Blue Zones- A Culture of Living Longer
What factors do you attribute to your physical wellness? What steps do you take to maximize your health and lifespan?
For centuries, people have obsessed over longevity. Throughout the world, health and the human lifespan are viewed through a variety of lenses. Some consider environment and lifestyle to be a primary factor for longevity, while others focus on science and medicine. Spirituality is another way that groups interpret and enhance health. While the highest potential for human longevity probably lies within all of these concepts, we are often told that our health is predetermined by our genes. However, a Danish study on twins concluded that lifespan for individuals is only about 20% determined by genetics. This research suggests that there is significant potential for us to take control of our health and maximize our longevity through beneficial lifestyle practices.
Blue Zones is a study that was aided by National Geographic. The study has identified several communities throughout the world where people seem to have mastered the art of living longer. Researchers have found that these communities achieve the highest average lifespan, with more people living past the age of 100 than anywhere else in the world. So, what sets these communities apart from others? And since these Blue Zones occur throughout differing parts of the world, what commonalities do they share?
The Blue Zones study concludes that these long-lived communities share some significant traits, all predominantly driven by cultural identity and lifestyle. One such trait is dietary habit. All Blue Zone diets are dominated by plant-based meals, with little to no consumption of processed foods. Meat is part of the diet, but it is consumed sparingly. All of the groups drink coffee every day (coffee enthusiasts rejoice!). Similarly, most of the Blue Zone groups consume 1-2 servings of alcohol each day. People within these zones also share a similar philosophy about food intake. They dine in moderation, typically adhering to a tradition of eating until they feel 80% full. Many do not eat at night.
Another commonality within Blue Zones is a strong sense of purpose. Each of the groups enjoys a rich intrapersonal life where individuals are deeply identified with familial bonds. Psychological studies have long concluded that loneliness and dissociation are terrible for your health. In Blue Zones, communities tend to be smaller and people tend to stay active and connected within them. Where many societies bolster an individualist, isolationist mindset, Blue Zones are characterized by social cohesion. This trait appears to be a recipe for longer lifespans. For example, research suggests that Grandparents who frequently babysit their Grandchildren tend to live longer. Other studies show that an honest commitment to loved ones may lower disease and mortality risk for all family members, young and old. In Okinawa, Japan (a Blue Zone), social cohesion is so important that it has its own name, “Moais”- a group that is bound together for life.
Creating and honoring this deep sense of purpose likely empowers Blue Zoners not only to live longer, but to live with more vitality as well. In the United States, many adults experience a sharp decline in activity after retirement. Researchers believe that staying active after retirement could decrease your risk of mortality by as much as 10%. While numerous factors may contribute to this trend, it’s likely that many Americans experience a loss of fulfillment once their working days are over. Whether it’s through mastering a craft, raising a family, or tending to a farm, the Blue Zone study suggests that having a sense of purpose can increase the quality and length of life. Okinawans refer to it as “Ikigai”, or a reason to wake up in the morning.
Finally, people in Blue Zones always make time to quiet the mind, destress, and go inward. Stress is a known killer. It causes inflammation, chronic disease, and a myriad of other ailments that contribute to early death. Blue Zone populations practice mindfulness and stress management every day. The specific practice varies from place to place, but it is typically engrained in the sociocultural fabric. For example, Okinawans take time to honor their ancestors, while Seventh Day Adventists (another Blue Zone group), use prayer as a means of quieting the mind.
The Blue Zones study concludes that people could increase their lifespan by 10-12 years by adopting the right lifestyle practices. A closer look at Blue Zones may help us examine our own lifestyle practices and assess our connection to health, longevity, and wellness through new eyes.