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Living to 100: What residents of ‘blue zones’ do differently

By The Health News Team | April 15, 2024
Woman wearing hat overlooking ocean scene

There are a million get-healthy-quick trends to be found on social media. Some have value, while others are, as they say, a bunch of malarkey.

One philosophy, though, that has shown to provide true health benefits — and is not at all a trend, fad or silver bullet — is garnering more and more attention: following a lifestyle similar to those who live in a “blue zone.”

Blue zones are, according to the National Institute on Aging, areas in the world where people live longer-than-average lives. This includes Okinawa Prefecture in Japan; Nuoro Province in Sardinia, Italy; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; and Icaria in Greece. Seventh-day Adventists who live in Loma Linda, California, also make up a blue zone. A significant number of residents in these areas are centenarians, meaning they live to age 100 or older.

“Due to the aging population and the increasing prevalence of chronic disease here in the U.S., people are yearning to know what they can do to make a difference not just in our lifespan but also our health span, which are the years of future mental and physical health,” says Dr. Teresa Hardisty, a lifestyle medicine doctor and pediatrician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “They are seeking solutions that are basically free, and free from side effects, and that have been proven in diverse populations around the world.”

Habits of people living in blue zones

Researchers, led by National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner, have observed the common habits of residents of blue zones, which are named for the blue markers researchers used to indicate the areas of study on maps. Buettner and colleagues introduced the Power 9, specific practices that can help improve health and quality of life and increase longevity.

“The observational science of the blue zones is no fad,” Dr. Hardisty says. “These strategies allow us to address the root causes of chronic diseases and are in near perfect alignment with the practice of lifestyle medicine, which builds on the observed habits of centenarians to promote longevity.”

The Power 9 include:

  • Move naturally. Simply move throughout your daily activities with no gym membership required — for example, walk instead of driving, take the stairs and garden.

  • Purpose. Have a reason — a purpose — that gets you up in the morning and keeps you engaged.

  • Downshift. Reduce stress, take a nap, practice mindfulness and slow down the pace of your life to better enjoy it.

  • 80% rule. Stop eating when you are 80% full rather than 100% full.

  • Plant slant. Eat a plant-forward diet with limited consumption of meat and animal products.

  • Wine at 5. Get together with friends at the end of the day; share a meal, cup of coffee or tea; and occasionally, enjoy a glass of wine.

  • Belong. Join a volunteer organization, faith-based group or club.

  • Loved ones first. Put your family and other loved ones first and stay involved each other’s lives.

  • Right tribe. Create social circles and build relationships based on trust, support and fun.

“Since a person’s sense of purpose or mindset is what drives motivation and determines behavior, having the ‘right tribe,’ or group of people we feel connected to, lays the foundation for action,” Dr. Hardisty says. “Even if it’s just one other person or four-legged friend that we have a meaningful connection with, it makes us live longer and care more about our day-to-day decisions.”

Live like they do in blue zones

To align your lifestyle choices with the habits of people who live in blue zones, Dr. Hardisty recommends building your environment to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

  • Join or form a group — even if it’s just with one other person — to eat, walk and learn about healthy lifestyle choices together.

  • Stock up on staples to be able to prepare quick, healthy meals and snacks at home. This includes canned beans, brown rice, whole-grain bread, fresh and frozen veggies and fruits, and nuts.

  • Minimize sweet, flavored drinks and drink more water instead.

“It’s more important what we add to our plate than what we take off our plate,” Dr. Hardisty says. “Using plate proportions to add extra produce naturally limits the space in our stomach for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. And over time, it actually makes us want processed foods less.”

According to the Global Burden of Disease study published in 2019, switching from a traditional American diet — high in processed foods, saturated fat, sugar, sodium and meat — to an optimal diet, even at age 60, can add up to eight years of life. If a diet is switched at age 80, almost 3 1/2 years can be added. For people with diabetes, blood sugar levels improve within one month of eating a whole-food, plant-predominant diet.

Dr. Hardisty also recommends moving your body throughout the day. Find a way to periodically stand instead of sitting or take 5- to 10-minute walks during your day. Better yet, try to go outside for 20 to 30 minutes each day, which has the triple benefit of movement, mental health and likely seeing others.

“In general, enjoy delicious, healthful nutrition; restorative sleep; naturally energizing physical activity; mindfulness; and relaxation,” Dr. Hardisty says. “Avoid risky habits and substances, and most importantly, create and expand meaning in your life and connection in your community.”

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