Americans’ desire to live longer is a powerful one, particularly among the baby boomer generation, leaders of the so-called fitness revolution and pioneers in healthier nutrition awareness. A recent survey found that 4 out of 5 Americans born in this generation (between 1946 and 1964) are more food conscious, more concerned about food labels, and more aware of where their meals come from than they were in 1980. Any of these descriptors sound like you? Then you may have heard of the so-called Blue Zones around the world – geographical areas identified by author and researcher Dan Buettner as hosting not only the largest populations of centenarians anywhere, but also known for their residents growing older without developing the chronic illnesses that tend to plague senior populations. We take a look at what Blue Zones can teach us about healthy senior living.
What makes Blue Zones different?
Generally speaking, seniors in the Blue Zone regions of Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the US eat healthier, move more, and are more socially connected than others in the world. While their diets vary, they tend to be plant-based and include small portions, high protein, low amounts of meat, and alcohol in moderation. Blue Zone seniors are family-focused, very connected to their communities, often religious, and prioritize moderate and regular exercise.
Where are the actual Blue Zone communities?
In his famous 2005 National Geographic article “The Secrets of a Long Life”, Dan Buettner identified the following five regions as Blue Zones:
- Loma Linda, CA: Surprised? Despite our nationwide struggle with obesity and heart disease, the California community of Loma Linda is a designated Blue Zone largely because of its core population of Seventh Day Adventists, whose faith largely dictates an active, connected lifestyle grounded in healthy eating and spiritual practice. SDAs eat mostly fruit and vegetables, eschew alcohol and tobacco, and prioritize spending time connected to nature and community, with a significant emphasis on finding time to destress.
- Ikaria, Greece: Featured in Buettner’s New York Times piece “The Island Where People Forget to Die”, this enchanting island off the coast of Turkey is a place where residents famously start work days around 11 AM, take regular naps, and are said to ignore clocks and watches. Their diet is mostly Mediterranean, with an emphasis on what Buettner calls “longevity foods” – legumes, goat’s milk, feta cheese, lemons, and herbal tea. Ikarian citizens get to enjoy senior living to the full – exhibiting one of the world’s lowest rates of middle-aged mortality and dementia.
- Ogliastra Region, Sardinia: This mountain region of the Italian island hosts so many centenarian men that the island’s overall ratio of female to male centenarians is 1 to 1 – that’s compared to 5 to 1 in the rest of the world. Buettner attributes their Blue Zone status to an active life (most working residents herd sheep) and to their diet, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids from goat’s and sheep’s cheese, and heavy on chickpeas, tomatoes, almonds, milk thistle tea, fennel and fava beans.
- Okinawa, Japan: Buettner calls this chain of islands “Japan’s Hawaii” for its mellow lifestyle, beachy vibe, and amazing weather. Roughly 6.5 residents in 10,000 live to 100 years old (in the US, that figure drops to 1.73) and it holds the record for the longest-living women in the world. Okinawans believe in eating from land and sea each day, prioritizing what Buettner calls their “top-longevity” selections of tofu, garlic, brown rice, green tea, mushrooms and bitter melon.
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica: Beans, corn, and squash are the pillars of Nicoyan cuisine, where residents boast the lowest rate of middle-aged mortality and the second-highest population of male centenarians. These Costa Ricans prioritize daily, low-impact exercise, a small-town sense of connectedness, and a relatively high focus on religious practice.
For a deeper dive into Blue Zones, head to Dan Buettner’s website.
You can create a Blue Zone lifestyle for yourself right at home — download our Senior Living Guide and explore your options.