By 2004, astrophysicist Michel Poulenc had changed careers and started working as a demographer at the Belgian University of Louvain. Demographers study populations by determining their size and composition to predict how they will change in the future. This information is vital in determining things like how many new kindergartens to build or how many new retirement homes are needed.
In 2004, Poulenc, along with Gianni Pess, a doctor and epidemiologist at the Italian University of Sassari, published an article in the journal Experimental gerontology which identifies an unusual phenomenon called “blue zones”.
What are blue zones?
Blue zones are areas of the Earth where people live the longest, often reaching well over 100 years of age. Compare that to 73.4 years, which was the average life expectancy in the world in 2019, according to WHO.
The “blue zones” got their name from the color that Poulenc and Peso used to highlight the first such zone to be identified. in the province of Nuoro on the Italian island of Sardinia.
In 2005, American author and National Geographic contributor Dan Butner wrote an article entitled “Secrets of Long Life” for the November 2005 issue. National Geographic magazine and has become one of the best-selling issues ever. In 2006, Bütner collaborated with Michel Poulenc to identify a second blue zone on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. By 2008, Butner and Poulenc had identified a third blue zone on the Greek island of Ikaria.
That same year, Butner published his book, Blue zones: lessons for a longer life than people who have lived the longestand became a New York Times bestseller. In September 2009, Bütner gave a TED lecture entitled “How to Live to Be 100+”, which was viewed over two million times.
By April 2015, Butner had identified a total of five blue zones around the world. They are:
- Sardinia, Italy – especially the regions of Oliastra, Ololai and Barbadia from Seoul
- Okinawa Islands, Japan
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- Ikaria, Greece
- Loma Linda, California.
Sardinia is an island off the west coast of Italy. A village there called Seoul holds the record for the place where people live the longest in the world. Between 1996 and 2016, there were more than 20 centenarians living there, that is, people over the age of 100. This may not seem like much, but the population of Seoul is only about 830.
According to a recent article on the france24.com website, on the Nicoya Peninsula, located in northwestern Costa Rica, there are currently 1,010 people aged 90 or over with a population of about 160,000.
Loma Linda, California is just 60 miles east of Los Angeles and is surrounded on all sides by other suburban cities in California. However, residents of Loma Linda live about 10 years longer than their compatriots and have a lower rate of chronic diseases, including dementia.
What makes Loma Linda so different? There is a large population of Seventh-day Adventists who believe that the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that it must be protected. Seventh-day Adventists believe in the Sabbath of rest and eat a plant-based diet that is rich in wholesome foods and avoid drugs and stimulants, including alcohol and caffeinated beverages. Residents of Loma Linda tend to remain physically active until their 80s and 90s, and many are actively involved in their faith and church community.
What does the Blue Zones do?
When scientists studied the DNA of residents living in the Blue Zones, they found nothing to indicate that it had anything to do with the longevity of residents. Rather, what distinguished the Blue Zones was that they were geographically isolated from the rest of the world. This meant that fast food, processed foods and diets containing more meat took more time to reach these areas.
In Okinawa, Japan, where the new generation has a more modern lifestyle and eats a more Western diet, residents are experiencing more health problems and longevity is shortening. The conclusion that Poulenc and Bütner came to is that diet and exercise played a vital role in creating blue areas. On Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, people eat mostly what they grow themselves, including beans, whole grains, vegetables and fruits, and their diet contains very little meat.
In addition to diet, scientists have identified other factors that lead to longer lives. They include:
- To have a purpose in life and goals
- Existence of a social network for support from family and / or friends
- Stress reduction
- Stop eating when you are 80 percent full
- Enjoy wine or alcohol in moderation
- Maintaining physical activity.
The Blue Zones project
Dan Butner created an initiative to transfer the lessons learned in the Blue Zones to other communities. In 2009 the first Blue Zones Project city is Albert Leah, Minnesota, a city of about 18,000 people. The city has created more pedestrian crossings and wider sidewalks that allow outdoor dining. A five mile hiking and biking trail was created around the lake and now connects to neighborhoods, parks and the city center. A new amphitheater provides space for the community to gather.
Over 45 Albert Lea jobs have registered with the Blue Zones project and made various levels of change, including the creation of workplace health clinics. A local grocery store added to its selection of healthy foods to make a good choice easier for its customers. Healthy snack cart programs and breakfast programs have been introduced in schools.
The city has expanded its public garden space by 150 percent to allow residents to grow their own healthy food, and various smoking cessation programs have been launched. In 2009, 23% of Albert Lea’s elderly residents were smokers, while in 2016 this figure was only 14.7%. This saved $ 8.6 million in annual health care costs for Albert Lea’s employers.
In just one year, Albert Lea residents added 2.9 years to their life expectancy, according to data calculated by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Health spending fell 40 percent, and the city reported a 96 percent increase in pedestrian traffic and a 38 percent average increase in cycling and walking across the community.
According to realtor.com, in 2015, Albert Leah ranked third in the “10 Most Affordable Small Towns in the United States You’d Actually Want to Live In.”
Other Blue Zones cities have been added, including beach communities in Southern California – Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach. In the three communities along the beach, their obesity levels fell by 14 percent within three years, and their smoking rate dropped by more than 30 percent. Exercise and healthy eating increased by 10 percent.
In 2011, then-Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad challenged his constituents, and four cities – Cedar Falls, Mason City, Spencer and Waterloo – joined the Blue Zone projects. By 2013, 11 more cities in Iowa had been added.
The city of Spencer added new sidewalks as Cedar Falls built a pedestrian and bicycle bridge that allowed people to walk or bike to work. Mason City has developed a plan to add more bike and hiking trails. Instead of gathering in a conference room, workers at the Mason City Chamber of Commerce began walking, while other Iowans chose to climb the stairs rather than the elevator.
Schools have abandoned their school buses for “walking school buses” as a parent or teacher drives a group of children to school.
In Cedar Falls, Iowa, residents have not only lost weight, but there has been a nearly 4% drop in people with high cholesterol and a 10% drop in the number of smokers. Until 2013, Iowa was ranked as one of the healthiest states in America.
You can learn more about the Blue Zones project on their website.