What are blue zones?

Ever wondered why life expectancy and quality is different in every country? Well, it might be due to many factors, but there are a few spots on this planet that have very similar features in common. Please read Chloe’s (@chloef_nutrition) amazing piece. #expertadvice

Icaria, Greece

Blue zones:

Did you know that women live longer than men in almost all regions of the world? (1) Asides from genetics, it is thought that this is related to the strong social connections that women have and prioritise throughout their life. However, in Sardinia men live to the same age as women and this is thought to be related to the importance placed upon community and social connection in this region (2). Sardinia is one of 5 blue zones where there are high proportions of centenarians (people living over the age of 100). The five blue zones are Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece) and Loma Linda (California, USA) (3). Studies have found that genetics only accounts for around 20-30% of longevity rates so lifestyle seems to play a large role (4). These regions have similar lifestyle traits which is likely to contribute to these high rates of both longevity and good health:

  1. They prioritise community and social connection- these populations have strong family and friend connections with generations often living together or very nearby and friends and neighbours who they interact with daily. Having 3 people that you can truly rely on at any time seems to provide sufficient social support to be an important predictor in prolonging life expectancy (5).
  2. They lead naturally active lifestyles- their daily activity involves constant gentle movement throughout the day including walking to the shops and gardening. This movement improves cardiovascular fitness and muscle mass but doesn’t overstress the body.
  3. They have plant-focused diets – these communities focus their diet around fruit, vegetables, nuts and whole grains, eat meals in small portions and have most of their food earlier in the day. Alcohol is often consumed (typically red wine) in regular but small amounts.
  4. They have a sense of purpose- this is known as Ikigai by the Okinawans and means the reason for getting up each day. This ideology provides a sense of purpose and reason to their day and identity, which has been shown to improve psychological wellbeing.
  5. They have low levels of stress – through prioritising sleep, relaxation and spending time doing things that they enjoy these populations improve their mental health and this sense of enjoyment seems to have a beneficial influence on their longevity.
Sardines, Italy

Western communities are setup quite differently to life in Sardinia, with work and social pressures contributing to increased stress and reduced free time to relax and cook healthy meals. As lockdown begins to release, we need to make time to do the things we enjoy, spend quality time with family and friends and make time to prioritise sleep and move our body. While genetics plays an important role in lifespan and susceptibility to chronic diseases, our lifestyle is also an important predictor in our health. By focusing on incorporating these 5 lifestyle factors into your daily routine you are likely to feel a greater sense of fulfilment, happiness and possibly improve your long-term health and life expectancy.

References:

  1. Global Health Observatory (GHO) data: Life expectancy. World Health Organization.
  2. Poulain, M., Pes, G.M., Grasland, C., Carru, C., Ferrucci, L., Baggio, G., Franceschi, C., Deiana, L. Identification of a Geographic Area Characterised by Extreme Longevity in the Sardinia Island: The AKEA Study. Exp Gerontol, 2004 39(9):1423-9.
  3. Buettner, D. & Skemp, S. Blue Zones: Lessons from the World’s longest lived. Am. J. Lifestyle Med. 2016 7;10(5):318-321.
  4. Takata, H., Suzuki, M., Ishii, T., Seikiguchi, S., Iri. H. Influence of Major Histocompatability Complex region Genes on Human Longevity Among Okinawan-Japanese Centenarians and Nonagenarians. Lancet, 1987 10;2 (8563):824-6.
  5. Yang, Y.C., Boen, C. Mullan Harris, K. et al. Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2016 113(3): 578-583.

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