News & Media

Rochester Woman Online: Insights from Blue Zones

Written by Lisa E. Ireland,

President & CEO of the LSF.

In a recent conversation, one of my colleagues brought up the topic of Blue Zones. These areas with high concentrations of centenarians and people that age without succumbing to age-related illnesses were first identified by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain and then further developed by Dan Buettner. This discussion prompted me to investigate how longevity and aging look in various corners of the globe. How do people worldwide support their health, and achieve longevity? And how can we incorporate their experiences to improve our own well-being?

Aggregating and analyzing experiences, knowledge, and information from different geographies underpin the efforts of researchers and longevity care professionals. Here at the Longevity Science Foundation (LSF), we pursue longer and healthier lifespans for humanity by funding early-stage aging research. We are driven by a universal desire to live and age free of age-associated illnesses. This calling takes on even higher importance when viewed through the prism of the approaching silver tsunami and its accompanying challenges.
First, let's set the stage. The aging question is becoming a global concern due to two defining trends of the coming decades: longer life expectancy and reduced childbirth rates. UN projections indicate that by 2100, the world's median age will be 42; by 2073, the share of people over 65 will surpass that of those under 15 for the first time. The World Health Organization predicts a doubling of the population over 60 from 11% in 2000 to 22% by 2050, with Asia, Latin America, Europe, and North America reaching median ages that fall between 40 and 46. These statistics highlight the impending silver tsunami and underscore the necessity of addressing health concerns we will all face as we age.

So, what do global insights into longevity offer us? Let's look at blue zones, where people live the longest and healthiest lives. It all began with Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain identifying Sardinia as the region with the biggest concentration of male centenarians. Pes and Poulain marked Sardinian villages with higher longevity and referred to them as the blue zones. Building on their research, Dan Buettner highlighted other geographies with extreme longevity, expanding the term "blue zones." Let's take a closer look at these places:

  • Loma Linda, California: a community of roughly 25,000 (a third of whom are Seventh-day Adventists) has, on average, a life expectancy ten years longer than that of their compatriots from other parts of the US.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica: located on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, the area has the second-highest concentration of male centenarians.
  • Sardinia, Italy: a mountainous region within Italy's island of Sardinia is home to the world's highest concentration of male centenarians.
  • Ikaria, Greece: a small island in the Aegean Sea hosts a population with the world's lowest rates of dementia and one of the lowest rates of middle-age mortality.
  • Okinawa, Japan: with a remarkably high number of centenarians, Okinawa's Females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.
Studying these populations, we can identify key factors contributing to longevity, some of which we've previously discussed in one of my earlier articles (prioritizing physical health and fitness, adopting healthy eating habits, ensuring restful sleep, nurturing social connections, and living purposefully). Here are some of the takeaways from looking at blue zones:

  • Purposeful Existence. Referred to as "Ikigai" (the reason for being) by Okinawans, a sense of meaning to one's life is known to boost both life expectancy and life quality.
  • Taking a Pause. Blue zone residents effectively downregulate their stress levels through various practices such as midday naps, prayers, or taking moments to remember and honor their ancestors (as seen in the case of Okigawans).
  • A Sense of Belonging and Spirituality. Being an active part of a faith-based community benefits longevity, as suggested by interviews of centenarians conducted by Dan Buettner.
  • Putting Family First. Committing to a life partner is a proven way of increasing one's life expectancy. On top of that, Dan's findings suggest that living in proximity to other generations of your family could also contribute to human longevity.
  • Healthy Eating. With the prevalence of craving-provoking food in our society, the significance of maintaining a healthy eating habit cannot be understated. Dr. Andrea Maier, our esteemed Scientific Advisor from the National University of Singapore, specifically emphasizes this issue as one of the common pitfalls of Western society, which is largely avoided in blue zones. Drawing from her medical expertise, Dr. Maier suggests that we should aim to stop eating once we feel full, learning from experience of people in these longevity regions. Additionally, intermittent fasting appears to be another influential factor contributing to the longevity of blue zone residents, with confirmed benefits for both lifespan and healthspan.
  • The Right Crowd. Research indicates that certain habits can exhibit contagious behavior. Smoking, loneliness, and unhealthy eating patterns can spread through social circles. It is, therefore, worthwhile to become mindful of such tendencies and help your friends align with your own pursuit of healthy aging.
  • Genes and epigenetics. Dr. Nir Barzilai, our colleague from the Healthy Longevity Medicine Society, emphasizes that centenarians in blue zones proactively optimize their environments for longer and healthier lives. Their lifestyle choices directly impact gene expression and, when combined with already favorable genetic makeup, contribute significantly to their remarkable longevity.
  • Movement. Even small amounts of regular physical activity (such as cleaning or walking) increase lifespans in older adults. Dr. Maier pinpoints a shortfall in how we treat seniors in the Western world: when someone is sick, people are often overly helpful, offering assistance with small tasks such as shopping or bringing food. Despite the well-intentioned nature of our actions, we can inadvertently take away the autonomy of our older population, depriving them of their chance to stay active and independent. In contrast, centenarians in blue zones remain actively involved in some form of physical labor, which in turn contributes to their vitality.
Addressing complex issues like aging requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses various aspects of human activity. Aging drives our commitment to support and fund early-stage aging research. While we work on identifying and supporting promising research initiatives, you can take charge of your personal longevity journey by optimizing your health today. All of us can embrace a blue zone approach to life drawing inspiration from the experiences of centenarians and older populations worldwide . By making informed lifestyle choices and inspiring others, we have the power to create our own blue zones and promote healthy aging within our communities. Join us in funding longevity science and make an effort to prioritize your well-being. Together, we can foster a healthier and longer life for all.

Access the full RWO October 2023 edition here.
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