The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer

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The front-cover blurb on this 2008 NYT bestseller by Dan Buettner is “A must-read if you want to stay young!” Based on that, you’d wonder why every person on the planet hasn’t bought or read The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer, since who doesn’t want to stay young?

The next best thing is to live to a ripe old age and in vibrant health right up until the end. Buettner travelled five “Blue Zones” around the world to study locations that have statistical proof of the extended longevity of many of its residents. They include Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Loma Linda (California), Nikoya (Costa Rica) and Ikaria (Greece.)

In the United States, there is only one centenarian (someone 100 years old or more) per 5,000 people. In the Sardinian “Blue Zone” they found seven centenarians in a single village of 2,500 people.

Fortunately, these Blue Zones often share common lifestyles that North Americans can emulate.  Buettner — who originally visited the Blue Zones courtesy of National Geographic magazine — concludes with a chapter he titles Your Personal Blue Zone, providing nine major ways affluent and stressed out North Americans can emulate the lessons learned by the centenarians in the Blue Zones.

Create a pro-longevity environment in your own home: your personal Blue Zone

Go to the Blue Zones website and find the Vitality Compass, which asks 33 questions designed to help you determine your potential life expectancy, plus your healthy life expectancy (the number of good years you can expect to live), the number of extra year’s you can gain if you optimize your lifestyle, and suggestions to help with that plan.

The book describes nine simple things you can do to create your personal Blue Zone, modifying the lifestyles of the Blue Zone centenarians to fit the Western lifestyle.

Here are his nine longevity tips gleaned from the collective wisdom of the Blue Zones:

1.) Move naturally

Buettner suggests emulating the Blue Zoners by being “active without having to think about it.” Longevity all-stars don’t run marathons, they incorporate regular, low-intensity physical activity into their daily work routine. They walk, garden and hike. Ideally, you arrive at a combination of aerobics, balancing and muscle-strengthening activities.

2.) Cut calories by 20% through Hara Hachi Bu

None of the Blue Zone centenarians were obese, but none the author interviewed had ever been on a diet. However, they did eat moderately. Hara hachi bu is a Confucian-inspired adage that you should stop eating when your stomach is 80% full. And losing 10% of your body weight will lower blood pressure and cholesterol, thereby cutting the risk of heart disease. Tips in the book include making food appear bigger than it actually is on the plate, using smaller plates and tall narrow glasses, use a bathroom scale daily, eat more slowly and mindfully, eat only when sitting, and eat bigger meals earlier in the day.

3.) Plant Slant: Avoid meat and processed foods

Centenarians eat meat only rarely, preferring beans, tofu (bean curd), nuts and at least six vegetable servings a day. Preferred nuts are almonds, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts and some pine nuts. Limit meat consumption to twice a week with no serving larger than a deck of cards.

4.) Grapes of Life: Drink red wine in moderation

See, it’s not all hardship boosting your chances of living to a ripe old age! It’s okay to drink moderately beer or wine but the key is consistency and moderation. One benefit of drinking a single glass of wine with a meal is that this tends to make the meal more of an “event,” making it more likely you’ll eat more slowly. Plus red wine has artery-scrubbing polyphenols that may help fight arteriosclerosis.

5.) Purpose Now: Take time to see the big picture

The Blue Zone cultures have sayings (plan de vida) that translate as “
why I wake up in the morning.” A strong sense of purpose can act as a buffer against stress and reduce the chances of dementia, arthritis or stroke. Craft a personal mission statement, find a life partner, learn something new (like a musical instrument or foreign language) to preserve mental sharpness. (Personally, I’ve rediscovered online bridge: I play as Canuckstan at BBO).

6.) Downshift: Take time to relieve stress

Slowing down can help you live longer. The idea of a Sabbath — not working one day a week — can be a powerful stress reliever. Napping can help you live longer, so can meditation. Relief stress by always arriving to appointments 15 minutes early. Minimize time with media and the web: ideally, limit TVs and radios to just one room in the house.

7.) Belong: Participate in a spiritual community

Healthy centenarians have faith. The Blue Zoners are Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventists or generally belong to strong religious communities. As Buettner writes, “it doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu.” Even attending religious services as little as once a month can help reduce the rose of death by a third, according to one study cited.

8.) Loved Ones First; make family a priority

Blue Zones put families first, marry, have children and build their lives around them. As the author puts it, “investing in our children when they are young helps assure they’ll invest in us when we’re old.” He suggests downsizing to a smaller house to create an environment of togetherness, creating rituals like regular family meals, creating a family shrine of photographs of family members present and past.

9.) Right Tribe: Be surrounded by those who share Blue Zone values

Social support networks are one reason women usually outlive men: women tend to have stronger support networks. The book suggests going through your contacts and family and identifying those who can enhance your life by putting a big “BZ” (for Blue Zone) next to their names. Try to spend 30 minutes a day with these members of your inner circle or set regular times to meet or dine together.

One thought on “The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer

  1. A great book and I’m currently working on a number of areas that were mentioned.Cutting back on red meat intake and unplugging on a regular basis are at the top of my list.The only thing I would have added is the importance of having a positive attitude. Stress reduction is key and I’m trying to find ways to accomplish this, exercise, meditation, de-cluttering, and simplifying life in general. Lots to do but it will payoff long term big time!

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