Why do some groups of people live longer than others? What common themes are there amongst people who continue to thrive as they reach old age, possibly even to age 100?
In 2008, a book called The Blue Zones attempted to answer these questions. National Geographic writer Dan Buettner identified five regions across the world where there were a disproportionate number of “centenarians”, or people who lived to or past age 100. These regions included specific areas in Italy, Greece, Japan, Costa Rica, and California. In some instances the research focused on small villages that were “hot spots” of longevity, such as mountain villages in Sardinia, Italy. A group of Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California have far longer lifespans on average than others living in the same area. What makes these groups of people unique?
There were several distinguishing factors. Having purpose in life, being connected with family and community, engagement in spirituality or religion, and taking time to de-stress were all common themes. But many of the commonalities had to do with what these groups of people eat.
In order to live a hundred years or longer, one must be free of the chronic diseases that plague so many of us at a much younger age. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, even cancer – each of these is connected to diet in some way. It makes sense, then, that diet is a major component of longevity in these populations.
A common thread was an emphasis on plant foods as a large proportion of the diet. It’s important to understand that not all of these areas eat exactly the same, however. Blue Zoners from Ikaria, Greece eat potatoes, garbanzo beans, lentils, and wild greens. Meanwhile, on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, popular foods include beans, corn, squash, bananas, and yams. But regardless of the individual foods, there are lots of plants eaten in the Blue Zones.
Not eating past fullness – also known as eating mindfully – was prominent. Moderate alcohol intake (emphasis on moderate) was also seen in the majority of the groups.
Regular physical activity was noted amongst the groups, but these weren’t the types of people that “hit the gym” regularly. They lived lifestyles that naturally included physical activity, whether it was traveling by walking or biking, actively maintaining a garden, or some other activity that was an inescapable aspect of their daily life. That’s not to say working out at the gym isn’t useful, because it absolutely is. But we also can benefit from looking at our daily routines and identifying ways we can be more regularly active.
Why do we pay so much attention to health and wellness? Usually because we want to live a long, fulfilling life without our health limiting what we can accomplish. Perhaps some of these lessons from people who live long, healthy lives can help us reach those goals.