For thousands of years, human beings have fantasized about immortality, which is funny because, for about the same amount of time, people have also been complaining about how shitty life is. The philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, and the fountain of youth; these myths all have one objective in common to cheat death and live forever.
Interestingly enough, there are areas of the world where people appear to have already solved the riddle of long life. In these pockets of civilization, called blue zones, higher than the usual number of people live much longer than average. These are regions where we find unusually high concentrations of centenarian people 100 years old or more and supercentenarian people over 110 who wear capes. The term blue zone sounds like it should mean something important but its origin is actually a little underwhelming; it was coined by two gerontologists (that is the name for people who study aging) Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, they were the first to identify that the population of Sardinia’s Neuro province included the highest number of male centenarians in the world. As they studied the cluster of villages with the highest longevity, they drew concentric blue circles to highlight the relevant area and called everything inside: the blue zone.
Pes and Poulain were joined in their research by an explorer and national geographic fellow; Dan Buettner who helped expand the use of the term to identify longevity hotspots around the world. In total there are five blue zones where inhabitants live abnormally long and healthy lives:
The islands of Okinawa in Japan
Sardinia in Italy
the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica
Icaria in Greece
and the community of Seventh-day Adventists who live in Loma Linda in California.
For decades we’ve been trying to uncover the secrets to living a long and happy life, but it’s surprisingly difficult to identify shared behaviors or qualities amongst the world’s oldest of fogies, quite inconveniently the oldest individuals have tended to vary significantly in their approach to living, some never touched a cigarette others puffed like chimneys well into their hundreds, some never drank alcohol others loved the tipple, one swore by sushi another ate two raw eggs a day, but in focusing on communities that consistently broke the age bank, the blue zones project revealed longevity patterns that were common to regions rather than individuals and it’s about more than just life spans. Blue zone areas also present high healthy life expectancy where people consistently reach their 90s with low rates of chronic disease; blues owners don’t just live longer they do so with more energy, better health, and all the other stuff that makes them well. In their research, Buettner and his team identified nine lessons that can be learned from blue’s own lifestyles but these can be summed up into four main habits:
This is not the same as sitting at a desk all day then running yourself ragged at the gym for an hour. In Okinawa, Japan home to the world’s longest-living women, people traditionally sit on the floor to eat, talk work or relax. Okinawan centenarians sit down on the floor and get up again dozens or hundreds of times per day which exercises their legs back and core in a natural way and in Sardinia where we find the world’s longest-living men, the longevity phenomenon is especially concentrated amongst shepherds who spend their days outside walking over steep and rugged terrain. In the blue zones region of Icaria Greece, more than 80 percent of people between ages 65 and 100 are having Viagra free sex, a little bit of geriatric house your father isn’t just a sign of good vitality it also keeps your vitals healthy. A study published in the British journal of medicine tracked 1 000, 45 to 59-year-old Welshman for 10 years, researchers found that men who experience frequent orgasms had half the coronary heart disease mortality risk in comparison with their less orgasmic counterparts, and a longitudinal study of 1500 Americans had similarly good news for frisky women too; finding that for middle-aged married women more regular orgasms lowered mortality risk.
The second magic ingredient is a strong family and social support system. Okinawa is sometimes called the island of the immortals because more than 1 000 people in the last 40 years have lived 100 years or more. Critical to this longevity is a tradition of MOAIS; local groups for support and companionship between residents that can last for decades. Traditionally children are placed in small groups (MOAIS) to socialize and grow together as they get older. This MOAIS continue to meet work and hang out together; some have lasted more than 90 years. Amongst a Loma Linda community in the united states, volunteering, social care, and strong face-to-face relationships are fundamental to their way of living, societal cohesion is also helped by the fact that everyone is a seventh-day Adventist so they’re all singing off the same hymn sheet. Literally, the value of close relationships has also been confirmed in numerous other studies, a meta-analysis of 148 longitudinal studies involving more than 300 000 participants reveals that older people with strong social relationships are 50 percent more likely to live longer than those who are isolated or lonely. If you have regular contact with friends, family, and neighbors the longevity benefit is similar to quitting smoking and about twice as beneficial as exercising regularly or maintaining a normal weight. Emma Morano would have disagreed though, she was an Italian supercentenarian who, before her death, at the age of 117 years and 137 days declared that the secret to her long life was staying single.
Live with purpose
The third blue zone secret is to live with purpose, to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. In Okinawa they call this your ‘IKIGAI’ and in Nicoya, Costa Rica they call it plan de veda, but having a clear idea of why you’re alive is an integral part of all the blue’s own cultures, so yeah if you’re a nihilist you’re basically screwed. In an 11 year NIH funded study looking at the correlation between having a sense of purpose and longevity, healthy people between the ages of 65 and 92 who expressed having clear goals or purpose lived longer and lived better than those who did not according to Dr. Makoto Suzuki of the Okinawa Research Center for longevity science an IKIGAI or purpose doesn’t need to be a grand vision, it can be something as simple as a dedication to a hobby or a commitment to caring for someone else. Let’s hope that making articles counts because I’m planning on living to 153 at least.
The last big blue zone tip is to set up your life and environment so that the healthy choice is the easy choice not just an option, this applies to all aspects of lifestyle, but especially diet and physical exercise. In blue zones meals are created according to old recipes and eating is a social event with most diets largely plant-based and high in vegetables whole grains pulses and nuts. Those that do eat fish or other meat only consume small amounts on average about five times a month. Alcohol, if consumed, is also taken in moderation and none of the blue zones have fast-food restaurants which eliminates the temptation to make poor food choices. Sadly, for those of you looking for some secret diet or geriatric life-hack blue zone studies show there is no one big trick to living a long and healthy life. Blues owners have such impressive longevity because they combine a bunch of mutually supporting factors that help them to do the right things long enough and avoid doing the wrong things long enough to lower the risk of developing chronic diseases and according to Buettner these little pockets of unusually long-lived people might not last much longer because most of the blue zones and potential blue zones identified so far won’t exist in 10 years’ time due to the anticipated influence of what he calls ‘the standard American diet’.
Having said all that there’s also strong evidence to suggest the maximum lifespan of humans is fixed and subject to non-negotiable natural constraints and some scientists suggest that whilst we may find ways to live slightly longer, better and disease-free lives biologically, our lifespans are capped. If they’re correct, then the lessons we can learn in the blue zones are even more important. Tell us what you think in the comment section below.