The Blue Zones & Longevity: 9 Lessons from the World’s Centenarians

Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones is one of the best things I’ve watched in ages. It left me wondering how I could apply the principles, and if the Cornish lifestyle could also be a contender.

a plaque which says Life is Beautiful amongst trees and plants

If you’ve not seen it yet, Live to 100: Secrets from the Blue Zones on Netflix is absolutely fascinating. It documents the world’s 5 Blue Zones, where people have been found to live longer and healthier. It has prompted a great deal of thinking about my own lifestyle but also about life in Cornwall today.

Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones is documented and narrated by Dan Buettner, originally an explorer and expedition business owner, who now promotes, educates and advocates about longevity hotspots across the globe. He has worked in partnership with National Geographic and his work is absolutely fascinating.

the sea with small waves with low dark cloud and a bit of pink sky

What are the Blue Zones?

The Blue Zones are places or communities where people live longer than average. Statistically, they are known for having a higher number of centenarians and a lower percentage of chronic illnesses. There are five identified Blue Zones: Ikaria in Greece, Okinawa in Japan, the Italian island, Sardinia, Loma Linda in California and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.

Not only do people live longer but they have fewer health issues and ailments. One Blue Zone, boastedno reported dementia, with rates of chronic health problems like heart disease, stroke and inflammatory issues being pretty much non-existent. Older people are mobile and agile in these places too. It’s wonderful and inspiring.

Watching Dan Buettner deliver his findings via Netflix, led to me thinking about my own lifestyle but also living in Cornwall. Surely people live longer here, or do they?

a winter beach sunset

Life Expectancy in Cornwall

Obviously, neither Cornwall or any Cornish towns or villages, are identified as a Blue Zone. According to the Office of National Statistics, the life expectancy of male Cornish residents is 79.8 years and 83.7 years for females. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed. I thought it would be at least mid 80s for men and higher again for women.

These local statistics led to me wondering why. I make no secret of how great Cornish life is and the benefits to living by the coast so what aren’t we doing? What could be initiating and integrating into the Cornish way of life? More importantly, what have we already got that can be maximised and used to our advantage?

Lifestyles Choices found in the Blue Zones

Dan, along with other longevity experts, has spent decades finding out what defines these areas. What makes thee Blue Zones different? What do they do that sets them apart from other neighbouring towns and villages that nurtures longevity?

Nine factors, or common denominators, as found in the BLue Zones are thought to hold the key to longevity. These characteristics and lifestyle choices are apparent across the different populations, but are defined within each culture. They looked a little different depending on the location. As you’ll discover, these 9 lessons from the Blue Zones aren’t mutually exclusive. They work together, and in combination, afford a longer, healthy life.

Let’s explore these 9 factors some more.

the curved coastline in Cornwall wit the sea and cloudy sky

1. Purpose

Even though people across the Blue Zones are beyond the conventional retirement age, they all had purpose; a reason for getting out of bed in the morning. An elderly gentleman in Okinawa spoke of the importance of keeping up his carving and woodwork skills. He worked and made something everyday. He considered these items to be his legacy, knowing they would be used for decades after he leaves this world. It’s not just doing something for the sake of it. From what I could see, purpose is connected to feelings of joy, and of course, fulfilment.

How important is purpose when it comes to living longer? Well, research suggests those with purpose live up to 7 years longer. It’s believed that it reduces the probability of age related health issues, such as Alzheimer’s, Arthritis and Stroke.

Finding a purpose is personal. It has to be something that drives us from within, something we feel a connection with. It could be anything. Purpose can be multifaceted too and I’ve no doubt they shift and evolve as we get older.

a woman with a pink headdress and bright clothing

2. Stress moderators or downshift

Life can be stressful for a myriad of reasons. The Blue Zones research showed that those who live longer do not experience less stress than others. Afterall, we know a certain amount of stress can be positive. It can spur us into action and can enhance immune functioning in the short term. Chronic, long term stress can be detrimental though. It suppresses immune functioning and increases inflammation as well as making us more susceptible to both physical and mental health difficulties. Long term stress doesn’t make for a happy life.

Those who live in Blue Zones make space and time for rituals and practices that help regulate and moderate stress. These included showing respect to those who are older and wiser (I guess there’s many life lessons we can learn from our elders), praying and daily napping. While mindfulness and body-mind practices like yoga and breath work weren’t exclusively mentioned, these regulatory routines have a positive impact on stress and associated inflammation. There’s quite a lot out there that documents how relaxation practices aid brain development and protects against ailments associated with getting older, such as heart disease.

When it comes to living in Cornwall, what downshifts are part of our culture? I know that my work does not permit short daily naps, for example. For many who holiday here or have second homes, Cornwall is seen as a place to relax and unwind.

For those of us who live here though, we’re as stressed as others who live outside of our county. I’ve previously mentioned how the sea is a natural source of stress relief as is spending time in nature. I know that many of us don’t have time to walk on the coast path or venture into the sea on a frequent basis. I guess it’s about doing what we can as consistently as possible. Personally, I try and practice yoga 2-3 times a week. I find when I am at my most restless, it settles my mind. A glass of wine and a warm bath also helps but that wasn’t in the Blue Zone findings!

a worn terracotta pot in a garden amongst leaves

3. Natural Movement

Oh, how life has changed. We used to walk everywhere, move regularly. Now we readily hop in the car as shops and amenities are becoming more centralised. Things have become so much easier and convenient and it would seem it really isn’t good for us.

What’s encouraging is, natural movement as identified by the Blue Zones study isn’t “exercise” as we know it. No one was running 5K 3 times a week or heading out on lengthy bike rides. Instead, people moved regularly and frequently throughout the day, about every 20 minutes. This ranged from gardening to making bread from traditional recipes, handed down from generation to generation. People almost always went out on foot – no transport.

When it’s described like this, it sounds so easy, doesn’t it? When I think of my working week, I don’t move every 20 minutes and I’m often sat in my car for lengthy periods. I do walk to local amenities (seriously, the village shop is just down the road) and further afield if time allows. In lockdown, we were permitted to have daily exercise. We used it too, every single day. Both myself and my son felt incredibly well for doing it.

Not only that, I’m a huge fan of keeping traditions going. I’ve often considered adding more Cornish recipes on here and Instagram. Making pastry and crimping for Cornish pasties, baking Cornish splits or saffron buns. It’s all moving but also time together and conversation.

a pair of hands touching a mixture of pulses and beans

4. Plant based eating

It’s no secret that plant based eating is best for us and the Blue Zones say so too! Dan Buettner found many regions ate an abundance of beans, pulses and legumes, as well as colourful, local vegetables high in polyphenols. On average, they ate half a cup of beans or pulses per day. As you can imagine, processed and ultra processed foods were not a feature of their diets.

The discovery immediately reminded me of the work that’s happening at Zoe (see Tim Spector here but also the Zoe podcast). Their research on gut health, which is closely connected to physical health and brain functioning, advocates the importance of fibre rich pulses and beans on our gut microbiomes. How cool would be it for Tim and Dan to collaborate? Tim says we’re in a fibre crisis as most of us aren’t getting enough. He considers beans, pulses and legumes to be superfood and yet, we aren’t really talking about them much.

bowls of beans and pulses on a wooden table with spoons

The good news is tins of beans are readily available in our supermarkets and are a cheap food option. You can imagine what we’re now eating here on a regular basis, alongside more conscious decisions about which vegetables to buy. Check out Nat’s Nourishments for some great bean recipes. She’s one of my favourite foodie Instagrammers. She also has her own website.

an elderly man sitting in front of a cafe with oranges in the window

5. 80% full

Overeating in those who live to 100 is not a thing. Focused eating, that comes without distraction, is a common practice seen across the Blue Zones. Eating together, taking their time and talking were all characteristics of mealtimes. Eating slowly was significant too. It gives us the time to register when we’ve had enough.

Interestingly, breakfast, or the first meal of the day, was the largest meal for those living in Blue Zones. Meals got smaller as the day progressed. There’s no calorie counting or restricted eating. Supplements aren’t used either. Instead they listen to their bodies, stop when full and include lots of plants. I suspect a lot is homegrown (or easily accessible) and food is largely homemade rather than out of a packet.

a dark table with a spread of food and cutlery

Interestingly, elders living in the Blue Zones eat a reasonable amount of complex carbohydrates. These were unrefined and include oats, corn, sweet potatoes and yams. Bread and other carbohydrate stapes are homemade with white flour alternatives. This means I am planning on making my own sourdough soon!

If you’d like to know more, the Blue Zones website has some helpful food guidelines.

a hand holding up a glass of wine in front of a field

6. Wine is fine

Interestingly, moderate wine drinkers have been found to outlive those who abstain from wine. Aside from the Adventists (who live in the Loma Linda Blue Zone), people in Blue Zones consumed 2 glasses of wine a day. As you’ll see, it’s not just wine per se. It’s what it’s consumed with.

Taken on it’s own, I’m not convinced drinking a couple of glasses a day would work. If we think about it, for Blue Zoners, wine accompanies a good, unprocessed plant based diet, and good company. It’s social and laid back. Let’s not forget the amount of natural movement that’s happening day to day too. These people aren’t sitting down to drink a bottle of wine after sitting at a desk all day looking at a laptop.

2 glasses of wine chinking in a bar

I also wonder about the quality of wine. Those who lived in Ikaria drank local, regional wine, made in a traditional way. I have since wondered about buying more local wine. We have some quality vineyards in Cornwall although it understandably costs more than my average £6 bottle from Aldi.

Drinking a glass of wine with a meal can help the body absorb more of the flavonoids from the food, which helps our arteries. It can also help reduce some cancers and cardiovascular disease if coupled with a mediterranean diet. However, if you’re eating a processed, microwave meal, there won’t be much goodness to work with. And no, abstaining all week and hitting the booze hard over the weekend isn’t the same.

a grandparent and young children sitting together

7. Family and loved ones

There’s definitely a family community feel associated with the Blue Zones. They tend to live near to family and work on their close familial relationships. Raising children and commiting to a life partner were also significant when it came to living longer. Children learn lessons from their grandparents and great grandparents. Family is a top priority for those in the Blue Zones.

This obviously says something about the quality of relationships for those living in Blue Zones and the importance of making time for one another.

2 small children looking at a green area with a grandmother pointing at something

While I am fortunate enough to live near family, it’s not always easy for everyone, especially when we consider the current climate. Many people of my generation moved away from Cornwall to have a university education. They don’t always come back, probably for many reasons. In Cornwall, we are currently facing a housing crisis. Our coastal towns are now quiet in winter and extremely busy in the summer. Houses that used to be family homes, passed from one generation to another, are now holiday cottages. As such, they are empty for half of the year. Families cannot always afford to live near each other anymore. House prices have increased nationally way above what people can afford on an average salary.

There are many challenges to integrating this Blue Zone lesson but I recognise that close family relationships can and do exist where there is distance too. Communities in Cornwall have changed as a result though, which leads to the next point.

8. A sense of belonging

Feeling connecting and knowing you belong is so important for living longer. I feel this one is clearly related to purpose and value and the importance of reciprocal relationships. What lies underneath this lesson is those who live longer are more likely to belong to a faith based community. Long livers attended faith based or spiritual gatherings regularly (about once a week). It wasn’t about which faith but more about connecting spiritually and, I suspect, having a sense of hope. Findings have shown that having connections to a faith and attending meetings can increase your life expectancy by 4 – 14 years.

a man sitting with a bowl in his hand

9. Finding the right people, or tribe

This is about being with similar minded people, or those who value a healthier lifestyle. Research has long indicated that health behaviours are contagious as much as adverse ones (such as obesity, smoking etc.). People who live longer have shown us that they’re more likely to spend time with those who share the same outlook and likeminded lifestyle practices. With that comes support, belonging, and probably some stress relief.

Some extra thoughts about longevity and the Blue Zones

Having watching Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, I know I’ve made some changes and I’d like to embed more of these lifestyle principles. While watching Dan Buettner walk us through the principles for longevity, I made a few more observations. These aren’t identified as lessons to help us live longer. Instead they are things I noticed that were familiar across some of the 5 Blue Zones.

a tropical looking beach with white sand, and blue sky

What about coastal living?

It didn’t escape me that all of the Blue Zones enjoy warmer climes. They are either islands, like Sardinia or Ikaria, or are relatively close to the sea. Obviously if coastal living alone was identified as a longevity indicator there would be many more Blue Zones across the world. Therefore, I can only deduce that while living by the sea is hugely beneficial and offers incredible health benefits, when it comes to longevity there is a recipe of lifestyle choices and ways of being that trumps or builds on what coastal living offers by the bucket load.

flowers and a beach and the cliff in the beackground

Blue Zones and back to basics…

From what I recall, it wasn’t mentioned as a factor, but I noticed that the people and places features had relatively simple lives. The exception was perhaps those living in Loma Linda, California who appeared to have lots of amenities on their doorstep. The remaining places seemed more remote and day to day practices weren’t simplified by tech. Things seemed to carry on as they’ve always done. Small appliances aren’t used to make bread dough, for example, and cars or mopeds aren’t relied on. Even the wine making in Ikaria remained unchanged for decades. For me, it says something about tradition and culture, and how this is linked with connecting with others. Some things inevitably change and move, I guess but they don’t have to.

Well, that’s my take on the 9 lessons bourne from years of research on the Blue Zones. It’s definitely an eye opener and certainly challenged some of my assumptions and beliefs. Here’s to moving regularly, eating beans and sipping wine (amongst other things!).

If you fancy living as long as possible, you can find out more about the Blue Zones here (it’s so fascinating!)

Author: plbedford

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