternate sources of protein.
Drink red wine in moderation: Is Happy Hour good for you? The studies suggesting a link between moderate alcohol consumption and a reduced risk of certain diseases are too numerous to ignore. But moderation is the key. At more than one drink per day on average for women and two for men, the potential risks start outweighing the benefits.
A sense of purpose: People who have a reason to get out of bed in the morning tend to live longer. Whether it's a job, a hobby, or a desire to see your grandchildren grow up well, something that gives you a sense of fulfillment also will give you a reason to keep living. If there's nothing you're particularly passionate about, learn something new or explore ways to use your talents for a cause that's important to you.
Take time to relax: By taking time out from a busy schedule, you benefit from a greater sense of well-being. Whether this is having a glass of wine with friends at happy hour (see lesson #4), spending some time practicing yoga or meditation, or simply chilling out to your favorite music and clearing the clutter from your head, you slow down the aging process when you take time to relieve life's daily stressors.
Participation in a spiritual community: Studies have shown the people who attend religious services tend to live longer. Participation in a spiritual community promotes healthier behaviors like meditation, larger social networks and avoidance of harmful behaviors, all things that enhance longevity. For those who aren't particularly religious, the same effect is achieved by participating in a community that seeks a higher purpose, like a more humane society.
Make family a priority: Blue Zones residents have strong family ties. Having a strong social network (the old-fashioned kind) is important to well-being, and family is the ultimate social network. Make time for your family each day by eating together, sharing the day's events and nurturing your shared connections. Make time for your extended family and maintain family traditions and rituals.
The right tribe: Residents of the Blues Zones have close networks of lifelong friends who share their values. Studies have shown that people who are more socially connected live longer. Surround yourself with others who share your healthy values and invest the time necessary to maintain those relationships.
The Blue Zones Movement
Communities around the United States are applying the Blue Zones' lessons in an effort to increase residents' well-being. In 2009, Albert Lea, Minnesota, became the prototype for the Blue Zones community transformation program. The community, with assistance from Buettner's Blue Zones organization, made physical, social and policy changes throughout the community to enhance residents' ability to adopt the Blue Zones' lessons. The program drove changes in everything from school and workplace wellness policies to restaurant menus. The city added community gardens, hiking trails, and walking clubs. Over 25% of the population participated, along with 60% of the city's restaurants, 51% of large employers, and 100% of the schools, with astonishing results. Life expectancy increased by an average of 3.1 years, participants lost three pounds each on average, and employers saw significant decreases in absenteeism and health care costs.
A second project launched in 2010 involving the cities of Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach, California.
In 2011, the state of Iowa announced its Healthiest State Initiative, an effort to increase Iowa's ranking in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index from 19 to 1 by 2016. The Iowa Blues Zones Project is part of this effort. Ten Iowa communities will serve as models to the rest of the state and will receive expert assistance in transforming to Blue Zones communities. The selection process currently is underway.
Will understanding the secrets of the Blue Zones help us live longer? The results in Albert Lea are encouraging. They suggest that by weaving the Blue Zones principles into our daily routines, we all can live longer, happier, healthier lives.
The Blue Zones Poll
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on December 17, 2014:
Thanks for reading and commenting, Richard. Sorry for my delayed response. I agree with you - there is a lot of power in being positive!
Richard from Hampshire - England on October 15, 2014:
This was an incredibly interesting hub, Deborah and I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you for sharing the information :)
I do believe that people who embrace life and are outgoing, happy individuals are far more likely to live longer generally, but maybe I'm wrong.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 22, 2013:
Thanks for reading and commenting, internpete. How cool that you got to spend that time in Okinawa. Thanks for sharing your experiences and observations.
Peter V from At the Beach in Florida on July 19, 2013:
I had never heard of these 'blue zones' but it is very interesting. I lived for 10 years in Okinawa and learned a lot about the people and their lifestyle. It was a great time. I can tell you that they do eat a fair amount of meat, but in the form of mostly fish, and some pork. They also don't usually have any red wine, but enjoy their sake from time to time. I was always amazed when I saw the old Okinawan's still out working their sugar cane fields even though they looked older than any person in a nursing home in America. Exercise certainly is key. Very interesting hub, voted up.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 19, 2013:
Thanks for checking out my hub, Peg. Cedar Rapids, Iowa was selected to be one of Iowa's Blue Zones and there are many exciting initiatives underway, including community gardens, restaurant menu changes, biking and walking clubs, etc.
Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on July 19, 2013:
These blue zones provide wonderful incentives for leading a different kind of lifestyle. I like the stress reducers and the natural movement options along with the decrease on the intake of meat. I truly believe we are (primarily) in charge of our longevity based on our lifelong choices. Very interesting studies and the adaptation in the states is encouraging.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on February 04, 2013:
Thanks, time2rite. Sorry about the delay in my response. Still trying to get caught up with comments after vacation. Just last week, my town, Cedar Rapids, was selected as a Blues Zones demonstration community as part of a state-wide project. It will be interesting to see the changes that come from it. Sounds like you are on the right track for your own healthy living.
Kathryne Waller from Knoxville, TN USA on January 23, 2013:
Deborah, this is a very interesting article. I had read of the Okinawans who lived long lives but wasn't aware of Okinawa or anywhere else being "a Blue Zone" or that there even was such a thing! I have always eaten slowly, quit before completely full, tried to just have natural activity included into my day aside from regular exercise as well as trying to keep loved ones first. I think the biggest thing for me to do personally is to incorporate more "community" into my life. Very insightful hub; great job covering this topic! Voted "Up", "Useful" and "Interesting"!
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on August 03, 2012:
Thanks, John. I'm the same way. I generally have no problem with consuming some nice red wine, but the 80% rule trips me up every time. I tend to stuff myself full.
John MacNab from the banks of the St. Lawrence on August 03, 2012:
Voted up and across Deborah. Excellent information; some I have already begun, but some others I must try. Thank you.
Jools Hogg from North-East UK on August 03, 2012:
Deb, this is a really interesting hub, thoroughly enjoyed it and reckon I could use of the Blue Zone living tips myself.
Voted up and shared.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on May 20, 2012:
Here, here, Cyndi. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Cynthia B Turner from Georgia on May 20, 2012:
Great article. Well researched and presented in a very easy to read format. Thanks so much for the information. And may we all live long and healthy lives, writing and creating well into our 90's (or more)!
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on March 31, 2012:
Thanks for all the wonderful comments on the this hub. It's really a great concept that's being applied in Iowa and elsewhere - to promote a sort of "group think" about living healthier and then making changes to the environment so the healthy choice is the easiest choice. Techygran, you are right, the key is quality of life at an older age, not just a longer life, and that's what they are finding in these "blue zones." People are living better for longer. By the way, since it started the Healthiest State Initiative, Iowa already has moved up a few places on the wellness index. So it seems to be working.
Audrey Howitt from California on March 30, 2012:
Very interesting hub! I am a vegetarian and have been for almost 15 years now and feel great--exercise?? well???
Stephanie Henkel from USA on March 30, 2012:
Very informative hub with many lessons that could be easily applied to our lives. I'm so impressed by the state of Iowa's promotion of a healthier life style! Voted up and Tweeted!
Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on March 30, 2012:
Great hub Deborah! Groups of people are achieving long lives all over the globe but the key is Quality Longevity, isn't it? I wouldn't want to live to be 100 if I were barely alive in a nursing home, but if I were like Marge of Loma Linda, driving my own car and walking a few miles every morning on the treadmill at over 100, it wouldn't be so bad! Voted you up!
Sharilee Swaity from Canada on March 30, 2012:
I had never heard of them being called "blue zones," although I have read different articles of these communities. I find it especially interesting that the spiritual component is just as important as the physical components. Having people around with you similar beliefs is something many of us don't have and I think that is stressful in itself.
Obtaining all of these things will not be easy for city planners, because they can't plan people's beliefs. They can make it easier to move everyday, though, which is very important.
Deborah, great article, that I enjoyed very much. Thanks for this.
Sunnie Day on March 30, 2012:
Great article. I agree with most of their longevity ways of living. Beautifully written. Thank you!
Jeannie Marie from Baltimore, MD on March 30, 2012:
This is a really interesting hub. The funny thing is, I think people logically know they should be doing some of this stuff, but they just don't bother. It helps to be with a group of people that are all doing the same thing. Peer pressure is great if it keeps you healthier. Thanks for sharing this! Voted up!
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on February 09, 2012:
Thanks, Susan. I just saw Dan Buettner, author of "The Blue Zones," speak at an event last week. He talked about what the city of Albert Lea, MN has accomplished by implementing Blue Zones principles throughout its community. It's pretty powerful stuff!
susanm23b on February 09, 2012:
Very interesting! I had never heard of the Blue Zones either, but did know that there were residents in certains areas that all had great health and longevity. We should all the living out their "secrets". The simples things really are the best.
Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on January 10, 2012:
Thanks for commenting, Donna. I was starting to feel sorry for this poor little hub getting no love. : ) I first heard of the Blue Zones about a year ago and have been doing a lot of reading and researching on the topic lately because of the Iowa iniative. Some of the ideas seem so simple but it never hurts to have reminders that we need to get up and move and take time to relax.
Donna Cosmato from USA on January 10, 2012:
What an informative hub! I had not heard of these Blue Zones, and I'm glad to learn more. Thanks for sharing the awesome tips on longevity; I plan to implement as many as I can. Voted up.