'The Blue Zones' by Dan Buettner
I was first alerted to this book when I read 'PROTEINAHOLIC' by Dr Garth Davis. It was one of the books he turned to when he began to investigate how he might be able move to a more healthy diet.
Essentially, Dan Buettner has identified 5 places in the world where people appear to have a greater than average longevity and where the chances of them reaching 100 are significantly higher than might be expected elsewhere.
In each case, he, and other researchers, set out to verify that the ages were accurate and then to investigate what might be the main factors contributing to their longevity. Also, whether there were factors which the areas had in common.
The five Blue Zones discussed in the book are
Sardinia - specifically, the mountainous region of Barbagia
The Japanese island of Okinawa
The Seventh-day Adventists of Loma Linda in California
Costa Rica - particularly, the Nicoya Peninsula
The Greek island of Ikaria, in the Aegean Sea
SARDINIAN BLUE ZONE
Sardinia is a large Mediterranean island off the west coast of Italy. The Blue Zone is centred around some of the villages in the mountain region of Barbagia.
Here, the diet is predominantly plant-based, with meat only consumed on Sundays and special occasions. They also consume a pecorino cheese made from sheep’s milk, which is very high in Omega 3 fatty acids and drink goat’s milk, which has components with anti-inflammatory properties which probably offer some protection against heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
They have very strong family values and grandparents play a major role in providing support and help for their children and grandchildren.
Sardinian shepherds may walk up to 5 miles per day – in some cases for most of their lives.
The local red wine, called Cannonau, contains much higher levels of flavonoids than most other wines. These help to prevent the development of atherosclerosis. Most of the Sardinian centenarian men consume several glasses of this wine every day.
They are also well known for their sense of humour – and can be found gathered together every afternoon, when there will be much laughter. Undoubtedly, this helps to reduce stress and therefore cardiovascular disease.
OKINAWAN BLUE ZONE
Okinawa is a group of Japanese islands about 1,000 miles from Tokyo in the East China Sea. The largest of the islands (Okinawa Island) is around 60 miles long and 15 miles wide. Some areas of Okinawa can probably claim to have the greatest longevity anywhere in the world.
The diet here is largely plant-based. It includes much purple sweet potato, and Goya – a bitter melon that looks a bit like a wart covered cucumber. Goya is high in anti-oxidants and is known to lower blood sugar levels. In addition, they eat a lot of soy – tofu and miso soup – both full of flavonoid phytoestrogens which help protect against heart disease and breast cancer. They may very occasionally eat some pork.
Most centenarian Okinawans grow a garden, which keeps them active and also provides a constant source of fresh vegetables as well as herbs and spices, such as mugwort, ginger and turmeric.
The Okinawans all appear to have a sense of purpose and a reason to get up every morning – they call this their ‘Ikigai’. This includes their gardening, going for walks and enjoying the sunshine, which helps to maintain healthy levels of Vitamin D. Part of their ikigai is the formation of a ‘moai’ (literally a ‘meeting for a common purpose’) – a gathering of friends every day. The members of these groups help each other out, emotionally and financially, thereby reducing stress in the knowledge that there is always someone available to offer support.
Finally, they live in simple houses with very little furniture and sit on tatami mats on the floor. There is no doubt that having to get up and down from these mats many times a day helps to maintain lower body strength and balance – thereby reducing the number of falls which can become common in older people.
CALIFORNIAN BLUE ZONE
This American Blue Zone is the population of around 9,000 Seventh Day Adventists in Lomo Linda, about 60 miles East of Los Angeles. They have been the subject of a huge study into health and diet. For nearly 30 years, this study has been led by Dr Gary Fraser and Dr Terry Butler at the Loma Linda University and Medical centre.
Many of the Seventh Day Adventists are vegan or vegetarian. Those who do eat meat, only do so occasionally. They are well known for snacking on nuts and drinking plenty of water (5-6 glasses per day) As far as their meals are concerned, they tend to eat a good breakfast, but their evening meal is usually quite light and eaten relatively early.
Exercise is important – moderate daily walks, along with their diet, ensures that the majority have a healthy BMI with lower blood pressure, lower levels of blood cholesterol and less cardiovascular disease than the majority of Americans.
The residents of Loma Linda like to spend time with friends and family, providing each other with help and support whenever necessary.
An important feature of their way of life is observation of the Sabbath from Sundown on Friday to Sundown on Saturday. During this time, nobody works or watches television – even the delivery of mail is suspended! During this time, they attend church services and spend time with those who are close to them. It is seen as an important time for rest and rejuvenation.
Finally, the church finds opportunities for its members to volunteer and encourages them to help others whenever possible – thereby helping to foster a real sense of purpose.
THE COSTA RICAN BLUE ZONE
The Nicoya Peninsula is about 80 miles long, south of the Nicaraguan border and along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica – and here can be found some of the longest living people in the world.
They eat a traditional diet, based around maize and beans – this appears to be an excellent combination for longevity.
The water they drink is quite hard, with high levels of calcium. This may contribute to the low levels of heart disease found in this region and also stronger bones and therefore few hip fractures amongst the elderly. In addition, they like to spend time in the sun whenever possible, helping to boost levels of Vitamin D.
The centenarians here seem to like to keep busy and having worked hard for all of their lives, they continue to take pleasure in their daily household chores. This seems to give them a ‘Plan de Vida’ or a sense of purpose and reason to get up every morning.
They have a strong sense of the importance of family and like to be able to provide support and help to children and grandchildren. They also maintain social networks with friends and neighbours – listening to what the others have to say, appreciating each other and laughing a good deal.
THE GREEK BLUE ZONE
This zone is to be found on the Greek island of Ikaria, about 30 miles from the western coast of Turkey. One of the residents of this island, Stamatis Moraitis, had moved to the United States after the second world war. Initially, he went to have some medical treatment, but ended up staying. When in his early 60s he was diagnosed with lung cancer and decided to return to Ikaria, where he thought he could die peacefully (and where the funeral costs would be significantly less than in America).
When back on his home territory he decided to reconnect with his religion of Greek Orthodoxy. His childhood friends started to visit him on a regular basis, when they would chat for hours and drink the local wine.
Today, Stamatis is 100 years old and free of cancer!
Features of the Greek Blue Zone include the consumption of goat’s milk. It is suggested that the composition of this milk helps to promote healthy gut flora.
Their diet is typical Mediterranean, with plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans and olive oil.
Hey drink plenty of herbal tea – especially rosemary, sage and oregano. These are high in antioxidants and also help to keep blood pressure in check.
The Greek Orthodox tradition promotes regular fasting. This limits overall intake of calories, which undoubtedly contributes towards increased longevity.
As well as getting plenty of moderate daily exercise by gardening, doing all their own chores and walking, the Ikarians also take a break in the afternoon, when they have a short nap. There is some evidence that people who nap regularly have a 35% lower chance of dying from heart disease.
Family and friends are important – and every day time is spent getting together and providing each other with company and support.
So, in these five Blue Zones, not only do many live longer, but they also appear to live better lives than other areas, where various chronic conditions are all too prevalent in later life.
What they all have in common is a diet with low levels of animal products, regular physical activity, a sense of purpose and close, supportive relationships with friends and family.
In the final chapter of the book, Dan Buettner suggests nine strategies we should consider adopting to increase our own longevity and wellness.
In summary, these are :
Keep active – this does not require long runs every day – but just low level exercise on a regular basis. This may be part of the working day (like the Sardinian shepherds), attending the garden or walking to visit friends or relatives.
Do not over eat. The Okinawans try to stop eating when they feel they are 80% full. This means they consume around 1900 calories per day. Similarly, the Sardinian intake is about 2000 calories.
Avoid meat and processed food. Base your diet around fruit, vegetables, beans, whole grains and nuts.
Drink wine – preferably red - in moderation.
Have a sense of purpose and a reason to get up in a morning - look forward to every day.
Make sure you make time for rest and relaxation and reduce the stress in your life.
Another common theme is a degree of spirituality and attendance at religious gatherings. In his studies of the Seventh Day Adventists, Dr Gary Fraser concludes that, undoubtedly, this is associated with a healthier behaviour and lifestyle.
Maintain close, supportive family groups.
Associate with others who share the Blue Zone values. Get together with close friends on a regular basis and provide mutual help and support.
There is much more information about Dan Buettner’s Blue Zone projects and his other books at his website
The book can be purchased at