By Louise & Rob Westra, Regular Columnists.
Within the western medical paradigm, aging is likely to be viewed as a chronic state to be managed and treated. However, this general acceptance that the passing of time inevitably leads to a gradual decline towards frailty and disease alongside progressive mental and physical infirmity is a gross misrepresentation of what is achievable with the right circumstances.
Indeed, research has found that this widely accepted idea of inevitable decline is a fallacy. In our own practice, we’re fortunate to work with individuals who often want to learn how to actively influence their health outcomes during their latter years. It’s a fantastic feeling to be educating people to use specific lifestyle changes to improve their lives and potential health-span. However, in some parts of the world these longevity factors (our own term) are embedded into the very fabric of society…
The Blue Zones
Consider those living in the five geographical areas known as The Blue Zones. In these communities, people live far longer than the average lifespan. Even more significantly, these people don’t just live longer, they remain healthier until the very end of their lives. They also experience less disease than their American and British counterparts.
In case you’re unaware, the five distinct locations that have been termed the Blue Zones are:
- · The Barbagia Region of Sardinia, Italy – found to have the greatest number of male centenarians of anywhere in the world.
- · Okinawa, Japan – women over 70 are the longest living population in the world.
- · Loma Linda, California – Seventh Day Adventists living in this location have an extra 10 years of lifespan compared to other North Americans.
- · Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – second highest concentration of male centenarians plus globally the lowest rates of middle-aged mortality.
- · Ikaria, Greece – one of the lowest global rates of middle-aged mortality plus world’s lowest rates of dementia.
As you can see, these places are not geographically related in any way. Furthermore, the people in the respective Blue Zones don’t necessarily share a common ethnicity or any other background.
So, what are the links between them all that ultimately culminates in this increased quality and quantity of life? And what lessons can we learn from these commonalities?
What Do Blue Zones Have in Common?
Despite their cultural differences the Blue Zones have a number of fundamental themes in common. We have outlined some of them below alongside suggestions for using their experience to benefit your own life and potentially improve the aging process.
They don’t seem to stress as much.
If you’re alive, then experiencing stress is unavoidable. However, there are certainly different approaches to dealing with an increased level of tension. In the Blue Zones, they have strategies and best practices for managing stress before it can become damaging.
For instance, Sardinians head to the local wine bar and indulge in a polyphenol-rich glass or two, whereas the Seventh-day Adventists turn to prayer when they are overwhelmed. Although these stress relief practices are almost diametrically different, the point is that members of the communities have a plan for when they start to feel tense.
Note to self: Develop your own stress relief practice and use it consistently.
Ideas to consider:walking in nature, learning to say no, journaling exercises, listening to music, finding something that makes you laugh, meditation.
They move as a part of their day, but also take it easy.
Blue Zone inhabitants don’t participate in HIIT classes, strive for washboard abs or buns of steel. Instead, movement is embedded into their life in a more natural way. Walking as a means of getting from point a to point b is customary. Attending to a productive vegetable garden or regularly dancing with friends are other noted pastimes that create incidental movement.
Note to self: Forgo an intense SPIN class and go outside for a gentle run or walk. Choose to do things the manual way rather than the automatic, i.e. forgo the escalator or lift for the stairs, trim your garden using less power tools, volunteer for local outdoor cleanups.
They eat lots of plants.
People living in Blue Zones all eat differently, for instance in Ikaria, inhabitants eat a lot of potatoes, honey, and lentils. However, in Japan, foods such as melons, rice, and garlic are eaten a lot.
Of course, this doesn’t mean these specific foods are the nutritional key to longevity. Moreover, what these areas all have in common is that they eat a wide variety of plants. In addition these plants are relatively unprocessed, so other than being prepared for the table they have not been overly refined. They’re eaten very fresh with minimal food miles incurred between source and plate; in fact, the majority of food is grown within 10 miles of their homes and hence the nutrient content is typically higher.
In addition, inhabitants do eat meat (pasture-raised rather than factory-farmed) but not at the same frequency as in many western societies. On average, they eat meat five times a month (yes, per month) and a standard portion is 3 to 4 ounces.
Note to self: Make plant foods the basis of your daily diet. If you want to include animal meat in your diet then once a week is a good frequency to aim for. Find a local source of fruit and vegetables wherever possible and eat seasonally.
In the Blue Zones a significant amount of time is spent with loved ones
In fact, family time is taken very seriously and parents spend a great deal of time at home with their children. Furthermore, in some of the communities several generations live together throughout their lives.
Note to self: Actively make time for the people you love to show them you care. Schedule in a weekly phone call to your parents, a family night, or visit a grandparent and spend some time with them. Write a note or a card for no reason other than to let a loved one know you’re thinking of them.
They have something to believe in.
The inhabitants of the Blue Zones all have some type of spiritual belief system that forms part of their life. Actually, when interviewed, there wasn’t a single person from a Blue Zone who didn’t claim to belong to a faith-based community.
Note to self: Consider incorporating spirituality into your life. The type of spiritual or religious practice doesn’t really matter, apart from the significance to you. You could start by saying some type of thanks at the outset of a meal or simply taking a moment in nature to feel the wondrous beauty around you.
They have a strong sense of community.
As well as spending quality time with family, those in the Blue Zones also have a close circle of people who provide healthy support. This is really important as the experience of loneliness can have significant adverse outcomes for health including increasing cortisol and inflammation which can be contributors to heart disease, diabetes, and dementia. It’s no surprise then that these areas with the largest population of centenarians have community involvement and social connection at their core.
Note to self: Conduct a social audit by considering the people with whom you spend most time and weighing up their contribution to your life. Do they support you in making healthy and helpful choices? Are you involved in your local community? How could you build positive relationships?
Of course, even implementing the above is no guarantee that you will automatically live to be 100 and be healthy throughout that lifespan. But at least if you attempt to actively implement some of their habits into your daily life chances are your life will be enriched in ways that you hadn’t anticipated and you won’t fall into the trap of thinking that once you hit a certain chronological age everything is downhill from then on.
The information included in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor should it be considered in anyway a replacement for professional advice from your health care professional.
Louise and Rob Westra are the innovators behind The Health is Wealth Collective. Louise, an Australian trained Naturopath, and Rob, a UK trained Personal Trainer and Movement coach, collaborate with mature entrepreneurs and executive level professionals who want to truly up-level their health. Find out more at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/368277613900736/