What We Can Learn from World’s Longest Living Populations
Why do some people live well into their nineties with zero health problems, while others get sidelined by diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune conditions? Sure, your genes play a role, but it’s your lifestyle that pulls the biggest lever.
If you’ve followed the Primal Blueprint for more than a minute, you know it’s possible to reprogram your genes, regardless of what health struggles your parents or their parents faced. As a health coach, and someone who fully intends to become a centenarian one day, I’m fascinated by cultures who have their diet and lifestyle totally dialed in.
Take the Blue Zones, for instance. These regions are spread throughout the world — but it’s not where they’re located that’s so important, it’s more about what the locals do on the daily that makes the biggest impact on their health.
What’s Up with Blue Zones?
Named by Dan Buettner, the National Geographic journalist who studied them, Blue Zones are five regions where people are known to live healthier and longer than anywhere else in the world, reaching the age of 100 at a significantly greater rate than most folks living in North America.
Despite being scattered throughout the globe (the zones are in Greece, Italy, Japan, Costa Rica, and southern California), they share nine key lifestyle habits, including:
- Move naturally
- Have a clear sense of purpose
- Manage stress
- Eat ‘til you’re 80% full
- Consume a plant-based diet (stay with me here…)
- Drink in moderation
- Be part of a community
- Put family first
- Maintain a fulfilling social life
I’m not saying you should drop your carnivore diet for one rich in grains and legumes, but you can’t argue with the fact that certain behavioural, societal, and environmental factors play a huge role in health and lifespan.
Is It Genetics or Lifestyle?
The study that fueled Buettner’s research was this one published in 1996, which evaluated 2872 pairs of Danish twins over a thirty-year period. Researchers looked at a variety of genetic and lifestyle influences and determined that only about 20% of how long you live is dictated by your genes, where the other 80% is all about lifestyle.
Since then, more and more studies continue to roll out confirming his findings. Like this one that analyzed the DNA methylation levels of 318 men and women, ages 65-105, revealing that epigenetic control in aging had less to do with the participants’ chronological age and more to do with how they lived their life. Not only that, recent studies exposed the grim consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, showing how factors including stress, isolation, and lacking purpose had a direct correlation to a decline in mental and physical health.1 According to research, loneliness shaves fifteen years off your life expectancy – roughly the same impact as being obese or smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.2
Since Buettner’s research has been out, several cities have adopted the Blue Zone principals and seen dramatic results. They’ve implemented these nine secrets of longevity to make it easier to get up and move, make new friends, and find a reason for just being – citing results such as a 4% decrease in daily stress, up to 14% increase in people who say they’re thriving, and millions of dollars secured for community walking and biking paths.
Ready to Defy the Limits of Age?
You might not agree with all aspects of the Blue Zone principals — I do live for a good NY strip — but there’s more than just something to this whole longevity thing. The best part is that it doesn’t require any calorie counting, tracking of macros, or crushing it at the gym. Here’s how to incorporate these time-tested secrets into your own life:
- Move naturally. Similar to the Primal Blueprint’s Move Frequently tenet, this Blue Zone principal forgoes slogging away on the treadmill, rushing off to spin class, or in contrast, sitting for hours in front of a computer, and encourages moving the way the body was intended to move naturally: walking, gardening, playing, or doing chores around the house.
- Have a clear sense of purpose. Called “ikigai” in Japanese culture, this term basically means that you wake up in the morning with some kind of drive or motivating force. To find yours, figure out what you’re passionate about — it could be parenting, painting, cooking, or health coaching, then take steps to act on that passion.
- Manage stress. As you probably know, chronic stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which is linked to nearly every major disease. The people who live in Blue Zone regions have routines that eliminate stress, including having a gratitude practice, praying, taking daily naps, and engaging in happy hours. Think about what you can add to your routine to lower your stress levels.
- Eat ‘til you’re 80% full. Our longest-living counterparts also follow the “don’t stuff yourself” rule, only eating until their stomachs are 80% full. Another thing they do? They eat their last meal in the late afternoon or early evening – without mindlessly reaching for a second dinner or something snacky or sweet before bed.
- Consume a plant-based diet. Unlike the Primal Blueprint, beans, soy, lentils, and grains are a dietary staple of most Blue Zone centenarians. While that won’t fly here, there are a few things we can learn from our plant-based friends, including eating more green leafy vegetables and seasonal fruits, and less processed convenience foods.
- Drink in moderation. Folks in Blue Zones (except the Adventists in Southern California) who consume 1-2 glasses of alcohol per day with friends and/or food outlive both non-drinkers and heavy drinkers alike. Spoiler alert: you can’t save up your weekly allotment and binge drink on the weekends.
- Be part of a community. The centenarians in these regions all belong to a faith-based community, but religion isn’t necessarily a mandatory here. Having a sense of belonging — whether it’s in your neighborhood, through your kids’ school, a book club, or right here on Mark’s Daily Apple — can create a feeling of community.
- Put your family first. Got aging parents or grandparents? Keep them close by. Buettner’s research shows having that kind of proximity to family can lower disease and mortality rates of everyone in your household. Committing to a life partner (no pressure, right?) can also add up to three years to your life.
- Maintain a fulfilling social life. By following the lead of the Okinawans in Japan who create moais (groups of five friends committed to each other for life) we can benefit from having close social circles. And now that the world is opening back up, we have more opportunities to go out and engage with our like-minded friends.
Live Long and Prosper
There’s a lot we can learn from the Blue Zone regions, even if we don’t agree on dietary choices. It all comes down to our environment and lifestyle, consciously swapping out stress, chronic overachieving, and neglecting our own needs for natural movement, connection, purpose, and self-care. When we start making these elements a priority, we can tap into the longevity secrets these centenarians have known for years. It might be the closest thing to the fountain of youth we’ve ever seen.
Do you follow any of the Blue Zone principals? Tell me in the comments below.
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