elderly-japanese-womanIt seems that all of us have an interest in great health and longevity.  In this article, I’ll summarize some fascinating and inspiring research about longevity and how the findings are being applied to positively impact other communities of people to live longer, happier lives.

One of the lecturers in my nutrition school was a man named Dan Buettner.  He spoke to us about his work with National Geographic to study “longevity hotspots” at various locations in the world.  Through studying these populations, his group sought to tease out the lifestyle characteristics associated with longevity and then to apply them prospectively to other communities to “reverse engineer” longevity.   He called these areas where people lived the longest the “Blue Zones”.   His Blue Zone project focused on understanding all aspects of the lives of these people who enjoyed healthy and vibrancy well into their 90’s and beyond.

His team studied the habits, diets, and mental outlooks of five communities of long-living populations.  These included populations in Sardinia, Italy, Nicoya, Costa Rica, Loma Linda, California, Okinawa, Japan, and Ikaria, Greece.   They identified a variety common lifestyle habits within these groups that they felt were very likely to be impacting their longevity.  However, what really surprised him was his finding that the most powerful predictors of longevity was the beliefs that the people in these areas had about how long they would live!  Those that were living and thriving well into their nineties had long believed that they would do so.  That said, the focus of the research was to identify the lifestyle characteristics of these pockets of longevity.

The Blue Zone Project identified nine characteristics that they believed correlated very strongly with longevity.   Here are the longevity traits (“lessons”) identified in the Blue Zone work:

  1. Move Naturally. Daily running and weight training at the gym are not part of this; it is better to be active all the time by working around the house, in the garden, taking long daily walks or bike rides, standing at your computer, and even moving when talking on the phone.
  1. Know Your Purpose. It is really important to have a reason for waking up each day. This gives you a drive and a focus for your life.
  1. Down Shifting. Make a concerted effort to turn down the dial on your crazy life. Take breaks to banish stress, whether it’s meditation, doing short breathing practice, or even making time to socialize with friends
  1. Eat Less. Don’t overeat (or even eat to fullness). Eat slowly and mindfully, and stop when you are 80% full. It is helpful to focus on your food, enjoying all the tastes and textures.
  1. Have a “Plant Slant” – Eat Less Meat. It is not necessary to avoid meat entirely, but use it sparingly in your meals. It should not be the main focus of your diet. There are many great plant proteins to include in your diet.  They found that beans are a major components in the diets of people who live to be 100 years old.
  1. Drink in Moderation.  Many of the groups studied enjoy a glass or two of alcohol per day – predominantly natural wine that is rich in antioxidants. Only the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California were the exception as they do not drink alcohol.
  1. Belonging.  Some sort of spiritual practice on a regular basis was important – the denomination doesn’t seem to matter. What was key was participating in faith-based services weekly (4 times per month).
  1. Power of Love. 
 Family structure was correlated to longevity.  This includes having a long-time life partner and keeping aging parents and/or grandparents nearby.
  1. Having a “Right Tribe”.  People who lived long lives chose or were born into and stay in social circles that supported healthy behaviors   An example of this are the Okinawans who have ”moais”– groups of five friends that committed to each other for life.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

The next phase of the Blue Zone Project was to “reverse engineer” the longevity lessons in to selected communities to prospectively impact (and improve) the health in the people who lived in them.  Several of these projects are underway in select areas in North America with some amazing interim results.

In order to be considered to be a Blue Zone community, a city or region had to be centrally concentrated.  The denizens needed to be able to spend much of the time within a limited radius.  The Blue Zone group selected a few locations for their work and set about making some improvements in the infrastructures of these areas that would enable the Power 9 to be applied. Examples of these changes are:

  • Improving road and transportation options, including parks, bike and walking trails
  • Enacting ordinances to discourage junk food consumption and smoking
  • Fostering social structures to allow people to support each other for healthy habits
  • Making healthy food choices more readily available

One of the Blue Zone cities selected was Alberta Lee, Minnesota. Here is some what the Blue Zones Project did in that community:

  • Established over forty new community gardens
  • Were successful to get 44% of the adult population participating in walking moais (little groups), logging over 75 million steps in one year
  • Got 1,000 people to participate in a life purpose workshop
  • Had schools ban eating in hallways and stop selling candy for fundraisers

So how did it work out in Alberta Lee?  Well, the results in one year were quite impressive:

  • Participants added an average 2.9 (projected) years to their lifespan (based on predictive testing using validated measures)
  • There was a reduction in healthcare claims for city workers of 49%
  • Participating businesses achieved a 21% decline in absenteeism

It is wonderful to see such great results in people of Alberta Lee in such a short amount of time.  I was very inspired by the Blue Zones work as it demonstrated that significant improvement in wellness can be achieved through a commitment to change and sustained action.

I hope that you are also inspired to see even that little shifts, applied consistency over time can result in huge gains with regard to health and wellness.  Although adopting these Power 9 habits certainly does not guarantee a long life, as Dan Buettner put it, it will “stack the deck in your favor”.

Here are resources for this article to learn more.