Understanding Blue Zones:
Geographic Areas with the Most Centenarians
Encoded in the world's Blue Zones are centuries-even millennia-of human experiences
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day, 28-year-old Ricardo Osorno Fallas wakes up at six a.m. in
Hojancha, a regional capital in the Nicoya Peninsula of northwestern
Costa Rica. Like many Costa Ricans, Ricardo still lives at his parents'
home (along with three brothers and sisters), where he'll probably stay
until he marries.
Breakfast is a bowl of oatmeal or some gallo pinto, the national dish of rice and beans, with corn tortillas. (Literally translated, gallo pinto means "mottled rooster," referring to the color the rice turns when fried with beans.) After eating, Ricardo rides his bike a couple of kilometers to his job as a liaison for a local ecotourism company that specializes in showing foreigners the rainforest nature preserves around Hojancha. He works until noon, then bikes back home for lunch, the largest meal of the day: rice, black beans, meat, and corn tortillas washed down with a glass of cold water. Dessert is a piece of locally sourced tropical fruit, such as an orange, pineapple, or banana.
After lunch, Ricardo heads back to his office, where he stays until four p.m. Upon returning home, he helps his mother or father around the house or pays a visit to his 93-year-old grandmother. Then, after a light dinner, he practices with a group that performs traditional Nicoyan dances, such as the arma de café, as well as regional favorites like salsa and the merengue. Before going to bed at midnight, Ricardo usually puts in a few hours of work on his master's thesis, a business plan for a marketing agency he hopes to start upon receiving his degree in marketing from the Hispano-American University of Costa Rica.
"We have a very relaxed pace of life here," he says. "We live with a sense of tranquility that is hard to find [elsewhere]-even in Costa Rica. The air that you breathe in Hojancha is just better than in any other place." Ricardo is in excellent health, as is his entire family. In fact, they are up to three times as likely as the average American to reach the age of 100. Their secret isn't something that any of them invented or even thought about. The secret is that they live in the middle of a Blue Zone.
The Facts on Blue Zones
Blue Zones are geographic areas with high concentrations of the world's longest-lived people. The term was coined by journalist and explorer Dan Buettner, who, in partnership with longevity researchers, has spent the last decade traveling to the healthiest corners of the world to unearth the secrets of their inhabitants.
So far, five Blue Zones have been confirmed:
1) In the rural, mountainous region of Barbagia, Sardinia, in Italy, people are working as shepherds well into and past their seventies, and not infrequently becoming centenarians.
2) The island of Okinawa, Japan, has the highest concentration of centenarians in the world, despite having weathered years of subjugation by invaders as well as widespread famine during and after World War II.
3) Tucked into the polluted confines of greater Los Angeles, the city of Loma Linda is home to a community of 9,000 Seventh Day Adventists, currently the longest-living group of people in America.
4) Icaria, Greece, has the highest percentage of 90-year-olds on the planet, a cancer rate 20% lower than the rest of Greece, and almost no dementia.
5) And then there's Nicoya, Costa Rica where Ricardo and his family live-a notable exception to the rule that people in developing countries have shorter life spans than those in developed ones.
To understand some of the reasons why Blue-Zoners live healthier, longer lives, let's take another look at Ricardo's daily routine.
First, his diet. Inhabitants of Blue Zones tend to have diets high in nutrients and low in calories and to avoid heavily processed foods. Each of the staples in Ricardo's diet (rice, beans, corn, and fruit) has a benefit. Rice is packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants as well as being low in sodium. Beans contain potassium, magnesium, antioxidants, and fiber, and are high in protein and carbohydrates but low in calories and fat. Corn is a cancer fighter as well as a valuable source of vitamin C. Moreover, the maize used in Ricardo's tortillas has been cooked in lime, causing it to undergo a process called nixtamalization. This process increases the corn's calcium content and improves the bioavailability of niacin and other vitamins already in the grain. Furthermore, by snacking on fresh fruits, Ricardo avoids unnecessary fats and sugars while packing even more vitamins into his diet.
Ricardo washes down his food almost exclusively with water. Avoiding sugary soft drinks associated with heart disease and obesity is good in itself, but there is also something special about the water in Nicoya: It is very hard, meaning it contains minerals, including calcium and magnesium, associated with the reduction of cardiovascular disease.
Despite making no effort to limit the quantity of food he eats, Ricardo unknowingly consumes a calorie-restricted diet because his menu is high in protein but low in caloric density. He also limits his calorie intake by eating a light dinner early in the evening. Smaller meals are part of a practice, common in Blue Zones, that the Okinawans call hara hachi bu. Roughly translated, this means eating until you are 80% full. By eating until you are no longer hungry, as opposed to feeling full, you can, some doctors assert, eat 20% less-the difference between gaining weight and losing it. Calorie restriction is currently the subject of intense study in the medical community, with a growing number of doctors acknowledging that it may ward off many of the diseases associated with aging.
Ricardo's next secret: His close ties to his family, which he calls "the solid base responsible for the moral and spiritual formation of Costa Ricans." The concept of the family in Costa Rica, especially in rural areas, "revolves around togetherness and mutual support," he says. Families are the social nuclei of all Blue Zones, with a special emphasis placed on caring for the elderly. Numerous scientific studies have linked strong social networks to a host of benefits, including reduced obesity, post-operative pain, and risk of chronic illness. Social networks, which provide a sense of support and belonging, are especially important for older folks. They also play a role in creating what Costa Ricans call a plan de vida, or what the Okinawans call ikigai: a reason to live. A strong commitment to family, friends, community, and the environment give many Hojanchans a shared sense of purpose and keeps them busy and motivated far into their silver years.
Again, science supports the concept: A 2009 study by the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago showed that staying busy and having a sense of purpose helps people live longer. And according to Ricardo, a commitment to protecting the environment is a common sentiment among Nicoyans. "Everyone here grows up with a very environmentally conscious mentality," he says. "Although we want to use our natural resources, everything we do takes the environment into consideration."
Despite his active day, Ricardo considers Hojancha to be a very relaxed place compared with bigger Costa Rican cities like San José. Stress is a well-established killer, and by avoiding it while staying busy, Ricardo and other Blue-Zone dwellers help decrease their incidences of sickness and prolong their lives.
Equally important, physical activity is an integral part of Ricardo's daily routine. Because his family has never owned a car, he always walked or biked to and from school, including the return home for lunch. Now, with his daily bike rides and dancing hobby, he gets plenty of exercise without putting too much strain on his body.
Unfortunately, some benefits of Blue-Zone living can be obtained only from being born in and living in a Blue Zone. These areas all are home to strong and relatively isolated gene pools. Buettner, who has written about his findings in a book called The Blue Zones, estimates that our genes dictate about 20% of how long we'll live. In other words, no matter how well you take care of yourself, you may be at greater risk for illnesses such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes than people from different genetic backgrounds.
Also, the diet of many Blue-Zoners revolves around fresh, easily accessible, local foods not always obtainable elsewhere. The marañón fruit enjoyed in Nicoya, for example, contains five times more vitamin C than an orange, but is too fragile to be shipped in large quantities.
All of the Blue Zones, except the one in Loma Linda, California (which owes its existence to a religious tradition), place an emphasis on locally farmed foods. This close-to-the-land lifestyle is rapidly dying out, and it is possible that a switch to mass-produced food will impact the longevity of the people in these areas.
Finally, it is easy to talk about avoiding stress, but it remains a culturally conditioned affliction. The Blue Zones tend to promote levels of stress avoidance that are less common in the rest of the world and often difficult to re-create out of context. Unfortunately, you can't just buy a one-way ticket to the Nicoya Peninsula and expect to live into your hundreds. Regardless of where you are, however, you can use the lessons learned from Ricardo's daily routine in your own life: Enjoy a healthy diet high in nutrients and low in calories; don't overeat; maintain a supportive social network; stay busy; exercise regularly; and avoid stress.
For example, eat more beans (from the Costa Rican diet) or tofu (from the Okinawan diet). You can also try eating larger lunches and smaller dinners as a way of restricting calories. Although your family may not be as cohesive as the ones in Loma Linda or Sardinia, you can widen your social circle by volunteering or taking up a sport or hobby. Aside from providing large support networks, these activities will also help you form a plan de vida to keep you active, motivated, and stress-free.
It's virtually impossible to create a Blue Zone in your hometown, because they are so largely dependent on genetic, cultural, environmental, and other factors as yet unknown. But there is no reason that new ones cannot come into being. As Buettner says, "Encoded in the world's Blue Zones are centuries-even millennia-of human experiences. I believe that it's no coincidence that the way these people eat, interact with each other, shed stress, heal themselves, avoid disease, and view their world yields them more good years of life…To learn from them, we need only be open and ready to listen."
Excerpted with permission from The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick ©2010 by Gene Stone, published by Workman Publisling, New York, NY.
Available in stores or visit www.workman.com
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