The isles of longevity

While physical decline is an inevitable product of growing old, some people stay stronger and live longer than most. And they tend to cluster in certain regions of the world that have attracted the curiosity of researchers.

The Blue Zones

In 2004, Dan Buettner joined forces with the National Geographic and longevity researchers to identify and study the world’s longest living people and environments where they were most concentrated.

They found five places: the Barbagia region of Sardinia in Italy, the island of Ikaria in Greece, Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Loma Linda in California and the Okinawa islands of Japan.

Research has revealed nine habits that are shared by long-living inhabitants of these regions:

  • Simple lifestyles characterised by regular incidental activity.
  • Purpose, known as “Ikigai” in Okinawa and “plan de vida” in Nicoya Peninsula – translating to “why I wake up in the morning.”
  • Regular habits to unwind and destress, for instance praying, napping and happy hour.
  • Eating until only 80% full.
  • Legume-rich diets and five small portions of meat per month on average.
  • 1-2 glasses of wine daily with meals and friends or family.
  • Belonging to a faith-based community.
  • Treasuring family – committing to a life partner, investing time and love into children, and keeping parents and grandparents close.
  • Supportive social networks that reinforce healthy habits.

Here we zoom into three of these zones for further insights.

Okinawa, Japan

Escaping high rates of chronic diseases commonly associated with aging, such as dementia, heart disease and cancer, older Okinawans have one of the world’s longest life and health expectancies.

The ongoing Okinawa Centenarian Study began in 1975. Researcher Dr Craig Willcox has written a book about the findings, one being eating “as low down the food chain as possible” – i.e. a plant-based diet.

They enjoy three serves of fish a week, plenty of wholegrains, vegetables, soy products, seaweed, squid and octopus. Local flavonoid-rich vegetables include purple sweet potatoes and bitter cucumbers. They also drink Jasmine tea.

A cultural highlight is a female band called KBG84 that rehearses and performs regularly – its members are all over 80. Like many Japanese people, its members are full of energy, which they ascribe to “ikigai” or “a sense of life.”

Sardinia, Italy

Sardinians live in their island’s mountainous villages. Like other Blue Zone dwellers, fruit, vegetables and beans dominate their diets. Typical Sardinians spend their active days toiling in their gardens, milking cows and walking miles to tend sheep.

They gather together with the whole family, young and old, to enjoy home-cooked meals with wine and homemade flat bread high in fibre, complex carbohydrates and protein and low in gluten.

While women live longer in Okinawa, Sardinia has more male centenarians. Some attribute this to the fact that women take care of household matters like bills – so the men might enjoy less stress.

Nicoya, Costa Rica

From the mountains of Sardinia to the sandy peninsula of Nicoya, long-living Costa Ricans have long telomeres – genetic biomarkers of aging that shorten with stress.

They also enjoy a high plant-based diet, and drink local, limestone infused water high in calcium and magnesium.

Everywhere they go, they walk. They belong to different faith-based organisations. And they laugh a lot – this is a core element of what Costa Ricans call “pura vida,” meaning pure life.

The take home message? Embrace life, family/friends and healthy habits in a way that brings the most joy.


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