Where do people live the longest?
Anthropologists and other scientists have identified certain areas of the world where people tend to live longer than normal (in some cases, far longer.) They call these “Blue Zones”.
Blue Zones happen around areas like Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. Here in Canada, we have a small community in Alberta called Airdrie which is emerging as a Blue Zone.
Why does this matter to us in Sault Ste. Marie? Because it’s not really the geography of the Blue Zones that create the long lifespans. It’s how the people there live.
Blue Zones are areas where people have a higher chance of living longer, healthier lives due to a combination of factors like diet, exercise, and strong community connections.
If you look carefully at these Blue Zones, you find that the people don’t just have a long lifespan. They have a long healthspan. In other words, they’re not just living to 100 more often than we do. They’re living to 100 AND they’re in great health right up until the end. They’re active. They’re social. They’re gardening and visiting and carrying their own water a lot of the time. This, to me, is even more important than how long people in Blue Zones live: how well they live. Their healthspan.
We can do these things, too. We don’t have to move to Sardinia to reap the benefits.
Here are some top tips we can learn from people in Blue Zones to improve our healthspan as we age:
- Don’t overeat. Some Okinawans repeat a 2,500-year-old mantra “Hara hachi bu” before meals, which reminds them to eat mindfully and stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. This is one way to prevent obesity and the higher risk of diabetes, cancer and heart disease that come with it.
- Talk to people in person. People in Blue Zones with longer, happier lives have three social tendencies: 1) a sense of belonging (they know they’re valuable to the group); 2) they see their families daily (many live with their kids); 3) the right tribe (their friends also have a healthy lifestyle).
- While many centenarians in Blue Zones would say they don’t “exercise”, their lifestyle actually keeps them moving far more than most of us. They carry water, bake break, use hand tools, walk – in other words, they do resistance training and Zone 1-Zone 2 aerobic exercise daily, because they have to. Their houses aren’t full of conveniences that require us to push a button and then sit on the couch. My grandparents wouldn’t have understood the word “exercise”, but they were active from dawn til bedtime. We have to be deliberate about it.
- Possess a relative degree of wealth. The long-living people in Blue Zones live simply, but do not go without. They do not have millions of dollars and they might even work right up until their death. But they don’t starve; they don’t sleep outdoors; and they aren’t surrounded by violence their whole lives. They don’t have to work in coal mines or tear big freighters apart with welding torches while barefoot. This sounds really common, but even 150 years ago it was rare, and over half of the world still doesn’t possess that degree of wealth.
Of course, there are things that influence lifespan and healthspan beyond diet, exercise, sleep and socialization. Environmental factors probably play a role – Chernobyl is not a blue zone even though its occupants are hardworking and probably have less access to junk food. But I believe in controlling what we can control, and nutrition, exercise and socialization are really important. We can control them–but we must make the individual decision to do so.
We’re lucky enough to have access to all of the things that people in Blue Zones do. The problem is that we live in an age of comfort, abundance and distraction: though we can exercise, and we can eat healthy food, and we have more free time than at any point in history, our lifespan is shortening…and so is our healthspan. Medical science is keeping us alive long after our health is over. We can live for a decade in a hospital bed or even for years without brain activity. That’s not our goal.
Our goal is to maximize healthspan. That requires us to overcome the addictions of sugar and distraction. It forces us to choose between our desires (chocolate cake) and what’s best for us long-term. It compels us to beat boredom by going outside for a run instead of playing Candy Crush or taking meth.
For the first time, we can largely control how long we live and how healthy and happy we get. We can create our own Blue Zone around ourselves and our families and our circle of friends. But will we?
Until now, Blue Zones were a matter of luck. They were created by geographical conditions and necessities. Now it’s up to us.