For those of you who think that Blue Zones (demographic regions of the world where people commonly live active lives past the age of 100 years) just have people with better genes, consider that only about 25 percent of genes determine longevity. And while some of us do have longevity genes, the remaining 80 percent is determined by epigenetics, the things that make our genetics express one way or the other (i.e. environmental factors, the foods we eat or don’t eat, and our thoughts).
Indeed, according to an article in Scientific American, a person’s lifespan is thought to be largely determined by the combined effects of genetics and environmental factors.
“The evidence is overwhelming that genes are a vulnerability factor rather than the cause of disease,” says Dr. Jennie Ann Freiman, a New York obstetrician-gynecologist. “Risk can be modified depending on the choices we make.”
Keep in mind that there exist centenarians all over the world, but there are only a few areas where the longevity of the population as a whole is exceptional. Even though there are plenty of people who reach a ripe old age, many of them are decrepit and diseased. Life expectancy has more than doubled in the past 100 years, and yet we’re sicker than ever. Every one in two people today suffers from a chronic disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC.
Living a long, healthy and happy life extends way beyond medical advancements. To put this in perspective, when it comes to highest life expectancy, the United States ranks number 43. That’s appalling. The proposed explanations include socioeconomic inequalities and individual behaviors with not enough emphasis on the system of sick care that involves a litany of band-aid drugs, an adulterated food supply, and a highly stressed hamster wheel existence that can suck you dry of joie de vivre.
“We cannot learn about health by studying disease. There is so much focus on … understanding the mechanisms of dysfunction but we cannot look at that in isolation,” contends Jason Prall, health practitioner and director and producer of The Human Longevity Project, a nine-part documentary film series that takes you on an exciting foray around the globe, on a mission to discover the secrets of the longest-lived and healthiest populations on Earth. The film, which I contributed to last summer, includes interviews with leading health experts and also travels to the Blue Zones of the world.
While Dan Buettner of National Geographic gets the credit for popularizing the concept, it’s more like he’s the one who capitalized and commercialized it. Michel Poulin, a demographer who specializes in international migration statistics and longevity studies, coined the phrase and introduced the concept in 2000. Poulin came up with the name when he took his blue pen and circled a map of Sardinia, an area with a high prevalence of centenarians. From there on out, he referred to the areas as Blue Zones.
“We have to understand where health comes from and how to facilitate that,” adds Prall. “You cannot learn about the light by studying the dark. You cannot do it.”
Based on the wisdom of the Blue Zones, here are five practices to adapt to tap into the fountain of youth.
A Reason For Being
Incidentally, the island of Okinawa in the East China Sea is considered a Blue Zone. The Japanese have a word called Ikigai, which means “a reason for being.” It is similar to the French phrase “raison d’être.” Everyone, according to Japanese culture, has an ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self.
Having a deeper mission helps fuel life and is crucial to longevity. I know that when I found my purpose to serve the honeybees and what they represent, I found a new lease on life. Honeybees themselves are associated with working for the greater good. People in Blue Zones seem to live until they die, avoiding diseases that seem to plague the Western world.
If you want a zesty, healthy life, find your unique passion.
Live Dirty, Eat Locally & Clean
According to research regarding Blue Zones, there is no one size fits all diet when it comes to living a long time. There are octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians who, for instance, ate a substantial amount of meat or subsisted on potatoes morning, noon, and night. With that said, they ate very little, if any, processed foods.
“There’s a lot of discussion on foods and what foods to eat. And in each Blue Zone their diet is different,” adds Prall. “It’s not enough to look at the foods they eat and think that that is what feeds longevity. The key is to focus on organic whole foods, local or somewhat local. The real problems with health come from thinking that we can ship food from across the world and think there are no consequences.”
Having studied the food supply and our honeybees for more than a decade, I couldn’t agree more. People in Blue Zones eat organically, locally, seasonally, and sparingly. It’s the advent of modern agriculture with its monocultures and tons of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, and genetically modified seeds that have spurred sickness for people and planet.
Today, we know that we each metabolize food differently, and we each have a unique gut biome, where health begins. The bacteria in my gut is not the same as yours, but certain communities may demonstrate similar bacteria that can impact how they metabolize certain foods.
For instance, The Atlantic writes that Lachnospiraceae bacteria were found to be more common in people who like dark chocolate. Is it just coincidence that this bacteria was found while studying Belgians?
The key is to eat for you and your condition and to eat clean and organic. Tom Blue, Director of Industry Strategy and Partnerships for the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM), and a pioneer in “concierge medicine” agrees.
“I have become convinced that nutrition is a highly individualized matter holding aside a handful of obvious things to avoid,” says Blue. “The Blue Zone research certainly seems to validate that notion.”
Blue suggests apps like Suggestic and Nutrino for those interested in exploring sophisticated personalized eating plans.
In some Blue Zones, like in Ikaria, Greece, a 99-square-mile remote and ancient island 30 miles off the coast of Turkey, the people were historically dominated and/or lived in isolation and dearth.
“If you look at a Blue Zone, you’re really looking at what’s happened in the past 90 years,” Prall points out.
The 100-year-olds from Ikaria ate what they found in nature, from snails to mushrooms to wild greens, as well as what their gardens provided, Diane Kochilas, chef, TV Cooking Show Host, Cookbook Author tells the Huffington Post.
This is aligned with findings that illustrate intermittent fasting has a positive effect on longevity. A recent study of rhesus monkeys, which have a number of anatomical and physiological characteristics in common with human beings, demonstrates calorie-restricted diets play a role in aging and health, writes Dr. Mercola.
For Prall, who spent two years making The Human Longevity Project, it was obvious that Western influences have made their mark.
As you take the Eastbound exit for Loma Linda off Hwy 10 in California, the first thing you see are giant signs for McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, KFC, and In-N-Out Burger. A similar scene has developed in the growing cities of Okinawa. McDonald’s, A&W, Taco Bell, Starbucks, and KFC are littered throughout cities like Chatan, Naha, and Nago. The Okinawa locals have coined a term for the ill-effects that have exploded in the last 20 years. They call it “Hamburger Syndrome.”
After living in Ikaria even just two months, I uncovered that the Western world has sadly infiltrated their traditional culture. I became fully aware while inside a small Greek market on the edge of the Aegean sea in the city of Armenistis, looking for water in glass bottles versus cheap flimsy toxic plastic (I had already cleaned out their previous stash of glass bottles of water).
As I stood in line, the Game of Thrones song was playing overhead and the Greek woman in front of me was buying Doritos and a loaf of Wonder Bread, ignoring the locally made bread options. (As I started digging, I discovered increasing rates of autoimmune conditions, two illegal landfills, shepherds feeding goats strange pellets to make them fatter, tales of Roundup being smuggled into the island, and deals with BASF and the northern Aegean islands to spray an organophosphate against the olive fly versus using simple fly traps. But this kind of details threatens tourism and the Blue Zone live-forever narrative, even though they also ensure that Blue Zones may eventually die out.
Walking VS Vigorous Exercise
I was walking down a hill in an area of Ikaria called Raches, when I spotted an elderly woman hunched over her stove, making a home-cooked meal. The 94-year- old lived alone. She enthusiastically shared tales about how she’d traveled by foot from one village to the other, carrying a pack on her back that she’d carved herself out of goat fur. She still walked often.
Walking is a common activity in Blue Zones.
In a study of women age 65 and older, just 30 minutes a day of light exercise — like walking, running errands, and cleaning the house — was linked to a lower risk of death, according to the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Another study by the American Cancer Society showed that even greater benefits were achieved by getting even more leisure-time and physical activity. People who got three to five times the 30 minutes recommended amount lowered their risk of death by 39 percent.
In fact, more light and moderate physical activity are as effective as vigorous exercise at preventing disease and prolonging life, according to an article in Time. Short bursts of exercise such as interval training vs nonstop exercise is better for you. (Interval training means alternating between different intensities of exercise and allowing time to rest in between bursts of action.)
While being physically fit is not synonymous with living a long life, regular movement of varying intensity is key.
4. Slaying The Silent Killer
There are a number of ways chronic stress can kill you. Literally. Chronic stress is associated with increased levels of cortisol aka ‘the stress hormone.’ Elevated cortisol levels interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, and increase blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease.
In the Western world today, people are busy, exhausted, and definitely highly stressed.
As I watched people on the beach from behind my screen from my tiny Ikarian bed and breakfast whereas a digital nomad, I worked on my online company, I marveled at the notion of unplugging for an entire day. I managed to enjoy a couple of hours at the beach, but that was because my Wi-Fi signal was strong from my beach towel and I could still work. I found myself caught between matrix and magic.
“Resistance, or rather a dismissal of the clock as ruler of life, is legendary,” writes Kochilas. “If you are not from here it’s hard to explain that mentality, the mentality of it’s OK to be late, or it’s OK to leave some wiggle room and maybe not show up at all.”
Indeed, the island of Ikaria has its own rhythm. This may be due to the high levels of radon on the island because the overall vibe is both electric yet so chill. During the summer when there are seemingly festivals (Panygiria, local feasts in celebration of a saint’s name), people often start their day at 9 a.m. and go for a nap at 7 p.m., and then get up at midnight to take in the night with dancing and merriment until sunrise.
“People who always perceived their daily life to be over-the-top stressful were three times more likely to die over the period of study than people who rolled with the punches and didn’t find daily life very stressful,” Carolyn Aldwin, who directs the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University, tells NPR.org.
Blue Zones live in complete concert with natural light/dark cycles, seasons, and nature as a whole. They didn’t contend with EMF and light pollution, which of course means that they slept. Sleep plays such an important factor that The Human Longevity Project devotes an entire episode to sleep.
5. Connection and Community
While nutrition is vastly important, eating veggies and going to the gym may not be as important as having rich relationships. Especially when you consider that social isolation (loneliness) has been shown to contribute to chronic disease and early death just as much (if not more) than smoking or obesity. Depression has also been linked to shorter lifespans.
More conscientious societies, however, with goal-oriented citizens who are well-integrated into their communities have been shown to live longer and healthier lives, says Howard S. Friedman, Ph.D., co-author with Leslie Martin, Ph.D., of the 2011 book The Longevity Project.
“In terms of nutrition, it gives us substance but it’s not the end all be all for longevity,” adds Prall. “ Energy comes from different sources.”
I love this. Who hasn’t been fueled by being surrounded with friends, family, and positive vibes?
“The Vitamin ‘P’ (for pleasure) can go a long way in assisting a healthy lifestyle,” adds Ped Millichamp, Creative Director for The Willow, a restaurant in Surrey, UK that adopts the ethos, food is thy medicine. “Whilst community is already one of our key elements here at The Willow, its importance cannot be underestimated. Community is power. Community creates health. Enjoy life, have fun, and enjoy a glass of wine with friends for both a healthy mind and healthy body.”
At the end of the day, these regions and Blue Zones don’t matter, says Prall. Regions don’t create longevity; it’s what people are doing that builds a healthy lifestyle and we have to learn these same qualities.
“These places that are known for their longevity aren’t going to be known for that 20 years from now. They’re going downhill fast and there’s a reason that has nothing to do with where they live. There’s nothing special about it other than the humans that live there and the decisions they make to live their life.”