The concept of healthy living goes back to ancient Greece and then to the Romans. Nowadays healthy living often comes off as preaching about how people should live their lives rather than how they choose to live their lives. An interesting saga of improving life and longevity is by National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner. He began with the study of centenarians, people who reach the age of 100.
Reaching your hundredth birthday means you become a member of a “special club” of centenarians. While researchers believe the number of centenarians was very low before 1900, today many more people are able to reach this ripe old age.
As of 2021, there were an estimated 573,000 centenarians globally.
In 2016 Dan Buettner and colleagues published a study on longevity by observing common traits of very long lived people from communities with high concentrations of long lived residents. He named areas with high concentrations of centenarians Blue Zones. He identified five specific areas where it was common for people to reach the age of 100. These Blue Zones are: Sardinia (Italy), Ikaria (Greece), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Loma Linda, California and Okinawa (Japan).
Speaking with Medical News Today:
“These are places where human beings have lived manifestly longest,” Buettner explained to Medical News Today. “They’ve achieved the health outcomes we want: long lives largely free of chronic disease. Since only 80% of how long we live is dictated by disease, these people’s lifestyles and environments offer us instructions and clues for how we can set up our lives to live longer.”
After identifying where centenarians live, next Buettner and his team looked for common behaviors that residents of those five areas follow that he attributes their longevity and slower aging process to. Of the behaviors Buettner and his team found nine which includes:
- move naturally
- have a purpose in life
- reduce stress
- practice the 80% diet rule, which is to stop eating when 80% full
- favor a plant-based diet
- drink alcohol in moderate amounts
- belong to a community
- put family first
- keep a social circle that supports healthy behaviors.
Buettner is working with Harvard on a cookbook. It is basically a modified Mediterranean diet.
“If you want to know what a centenarian [did to live] to be 100, you have to know what they ate during their whole [life],” he said. “Working with Harvard for my book The Blue Zones Kitchen, we collected 155 dietary studies done in all Blue Zones over the past 80 years and averaged them.”
“It was clear that over 90% of their traditional dietary intake came from whole food, plant-based sources [and] was about 65% complex carbs,” noted Buettner. “The pillars of every longevity diet in the world are whole grains, nuts, greens, and other garden vegetables, tubers, and beans.”
Medical News Today published a good summary of the diet. It’s not so much a diet as it’s a lifestyle. Buettner explains his findings in a Netflix series, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. I found it interesting, but Buettner missed some obvious conclusions. In the series the first five episodes feature one Blue Zone. The series starts with Okinawa, Japan and explores each zone through the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
One thing that bothered me with the series is that Buettner tries to identify unique features from each zone before compiling them into common themes. As a result, he identified nine characteristics (above) that have significant overlap. Here is something his analysis did not say: 1) most of the Blue Zones are stuck in a time warp, with people living much as their parents and grandparents did 50 or 100 years ago. 2) They are relatively poor communities, who live like they do because that’s all they know and all they can afford. 3) Most of the Zone’s residents are old, where young people are in their 50s and the ones younger than 50 have moved away to cities for jobs. That is, the zones tend to be rural.
Also only barely explored is that these communities are mostly dying, literally. When their centenarians and near centenarians die, there will be fewer and fewer people to replace them. Or when centenarians die they will be replaced with people who do not follow the Blue Zone lifestyle. After spending the first episode praising the healthy aging community in Okinawa, close to the end of the series Buettner explains that Okinawa now suffers an obesity epidemic. The small centenarian community in Okinawa is basically an isolated pocket of old people living a postwar, self-sufficient existence. While praising the rural family in Costa Rica, it shows a small boy in the family who doesn’t like beans & rice, wants sugary cereal for breakfast and likes packaged snacks. Then the episode shows the encroachment of American fast-food establishments that have infiltrated areas of Costa Rica and Okinawa. Also not really explored is that these (mostly old, somewhat poor) communities maintain healthier lifestyles while having access to modern medicine when they need it. I too have an elderly family member who will undoubtedly live to 100, but she also had heart bypass surgery in her late 70s.
The next steps for Buettner’s project is testing whether Blue Zones can be created in non-blue areas. He explores this at the end of the series. However, from a social science perspective, a logical extension would be to look at non-Blue Zones, where people suffer premature mortality. From there he could identify the habits of Blue People, who live outside Blue Zones.
The Medical News Today article is worth reading and I enjoyed the Netflix docuseries. Just don’t think by moving to a Blue Zone you will automatically extend your life. Now if you want to sell your car, walk a lot more, grow your own vegetables and eat little else, you can create a Blue Zone in your own household.