Longevity and the Blue Zones

Longevity and the Blue Zones

Living a long and healthful life is a primary goal for any of us who frequent health food stores, and read newsletters like this. During my research for topics to write on for these newsletters, I stumbled across the website of a longevity expert: Dan Buettner.

Dan Buettner

Buettner is a National Geographic Fellow and Explorer, Emmy Award-winning journalist, and New York Times bestselling author.  During his work for National Geographic, Buettner discovered the five places in the world where people live the longest. He and his colleagues called them “blue zones”, simply because during initial research they circled these areas on the map with blue ink.

After years of visiting and writing about these places, Buettner began writing books about these zones, eventually building a website devoted to the subject. But even more than that, “Buettner now works in partnership with municipal governments, large employers, and health insurance companies to implement Blue Zones Projects in communities, workplaces, and universities”.

Herein, I will give an example of a longevity technique derived from one of these cultures, along with an overview of the five blue zones. Those who find this information interesting enough, will most likely enjoy visiting his website for more such material on the subject of long-lived humans, and their unique cultures.

Okinawa Health Secret

Okinawa (Japan) is probably recognizable as one of the blue zones to most of us, as over the decades it seemed to have received more publicity than the other zones, perhaps because it was the first to be studied in the West.  This reputation for extreme longevity has been with the Okinawans for centuries, and even to this day they represent the place in the world with the highest life expectancy: men live to around 84, and women live a few years longer than that.

They suffer only a fraction of diseases that kill Americans: a fifth the rate of cardiovascular disease, a fifth the rate of breast and prostate cancer, and less than half the rate of dementia seen among similarly aged Americans.”

The particular health secret we are going to look at here is one that I have addressed previously in one blog (Death by Comfy Chair) , and one newsletter (Two Hidden Causes of Lower Back Pain).

Nonetheless, given its relevance to modern living, and a slightly different approach, we will now revisit the subject. The title of this piece from Buettner’s website is “Why the Okinawan Practice of Sitting On the Floor is Linked to Health, Mobility, and Longevity”.  As in many Asian countries, the people of Okinawa traditionally sit on the floor rather than in chairs (though evidently this practice is dying out among the younger generations).

Whether eating, reading, socializing, or just relaxing, Okinowans are at floor level. In fact, when you think about it, their traditional beds (i.e. futons) are also pretty low to the ground.  This means that they sit and rise up from the floor repeatedly during the day, which exercises their back, legs, and especially their core (your “core” is composed of the muscles that stabilize and move your hips, lower back, pelvis, and trunk).

Getting up and down all day long exercises these body parts in a very natural way (as opposed to exercises in a gym), and, according to Buettner, “studies correlate the ability to sit and rise from the floor without support with a longer life expectancy”.  (His reference for this claim is a study titled, “Ability to sit and rise from the floor as a predictor of all-cause mortality”.)

As well, sitting on the floor also improves flexibility, mobility, posture, and increases strength and musculoskeletal fitness.  In fact, Buettner maintains that “residents in all the blue zones moved all day—every 20 minutes—because their environments were set up that way. A sedentary lifestyle of sitting throughout the day cannot be fixed by trips to the gym”.  (This idea that working out regularly cannot compensate for too much sitting, is confirmed by the study analyzed in the aforementioned “Death by Comfy Chair” blog.)

So, now do you chop up the table and chairs for firewood, and put your couch out on the side of the road (as if anyone actually wants someone else’s ratty old sofa)? That may be a bit drastic, but one must admit that sitting on the floor is not much of a lifestyle change, given the host of life-extending benefits that can be gained.

Perhaps start with an area of the home where cushions are set out on the floor and begin the practice of reading, using the laptop, and maybe even socializing there. Those who have difficulty beginning this practice would be well advised to take some Hatha Yoga classes (easily done at home from online resources), in order to limber up the lower back, and get enough flexibility so that sitting on the floor for extended periods does not feel like torture.

Blue Zones

On his website Buettner cites the Danish Twin Study which concluded that “the average person’s lifespan is 20% determined by genetics and 80% determined by environment and lifestyle”.

With that in mind, let’s have a brief look at the blue zones and what kind of non-genetic factors influence their unusual longevity. (Following the link will lead to more written material, along with a few short videos.)

Ikaria, Greece

One out of three Ikarians live to be 90 plus years old, and the culture has nearly no cases of dementia among the elderly. “A combination of factors explain it, including geography, culture, diet, lifestyle and outlook. They enjoy strong red wine, late-night domino games and a relaxed pace of life that ignores clocks. Clean air, warm breezes and rugged terrain draw them outdoors into an active lifestyle.”

Sardinia, Italy

Sardinia has nearly 10 times more centenarians per capita than the U.S. does. “Residents of this area are also culturally isolated, and they have kept to a very traditional, healthy lifestyle. Sardinians still hunt, fish and harvest the food they eat. They remain close with friends and family throughout their lives. They laugh and drink wine together.

Okinawa, Japan

These islands at the southern end of Japan were once called” the land of immortals”. Compared to the U.S. Okinawans have far less cancer, dementia, and heart disease, and the women there live longer than any other women on the planet.

Perhaps their greatest secret is a strong dedication to friends and family. They maintain a powerful social network called a moai, a lifelong circle of friends that supports people well into old age. Okinawans also have a strong sense of purpose in life, a driving force that the Japanese call ikigai.

Nicoya, Costa Rica

Nicoya is an 80-mile peninsula just south of the Nicaraguan border on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Boasting a large number of centenarians in excellent health, Nicoya also comes in as one of the happiest places in Central America.  One of the factors supporting this level of wellbeing “is the plan de vida, or reason to live, which propels a positive outlook among elders and helps keep them active. Nicoyan centenarians frequently visit with neighbors, and they tend to live with families and children or grandchildren who provide support, as well as a sense of purpose”.

Loma Linda, California

How did a city in the U.S. make the grade? Well, among the 22,000 inhabitants of this city, about 9,000 are Seventh Day Adventists, creating the only blue zone in America. “They live as much as a decade longer than the rest of us, and much of their longevity can be attributed to vegetarianism and regular exercise. Plus, Adventists don’t smoke or drink alcohol.” Not to mention they also have the most common attribute we find among these long-lived cultures: a sense of purpose.

BlueZone Website


Of course, longevity is about more than sitting on your floor with a sense of purpose. All of these cultures also have a good diet, composed mostly of local, traditional foods, with little in the way of refined and processed foods. The Okinawan diet would be much akin to the Macrobiotic diet, while the Greek and Italian blue-zoners would follow a Mediterranean diet. The Seventh Day Adventist diet is also similar to the Mediterranean diet.

That leaves the Costa Rican Nicoya: “The traditional diet on the Nicoya Peninsula consists of black beans, bananas, plantains, papaya, squash, pejibaye, yams, and homemade corn tortillas. Nicoyans eat black beans pretty much every single day and they are often paired with white rice.” (Source)

Clearly longevity and good health is based on a combination of factors, including diet, environment, lifestyle, and social and cultural conditions. However, those of us who eat impeccably, and religiously exercise and take our supplements, may still be lacking that essential component of a long healthy life: sense of purpose. From dogs to billionaires, no one is truly healthy if they don’t have that.

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