Blue Zones Around the World

Today I wanted to take a tour of the places around the world where people live the longest. I hope to give you a brief description of each Blue Zone and a look at what ties them together and what different solutions they have towards living long-lives.  Come follow along.  For further information, recommend reading The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer by Dan Buettner, to whom I in highly indebted for his valuable research.

Okinawa, Japan

Japan has long been associated with things like moderation, meditation and healthy living.  On the trail for the longest living people in Japan, Dan Buettner’s research led him here to this island that is much closer to Taiwan than to Japan.  Okinawa, stands out even among the other provinces in Japan for several reasons.  Certainly, the growing season farther south is longer and that means people can grow vegetables year-round and thus eat less meat and salty food.  You also can’t discount the importance of sunlight, which creates vitamin D in our body and differs significantly from vitamin D in a vitamin or in fortified milk.  Okinawan people greatly benefit from the better weather and the sunlight that these centenarians receive during their life.  It is not the burn yourself kind of sunshine but the constant exposure of the skin to being outside, doing manual work helps to control key elements of the immune system, blood pressure and cell growth. Sunlight exposure is also important for cancer regulation.

Another lesson that Okinawa has for the rest of the world is the phrase that all Okinawans repeat to themselves before they eat, hara hachi bu.  Hara hachi bu is a way to remind yourself that you should eat until you are 80% full but not stuffed.  The idea is that it takes twenty minutes for your digestive system to begin processing food, so the brain and the tastes buds need time to catch up and avoid overtaxing your body with too much food, which creates toxins as you try to take in more than you need.  This follows a similar philosophy that I saw in North Africa, where a hadith states that we should be never overfill our stomach like we wouldn’t overfill a pot of water that we are cooking.  We should always be a third full of food, a third of water and a third of breath/air.

When we think of Japan, I think of a determined, precise and loyal people.  They are highly organized, disciplined, clean and professional.  In Japan, there is a concept called Ikigai.  Loosely translated it comes out as the “reason for getting out of bed in the morning.”  The ikigai of the centenarians interviewed in Okinawa for research showed that ikigai can be everything from living for their family, for the business, because you are proud of your health, repsecting your ancestors or just simply to be grateful.  By staying active for whatever reason, it gives people a sense of purpose, a daily task and keeps one looking towards the future.  In the west we place our oldest in nursing homes where they have no purpose, no way to feel useful and predictably life expectancy is nowhere near the same.

 

As expected these Okinawan centenarians have rigid, simple diets based on local foods especially from their own production.  A 105 year-old woman, who is also her village’s noro, said ”  Beauty…comes from not worrying so much about your own problems.  Sometimes you can best take care of yourself by taking care of others.  Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to people and smile.”  A large part of the diet of these super-individuals is made up of alot of tofu, vegetables and occasionally meat.  The natural diet stimulates the creation of healthy, friendly bacteria in our intestines which are more often found in rural socities where people eat simple, non processed foods.  These friendly bacteria include immunomodulating and fiber-fermenting lactic acid bacteria.   On the contraire, things like surgery, medication and consumption of meats and processed foods disrupt a natural balance and shift your tummy from friendly to unfriendly bacteria.  The shift results in an increased risk of “sophisticated society diseases” like IBS, colon cancer and more it’s also associated with low grade systemic inflammation that is related to an increase for all diseases of aging like osteoporosis, heart disease and dementia.  If we think back to sunlight, we know for a fact the importance of vitamin D in protecting our bodies and the benefits from time spent outside.  Simple life choices like having more active lives, especially gardening, harvesting your own food…these are all signs from each of the world’s Blue Zones that it’s really not that hard to live a Blue Zone life or to understand the secerts that have been created by thousands of years of evolution, cultural knowledge and logic.

 

Icaria, Greece

As I learn about life on the island of Icaria, what sticks out is the quality and richness of the lives of each of the centenarians talked about in the book, where living longer meant even living happier and lives that are more worthwhile.  Just as in Japan, there are many things that deserve being mentioned that can help us understand the concept of a Blue Zone.  Is it really considered such an accomplishment if we can “keep” people alive in Europe and the United States, despite body failure or dependent on medication and medical care that renders one unable to live a  fulfilling existence in their last years.  I have spent days caring for older loved ones who were forced to eek out a meager existence condemed to their beds or chairs and with nothing to look forward or do because of their condition.

One of the secrets of long life in Icaria and a sense of happiness is the siesta, which gives people time to take care of their family, rest which is proven to make you happier and healthier, tend gardens and look and feel younger.  A typical family would be able to meet all together during lunch and siesta time, so even a worker has time to pass by their parents house or tend to a garden during the afternoon break.

We also have multi-generational families living together under the same roof.  There is also the positive impact on grandchildren and grandparents when multiple generations live together.   Studies have proven that it raised the self-esteem of the younger children while the older members of the family tend to live ten years longer by living with their grandchildren, there is always someone to talk to, to read a story with, talk a walk or who needs and gives affection.  And no one can doubt the affinity of children and the elderly, its as if they both habitate in the realm where neither rules nor taboos reign.  A far step away from the rigid, disciplined rules of our normal, daily society which children and the elderly are happily removed from.

In Japan, tofu, vegetable gardens and medicinal plants like tumeric and mugwort seemed constant in the people’s diet.  In Icaria the Mediterranean people drink goat milk even into their 90s.  They have two types of cheese, musitra and kottura.  They are also devoted to the gardens and particularly enjoy gathering wild greens and foods from that abound in such a pristine and undisturbed environment.  It costs less, gives us exercise and keeps us healthy.  A whole new way to multi-task.

Is it just a coincidence that three of the five Blue Zones are an island, one is an isthmus that until recently wasn’t accesible without a boat and the other is a religious community, different from the world around?  In Icaria, it is the unique geography that has helped keep it insulated from modern culture.  While Greece has changed forty times over, Icaria seems to lay in the backwater part of the country which has kept it off the map for big improvements, modernazations and this has also kept the landscape and lands undisturbed.  Without famous beaches or long lines of hotels dotting the beaches, Icaria has been able to keep to itself and help these traditions endure and thrive without regard to the passing of time.

If Ikigai was the Okinawan philosophy for long life, in Icaria “take time to dwell” seems the adage that is most adapt.  Life on the island permits a low sense of time urgency.    People move with the seasons, with the weather, with the passage of time related to agricultural work.  They move as once the ancestral sheperds moved up and down with their herds.  Friends spend long afternoons together sipping herbal tea, chatting and providing each other with financial and emotional support.  Any visitor to the island is quickly caught up in a how “laid-back” everything seems and has no choice but to follow along and enjoy the ride.  It seems that Icarians have known this secret for sometime and have long used it to their advantage.

Loma Linda, California

The lesser known and smallest population size of any Blue Zone group is the 7th Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California.  7th Day Adventists if you didn’t happene to know, is a the US’s fastest growing Christian denomination.  Aside from being one of the only Christian denominations to follow the sabbath, they also hold healthy living and diet in upmost importance.  Many are vegetarian and almost all happily grow their own food and enjoy nuts fruit and a little bit of meat (no pork).  What’s interesting is that they have many other things in common with the other Blue Zones areas eventhough here we are not talking about a particular region or island.  The centenarians in this part of California all form part of a community, bringing a strong sense of identity as well as a thick social and emotional network of friends and family, just as if we were still in Greece.  They don’t work at all on Saturday so it’s a day of rest, a day of group work, volunteering, potlucks, time to do things yourself, take hikes in nature and work in your own garden.

As we shall see in the other Blue Zone areas there are things that are common among the 7th Day Adventist that will be a common thread throughout all of our research like naps and social support augment brain activity and keep minds and bodies active and healthy.  But what sticks out the most in Loma Linda is the fact that their faith seems to give them something special.  Elizabeth Lopez a psycologist from the Blue Zones project in Costa Rica was quoted as saying:  “The fact that God is in control of our lives relieves any economic, spiritual or well-being anxiety they might otherwise have.  They go through life with peaceful certitude that someone is looking out for them.”  We know through research that people who go to church tend to live longer, which can be expected by all the positive social aspects but more so prayer seems to triggers the relaxation response, a state of mind-body rest that has been shown to decrease stress, heart rate and blood pressure; alleviate chronic disease symptoms; and even change gene expression.  (source-https://time.com/5159848/do-religious-people-live-longer/)  The same benefits can be found in those who do yoga or meditation as well although the results of those practices are much harder to demonstrate.  Faith is another interesting dynamic in this Blue Zone elixir and a common part of life any Blue Zone population.

Nicoya, Costa Rica

The people of this unexplored and tranquil part of Costa Rica, are said to be a mix of spanish, african and the original native inhabitants of the region, Los Chorotega.  The men traditionally worked as ranchers in the mountains that surround the Nicoya pennisula, this little strip of arid scrubland, tropical forests and beautiful Pacific coastline.  The women were those in charge of the homes, the children, the gardens and also any other possible economic activities for the household.  The traditional diet consists of rice, corn tortillas and beans, adorned with helpful portions of fresh fruit and vegetables.

“When the old ways disappear, as perhaps they must, it is regrettable that so little is saved from them, so that those who practice them suffer the penalty of obsolescence, as the poor both of a new and more efficient world.”

Here too, everyone has an ikigai, everyone has “time to dwell” and some of the most touching stories come from the marvellous personalities discovered here in this tropical paradise.  Ladies like this 101 year old lady, still walking around with a machete and cooking up her own corn tortillas.

Just like Conchita and her incredibly young looking son(at eighty pedaling on his bike like he was fifteen) are part of this miracle of life in the Nicoya pennisula.  Is it the food?  Is it the sunshine?  Is it the relaxed, stress-free way of looking at life?  It seems so many factors come together to make this a fascninating place to visit, learn from and live.  This Blue Zone area like others has historically been a bit isolated and thus so far has been able to keep it’s traditions and lifestyle that might have been lost in the rest of the country.  This can help explain how much of the Chorotega people,  whether in the diet, tools or trades it seems that many of the traditions of these people have been kept alive because of this part of Costa Rica.  Women like Conchita were used to making do without a husband and did everything for their family, with the help of her children and a neighborhood support system.  Here at the Country Living School Sardinia, we can only wish that other less-advantaged nations like Costa Rica could enjoy such peaceful existence and healthy living.   

Sardinia, Italy

For long, Sardinia was just a hidden jewel in the middle of the Mediterranean.  Up until twenty years ago, it was Italy’s little-big secret, mainly frequented by nature-loving backpackers and the world’s richest, who loved exploring the hidden bays and coves with their private yachts.  The arrival of international fame has proven to be a huge boom to the island and it’s own self-confidence.  But, as a teacher in these local high schools I know there is still alot of work to do to convince the hearts of minds of the population just how special this place is.   One of my middle school students, from a village in the middle of the mountains, faraway from the world that he dreams of.  He with dreams of MTV cribs and big interstates in his head, said one day when he was feeling pessimstic about where he came from said:  “Man, there’s nothing here!”  The hollow words sounded out in the classroom, echoing what is a general feeling among teenagers in this part of the island, where work and most important !money! seems so far away.  Without sounding aloof or not interested in their complaint of life today in these Blue Zones, I tried to explain a couple of things.  One, the mountains are the unheralded heroes of our natural world.  The water that comes off these mountain sides fills our cups as well, feeds us as well brings water that power our homes.  In China they are already selling air in a can ($20), how do we put a price on air…but it’s soil, air, water that mountains give us, which are the three most important compentents of our lives…their true price we won’t know until it’s already too late!

Sardinia as a blue zone has alot of the characteristics that the other ones have.  Standing out is the Sardinian dry, sarcastic humor that helps people laugh about themselves and others, helping to ease stress and ease social interactions.  It certainly won’t come to a suprise for anyone who has lived here long to see the similarity in sardonic and Sardinia.  You certainly won’t survive in Sardinia if you don’t have thick skin and can’t laugh at yourself.   Family, as much as anywhere also stands out in the secret to a long life for it is central to Sardinians’ lifestyle.  A sense of purpose comes from their dedication to their family and the fact that older people feel needed gives the older members of the family a reason to wake up every morning.  This is the same concept that in Japan is called: irigui, the reason to wake up in the morning and in Costa Rica is called plan de vida.  Most of the inhabitants of the blue zones worked in the countryside , in the mountains that make up this rich yet austere region of the island.  They all get daily exercise, perform daily functions like shepherding or working vinyards, olive groves and vegetable gardens.  Alot of times, you will find the elders in the family in charge of the vegetable gardens and fruit production giving the chance to younger members of the family to work outside the village in higher paying jobs. 

I always have delighted in the fact of Sardinian life that it’s the oldest member of the family that is “bringing home the bacon.”

Last but not least, Sardinia as well as other blue zones, are also considered to be insulated places related to the fact that for years there was not much outside interference in the villages, so that the people could truly trace their origins back to the original Nuraghic people from before the Roman invasion.  Now, we know that genetics make up about 20% of the chance for long lifes but it’s possible just like in Costa Rica, the habits, traditions and lifestyles have been inherited from long gone ancestors but those same lifestyle are kept alive and in these simple habits we can find the keys to many of the secerts of long life like food, family and daily exercise.

 

 

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