To Live a Healthy Long Life, Learn from Citizens in the Blue Zones

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • My father, who is in his mid-80s, continues to be surprised that he’s lived longer than both of his parents. “I never thought I would live this long,” he regularly comments. I have a feeling that many of his generation are in agreement with that sentiment. However, according to a new study by University of Southern California researchers, data suggest living both a long life (which we all assume we will have) and a healthy life may not be in the cards for future generations.


    The researchers found that over the past 20 years, the average age of morbidity (the period of life spent with serious illness as well as a lack of functional mobility) has increased. “For example, a 20-year-old man in 1998 could be expected to live an additional 45 years without at least one of these diseases: heart disease, cancer or diabetes,” Los Angeles Times reporter Shari Roan explained. “But that number fell to 43.8 in 2006.” For women, the expected years of life without a serious disease dropped from 49.2 years to 48 years during the past 10 years. Furthermore, the number of people who described a lack of mobility increased. The researchers point to the growing problem of lifelong obesity and increases in hypertension and high cholesterol as hampering the next generation’s efforts to be healthy as they reach old age.

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    So what can you take so you have the best chance to live a long and healthy life? I’d suggest taking some lessons from people who live in what are known as “Blue Zones,” areas where the population has lived a long and healthy life. This project, led by Dan Buettner, has identified areas around the globe where people live long and healthy lives. These include:  Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; and Sardinia, Italy. As I mentioned in a 2008 Alzheimer’s sharepost, the residents who live in these areas make healthy eating choices, exercised, and had a sense of community and purpose. In addition, researchers identified the following findings:

    • Hard water that is high in calcium and magnesium is good for you (Nicoya Peninsula).
    • Eat food that is grown locally, whether in your own garden (which gives you exercise) or locally (Nicoya Peninsula, Sardinia, and Okinawa).
    • Get moderate sun exposure (Nicoya Peninsula and Sardinia)
    • Do exercises to build your quadriceps (thigh muscles) to prevent falling.
    • Eat a big breakfast and smaller meals throughout the rest of the day
    • Change to goat's milk, which may protect you against Alzheimer's and heart disease (Sardinia).
    • Drink wine in moderation (Sardinia).
    • Eat a plant-based diet with meat as a side course (Sardinia).
    • Volunteer (Loma Linda).
    • Create sacred time (Loma Linda).
    • Eat a vegan diet (Loma Linda)
    • Have relationships with like-minded people (Loma Linda).
    • Eat natural foods (Okinawa)

    Interestingly, AARP and the United Health Foundation have worked together to develop a prototype Blue Zone community transformation program in Albert Lea, Minnesota. The transformation program was completed in 2009 and had the following results, according to the Blue Zones website:

    • Life expectancy increased an average of 3.2 years
    • Participants lot an average of 3 pounds
    • There was an average 21% drop in absenteeism by key employers.
    • City employees had a 49% decrease in health care costs.
    • The initiative involved a community-wide effort that actively engaged 60% of the city’s local restaurants, 51% of its largest employers, 100% of its schools, and 27% of its citizens.

    The following changes emerged during this initiative:

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    • Biking and hiking paths were connected throughout the community, which encouraged more groups who walked socially.
    • Schools implemented wellness policy changes that reduced snack foods and increased activity.
    • Businesses changed their environment and policies to encourage healthier behaviors.
    • Restaurants offered more healthy menu options.
    • Volunteers planted 70 community gardens.
    • A “walking school bus” system was instituted, in which children walked the last half mile to school every day under the supervision of parent and senior volunteers.

    I’d encourage you to embrace the lessons learned from the Blue Zones in your own life. And if you still need a New Years’ Resolution, vow to encourage your community to develop some of the programs that match those in Albert Lea. Your efforts could have a major effect on helping you and other members of your community have healthier, longer lives.

Published On: December 29, 2010