Blue Zones | The Places on Earth Where People Live Far, Far Longer
How would you like to live to a hundred on a diet of red wine, tomatoes, and olive oil?
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
If there were a place in real life where the fountain of youth flowed, where the sun always shone, and the elderly moved with all the grace and the speed of the young, what would you expect it to look like? Where would you expect it to be?
The Spanish went to find it in Bimini; Herodotus thought the Macrobians had it, and the Bible hints at the miraculous powers of the Pool of Bethesda. There are, in fact, a handful of areas dotted around the world, called ‘Blue Zones’, where people seem to live incredibly long lives and remain in astoundingly good health, even into their hundreds - so what’s in the water there?
It’s not uncommon at all to see groups of octo or nonagenarians out for long, boozy lunches in these parts of the world
The term ‘blue zone’ was coined by Dan Buettner, an author and National Geographic fellow. While there’s some debate about where does and doesn’t classify (not unlike the debate about whether Pluto is a planet), the blue zones are largely considered to be Loma Linda, California, the Okinawa islands of Japan, Sardinia, Icaria - which is off the Grecian coast - and the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica.
A largely plant-based diet, low alcohol consumption, no smoking, and daily low-level exercise unsurprisingly feature in all of the zones - but there are some more curious factors, like sunshine, a love of gardening, and a slightly more matriarchal society, that crop up too. “Blue zones are a very real phenomenon,” confirmed Timothy Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, London, and author of The Diet Myth. “They are somewhat exaggerated in some contexts, but they are very much real.”
When Buettner originally identified the zones in his book, he highlighted the importance of a semi-vegetarian (or flexitarian, to oat-milk-flat-white-swilling yuppies like you and I) diet, rich in legumes like nuts and pulses, as well as what he calls ‘engagement in family, social, or religious life’. Professor Spector elaborated, “It’s not uncommon at all to see groups of octo or nonagenarians out for long, boozy lunches in some of these parts of the world. Food and socialising are very important and they’re inextricably linked in these cultures, especially in Sardinia. You see elderly people in cafes, bars, restaurants, eating together. That’s very key.” Aside from all the bottomless brunches (okay, maybe it’s more a bowl of zuppa di lenticchie and a single glass of red), there’s practical bonuses to staying social for longer.
“People in blue zones are more likely to move in with children and grandchildren, and be cared for in that environment, rather than in a nursing home. That means they have a social network cooking for them, eating with them, rather than living off microwave meals and being isolated,” explained Professor Spector. Mind-bogglingly long life spans aside, people living in these areas just seem incredibly youthful in their old age. How many people beyond the age of 70 do you know who walk everywhere, regularly meet friends for dinner, and move in a quick and sprightly fashion?
Of course, since Buettner’s original book, blue zones have been subject to great furore and fetishisation. Some denounce them as coincidental, sure, but there’s almost seventy ‘blue zone diet’ books on Amazon (a chunk of which are follow-ups by Buettner himself), a private health clinic with the same name, and countless spots on daytime TV from experts expounding to live more ‘blue zones’. Chanel even released a ‘Blue Serum’ (yours for £81) saying that they had ‘identified similarities in the behaviour of centenarians and that of people whose skin maintains a youthful appearance long-term.’
So, time to live on a diet of olive oil and burrata, move back in with your parents, and start going to church? Well, not quite. “You can’t just cherry-pick elements of the lifestyles like legumes and family - it doesn’t really work like that. These are highly selected groups, and you have to remember that there are other parts of the world that follow similar diets and lifestyles and they don’t live as long - you shouldn’t just take the positives in isolation,” noted Spector. Plus, it’s not just the diet that matters - it’s how your body responds to said diet.
The ‘Blue Zones diet’, if such a thing were to exist, would be less about just eating generally healthy foods, of which there are many, and more about eating healthy foods that agree with your unique gut fingerprint. As Professor Spector told me, “There’s not that much crossover with diet. In Okinawa, for example, they eat a lot of white rice and sweet potatoes which to most of us, sounds like a very high starch diet, and very carb heavy. It seems to work for them, but this why you shouldn’t take one element in isolation.”
We could all do with taking note of some of the core tenets of a Blue Zones life. Some aspects are yes, blindingly obvious, like daily exercise, abstaining from smoking and having alcohol in moderation. But given the huge variation in diet across the board, perhaps the takeaways for us are more in lifestyle; eating with friends or family, and not alone, being a part of a club or community, avoiding stress and prioritising sleep and rest.
“Don’t go to a supermarket; buy local produce and go with what’s in season,” advised Professor Spector. “Try new things, maybe one new food a week. Eat fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, or an unpasteurised goat’s cheese. Diversity is key - people in these countries don’t go to a supermarket and do a big two week shop of processed long-life foods. It really all is about variety.”
The blue zones, with their laid-lack lifestyles, diets rich in local, seasonal produce, and close-knit family units, are as romantic as they are foreign to most of city-dwellers in the UK. It’s foolish to try and transpose these habits literally - an early night and a plate of Fresh Direct is unlikely to add ten years onto your life - but maybe we can use them as a call to arms to at least live a little slower.
Daniela Morosini is a freelance journalist, based in London. Keep up with her on Twitter.