Blue Zones offer insight into finding longevity in the Vail Valley
Special to the Daily
The human obsession with longevity is one that has been documented since the beginnings of history, with Gilgamesh’s grieving search for immortality being one of the earliest transcripts of such fascination. Diet trends and cosmetic injections might be considered the present-day equivalent to such an epic, and although technology is advancing rapidly to increase life expectancy, some of the oldest populations in the world live surprisingly simple lives based on holistic principles of health. These geographic clusters of aging, healthy populations are called Blue Zones, and while there is differing research on what holds the keys to healthy longevity, the populations in these regions offer some compelling takeaways to incorporate into daily life.
What are Blue Zones?
Blue Zones are five geographically distinct areas of the world that see pronounced rates of heightened longevity, and are comprised of Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; a community of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California; Ikaria, Greece; and the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. These areas were first examined, and have since been written about extensively, by Dan Buettner, who initially wrote about his findings for National Geographic before going on to write “The Blue Zones Solution,” which provides a more in depth analysis of his conclusions.
According to Buettner’s research, Blue Zone residents not only live longer lives than other regions of the world, but many Blue Zone elders are centenarians, living active lives well into their later years. Just as striking as the ages these populations typically reach, Blue Zone regions typically see far lower rates of cancer, disease, and chronic illness as the rest of the world, and report higher rates of happiness compared to their peers outside of these distinct areas, as purported by Buettner, as well. And while Buettner attributes about 10 percent of the good fortune — and long, healthy, happy lives — of these populations to genetics, overwhelming, his books cite the lifestyles that these regions largely exhibit as being the underlying factor to their well-being.
Identifying the Factors
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While Blue Zones are diverse in terms of geographic locations, the regions all share strong commonality in terms of lifestyle choices, diet and mental health factors. According to Buettner, residents of these areas don’t smoke, consume a largely plant-based diet, enjoy a moderate amount of wine daily, live physically active lifestyles, have strong familial and community connections, and can articulate their life’s purpose.
The physical components of Blue Zones populations’ longevity are often intuitive — while exercise is a regular part of their day, residents of these distinct locales frequently live active lives inherently, laboring for what they need or walking to where they need to go. They spend more time outside than many of their peers in the rest of the world, often spend time connecting to the outdoors through gardening and drink a couple glasses of wine a day, with Sardinians enjoying a varietal of red wine that is particularly spiked with polyphenols — a vital antioxidant. Similarly, Blue Zone populations largely adhere to a semi-vegetarian diet, with meat being found less frequently on the table, or fish being substituted in its place. Legumes, such as beans and lentils, often provide vital protein for Blue Zone populations and are a staple in each region. There is also a pronounced importance on not over-eating, with family style meals and seconds being less of the norm than smaller, thoughtful plates.
Similarly, down time and relaxation play a large role in mental health, with Seventh-day Adventists of Loma Linda, California spending the Sabbath praying and taking nature walks with their families, and the residents of Ikaria, Greece, putting more of an emphasis on what they’re doing as opposed to when — few, if any, wear watches. Religion and spirituality is also important to many Blue Zone populations, which are weekly churchgoers, or incorporate time for prayer with friends and family into their schedules.
The connections fostered in these communities are equally as important as their diets and daily habits, as well, with elders being actively engaged members of the population who frequently live with their younger family members, and “retirement” being a word that is often lost in translation. Okinawans keep friendships with neighbors and community members that can last a lifetime, and consider good fortune best spent when shared with the group.
Even more fascinating is the more individualized part of these elderly Blue Zone inhabitants’ ability to not only know, but be able to verbalize with certainty their distinct, life’s purpose. In the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, this asserted life’s purpose is known as the plan de la vida, or the “plan of life,” and in Okinawa, Japan, residents identify with a sense of ikigai, or “reason for living.” According to Buettner, this sense of purpose is often large or small, with Blue Zone members finding purpose in fishing to feed their families or caring for younger family members.
While it might not be feasible to pack up the family and pursue a life of shepherding in Sardinia, there are important takeaways that Blue Zones can offer to those looking to emulate their lifestyle and longevity. Penny Wilson, PhD, is a registered dietitian and nutritionist with an extensive background in physiology and athletic nutrition, explained that tweaking daily habits, particularly at meal times, is a good place to start to incorporating some Blue Zone practices into each day.
“On the nutrition side of things, it’s not just that they’re semi-vegetarian, but it’s that they’re eating unprocessed foods, they’re eating foods that don’t come out of a box — they’re cooking from scratch,” she explained.
Dr. Dennis Lipton, an internal medicine physician at Vail Valley Medical Center, agreed that this focus on eating fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains as a staple of the day and more mindfully — and sparingly — working meat into the diet is a practice that Vail Valley residents can try to emulate a Blue Zone diet, and to improve the quality of food they consume on a regular basis.
“The most important component of the diets of these long-lived people is the large amount of unprocessed, plant-derived food that they eat,” he said, “Focus on getting at least 5 servings of vegetables every day along with 2-3 servings of fruits — far less than 10 percent of Americans do this — you can get a lot of this done with a smoothie.”
Meal plans can be an efficient way to work in high-quality selections of meat more mindfully, with regional butcher shops like Colorado Meat Co., Cut and Vail Meat Co. being local resources to pick up individualized portions for the night’s dish. Similarly, adding legumes — a universal Blue Zone staple — into meals is an inexpensive way to incorporate a different form of protein into the diet. Beans and rice, in particular, have the same amino acid composition as meat, which make the duo a highly efficient source of protein, and lentils are another great option to introduce legumes to the plate. Especially when bought dry and cooked in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker — the altitude can make them timely to boil on the stove — both are cost-effective sources of protein to try on salads, veggies and morning eggs.
Similarly, Wilson said that the dinner table can be an important space to connect with family and community, much in the same way that Blue Zones connect during these times of day. Focusing on those gathered around you is a beneficial way to incorporate some of the more positive mental health components of Blue Zone regions into each day.
“In Blue Zones, the community isn’t just the larger community, but it’s the community around the table,” she said, “It’s about slowing down and taking your time when you’re eating, and not having all the electronics on and around the table, but talking.”
And while Americans tend to live much different lives than many of the residents of Blue Zone populations, Lipton explained that Vail Valley residents already are ahead in some ways by having access to incredible outdoor opportunities, active lifestyles, and a small community that can emulate some of the intangibles of Blue Zone life.
“My advice would be to try to incorporate some of these important items into your own lifestyle,” he said, “Take time to appreciate our environment, other people, and life in general. Get outside as much you can and move. Make time for family, friends, love, and social activities in your life.”
For more information about Blue Zones, Dan Buettner and his work on the topic, check out his website, http://www.bluezones.com.