"Blue Zones" are areas around the world where people tend to live to over 100. Where are these Blue Zones, and what can we learn from them?
The first Blue Zone was discovered by a Belgian demographer called Michel Poulain in 2000. While counting the centenarians in Sardinia, an Italian island in the western Mediterranean, he noticed that they tended to be clustered in one area: the province of Ogliastra, the most mountainous on the island. He took a blue marker and circled the places where people were more likely to live to 100, thus creating the first so-called Blue Zone.
Ogliastra has the highest concentration of men over 100 in the world. Several factors have been attributed to this, mostly a low-protein, plant-based diet and an active lifestyle. In part because of the harsh mountainous terrain, the people of these villages live an austere, rural life, working the fields until late in their lives and eating mostly what they grow. This lifestyle has led to exceptionally low rates of diabetes, cancer, and death for people under 65.
Like Sardinia, Okinawa is an island, which may account for its trend of longevity: island populations are more likely to be cut off from foreign influences for longer and therefore tend to have a more self-reliant lifestyle. Once again, this means eating fresh local produce such as sweet potatoes, soybeans, and seaweed, and remaining active until late in life. As opposed to Sardinia, Okinawa has the oldest-living women in the world.
The legendary longevity of Okinawa is at risk, however. With Japan modernizing at an incredibly rapacious pace, and with the arrival of a U.S. military base to the island in 1947, the longevity of the people has been in steady decline. Poulain estimates that in 15 years, when the oldest generation on the island dies out, we will no longer be able to consider Okinawa a Blue Zone.
Nicoya is a small peninsula in the Central American country of Costa Rica. It's also the place with the second-highest concentration of centenarian men. It has the lowest rate of middle-aged mortality anywhere in the world and - interestingly - the reasons for the longevity of the people of Nicoya is different from that of the other Blue Zones. It points to other important factors in living a long healthy life quite apart from diet and exercise.
The Nicoyan diet is also healthy, but in a different way, revolving around staples like beans, rice, and animal meat. They also exercise regularly, but it is the low-intensity exercise of regular chores. The main factor contributing to Nicoyans' longevity is the idea of a "plan de vida", or reason to live: this is a cultural focus on family and community among the elderly. They socialize often, maintain a sense of humor, and overall live their lives with a very positive outlook well into old age.
This shows us the importance of social factors in longevity: people live longer where there is a sense of community and togetherness, and where seniors are not isolated from society but embraced by it.
Ikaria is a Greek island off the coast of Turkey. Not only does it have exceptional longevity - one in three people is likely to live to the age of 90 - but it also has some of the world's lowest rates of dementia. When asked about their secret, Ikarians say that they simply "forget to die".
As with the other Blue Zones, the longevity of Ikarians is due to their environment and way of life. They eat a healthy Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables and healthy fats. The rough terrain and pleasant weather mean they walk often and remain active. And finally, they live a relaxed, laid-back lifestyle, with daily naps and glasses of red wine shared amongst friends and family at night.
However, this lifestyle is dying out. Meat consumption is up, as is the presence of fast foods like souvlaki and potato chips. Younger generations of Ikarians are already displaying higher rates of obesity and stress than their elders. Like Okinawa, the longevity of Ikarian communities is under threat from an increasingly Westernized way of life.
This last Blue Zone is sometimes not considered equal to the other four because of one stark difference: the longevity of the residents of Loma Linda, California, is due not to their geography, but to their religion. The city has the highest concentration of Seventh-Day Adventists in the country, a religion which enforces a strict biblical diet. It also forbids alcohol and smoking, encourages regular exercise as well as adequate rest, and gives a sense of purpose and community to its members.
The case of Loma Linda is interesting because religion has effectively replicated the geographical factors that make the other Blue Zones exceptional: a healthy plant-based diet, a focus on balancing physical activity with relaxation, and a sense of purpose well into old age. More impressively, it does this in the United States, a country with mounting health concerns around diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Loma Linda may not be a pure Blue Zone, but it does show that longevity is possible for everyone, independently of geographical location.
If you're looking to add a few more years to your adventure, there's plenty to be learned from these cultures.
Thanks for reading! Subscribe to our newsletter for a weekly dose of travel in your inbox.