Within a single country or even a single city or town, indicators of health vary substantially even within the same ethnic group. It’s not that people’s genes vary substantially but the society, culture and services available differ from place to place. The daily choices that bring us health or illness are influenced by the speed of the traffic where we live, the quantity of advertising we see, our social circle, etc. Health is not only an individual matter – it is strongly dependent on the cultural beliefs and social practices where we live. Our environment influences our choices and will support or undermine our well-being.
Journalist, author, health activist, and National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner spent over ten years identifying extraordinary places around the world that he called ‘Blue Zones’ – where people live long, healthy lives all the way to 100 with significantly lower rates of heart disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes. The five regions are:
- Okinawa – home to the world’s longest-lived women.
- The Ogliastra Region in Sardinia which has the world’s highest concentration of centenarian men.
- The Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica which has the world’s lowest rate of middle aged mortality.
- Loma Linda in California where people live an average of ten years longer than the US average.
- Ikaria Island in Greece which has one of the world’s lowest rates of dementia.
Over ten years a team, including medical researchers, anthropologists, dieticians, demographers, and epidemiologists, identified a core list of lifestyle practices and environmental factors shared among the people living in these different Blue Zones. These practices can be grouped in four inter-related areas: Outlook, Belonging, Activity, and Food.
I edited Dan Buettner’s list of nine points for health and deleted one point about cultures having small amounts of alcohol. This is because one of the groups doesn’t take alcohol at all. But more importantly it is possible that the benefits come from the socialising and not the alcohol. In Ireland 2,000 hospital beds are occupied every night because of alcohol and 20% of the HSE budget goes on treating illnesses caused by alcohol consumption. Averaging the consumption of alcohol over the number of drinkers in Ireland means we consume the equivalent of a litre of vodka (40% alcohol by volume) every week. Finally, any consumption of alcohol is a risk factor for cancer. So this Christmas keep your mind clear and happy and choose healthy alcohol free alternatives:
- Purpose. In all the blue zones people had something to live for that gave their work meaning. Research has shown that having a sense of purpose can add up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
- Downshift. Chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation, which is associated with every age-related disease. People in the Blue Zones use different tools to manage stress from prayer to walking in nature to taking an afternoon siesta.
- Religious Life. All but 5 of the 263 centenarians interviewed belonged to a faith based community. Although denomination doesn’t seem to matter, research has shown that attending faith-based services four times a month will add four to fourteen years of life expectancy.
- Loved Ones First. Successful centenarians keep aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home, which also lowers disease and mortality rates of their children. They invest time and love in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives.
- Right Tribe. The world’s longest-lived people choose or were born into social circles that support healthy behaviours. Their friends have healthy habits.
- Move naturally. The world’s longest-lived people don’t go to the gym, run marathons or pump iron. Instead they live in environments that constantly encourage them to move. They grow gardens, use hand tools, and walk to work or to their friend’s house or to church.
Plant Based Diet:
- Plant Slant. None of the Blue Zones centenarians count calories, take vitamins, or read labels. They don’t restrict their food intake – on the contrary, food is an integral part of life’s celebrations. But 95% of the foods eaten in all the Blue Zones are plant based. Meat is eaten on average only five times per month and in small portions with one group being fully vegetarian. Diets are high in whole grains and low in fat. Most protein comes from a variety of beans and legumes.
- 80% Rule. Always stop eating when your stomach is 80% full.
- Food Culture. How you eat is as important as what you eat. Where do you source your food from – local farmers or far away factories? Do you eat with friends or family or in the car? Every time we take a bite we make a tiny choice for the kind of world we want to inhabit. Have you studied how to cook tasty healthy food? Do you keep a herb and vegetable garden?
In some of these places (like Okinawa) modernisation has brought changes in lifestyle and increased consumption of meat, dairy, sugar, fried foods, and salt. Consequently the typical western diseases of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity have grown rapidly and life expectancy has declined.
The Blue Zones solution shows that the healthiest cultures on the planet evolved to live on a 95% whole food plant based diet. Today we have access to an even wider variety of whole plant based foods. We know that a vegan diet provides all the nutrients we need except for B12 and since we wish to live ethically and to contribute to a peaceful world for all living beings a fully vegan lifestyle is the happy, peaceful and intelligent choice.
The book The Blue Zones Solution can be found in book stores or online.
You can find more information on the Blue Zones website here including a questionnaire that estimates your life expectancy.
You can see Dan Buettner’s TED talk, How to live to be 100+ here.