What are Blue Zones? And What Can They Tell Us About Healthy Aging?

Is there a secret to living a longer, healthier life? Some believe answers can be found in areas known as Blue Zones. Learn more in this article.
blue zones

It’s not a myth that some regions boast robust concentrations of older adults, enjoying long, healthy lives. But are certain areas found to have older populations that are thriving, and living longer lives than the average? 

It’s a mystery scientists were motivated to solve in order to better understand the unique characteristics of these areas and their thriving older populations—as well as find ways to replicate their longevity secrets and share this knowledge with the rest of the world. 

What are Blue Zones?

two older adults enjoying life in a blue zone

It all started in 2004, when a team of researchers published a paper in the Experimental Gerontology journal that detailed their findings, gathered from using demographic information to pinpoint areas around the globe where people lived the longest.

While working in Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy, these scientists discovered that the  Barbagia region of this island had the highest concentration of men living to be 100 years old, worldwide. 

This discovery was intriguing, because men typically have a shorter life expectancy than women—so finding an area with such a large population of male centenarians was especially fascinating. 

The researchers became captivated with learning more about why this occurred, as well as investigating if any other areas like it existed in the world. 

They went on to identify other areas with similar trends of longevity and drew blue circles around them on a map. And that’s how Blue Zones were coined. 

While not a scientific term, per se, Blue Zones have come to be synonymous with our growing awareness of regions where health and longevity are robust. 

Once the idea of Blue Zones exploded onto the scientific scene, others became fascinated with continuing the exploration of the original set of researchers. 

A researcher named Dan Buettner and his colleagues really picked up the proverbial ball and ran with it—expanding the awareness and work on Blue Zone communities, and even trademarking the term itself. 

You can check out the official Blue Zones® website they created

Buettner and his team were able to use the original research as a jumping off point, from which they identified several additional Blue Zone regions, with similarly larger-than-expected populations of healthy older adults. And they collected data to prove it.  

Buettner was so inspired by the research he and others conducted into Blue Zones that he literally wrote the book on the topic

Today, their efforts have led to a greater understanding of key tenets of healthy aging, and have provided a roadmap of sorts to help those who don’t reside in Blue Zones to maximize their life expectancy.

Let’s examine where Blue Zones are found, and what they can tell us about the secrets to healthy aging

Where Are the Blue Zones Found?

Picking up the torch from the original researchers, Buettner and his compatriots sought to locate as many of these longevity hotspots as possible, and to investigate what might be causing them to host such robust populations of older adults.

They were able to identify several locales around the world that boasted larger than expected populations of octogenarians, nonagenarians, and even centenarians. 

Buettner and his colleagues identified five specific areas that met the criteria for what they’d dubbed Blue Zones—geographic locations with higher than average concentrations of “super agers”—folks defying typical aging expectations. 

The Blue Zones identified by Buettner and his team are—

  • Barbagia (a region of Sardinia) 
  • Ikaria, Greece
  • Loma Linda, California
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica 
  • Okinawa, Japan

Let’s dive deeper into each of these regions, to see why they’re worthy of the coveted Blue Zone classification. 

Barbagia, Italy 

blue zone - barbagia italy

The original Blue Zone, Barbagia is a region on the island of Sardinia, an autonomous Italian island, found off the southern coast of Corsica. 

The subject of the first Blue Zone study, this region was noted to boast the world’s largest population of men living to be 100 and over. These men were defying their longevity odds, and enjoying longer, healthier lives. Discovering the reasons for this fascinated researchers, putting a spotlight on this region and kicking off the Blue Zone research to follow.  

Ikaria, Greece

blue zone - ikaria greece

This Greek island, located in the Aegean Sea, offers some fascinating Blue Zone data points.

It not only has the lowest-known rates of middle-aged mortality, it also has the lowest rate of dementia amongst its older population. The population of Ikaria not only live statistically longer, they also enjoy less risks for cognitive decline as they age.  

Loma Linda, California

loma linda - blue zone

The only spot in the United States to receive the coveted Blue Zone classification, Loma Linda is an area of California with a high concentration of Seventh Day Adventists. 

Those who practice this religion and adhere to its tenets have been shown to outlive their North American counterparts by an average of 10 years. 

Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica 

nicoya costa rica beach - blue zone

Pura vida, indeed! This spot in Costa Rica plays host to the second largest concentration of male centenarians, outside of Barbagia. 

In addition, this locale also has one of the world’s lowest rates of middle-aged mortality.  

Okinawa, Japan

okinawa japan - blue zone

In contrast to its Italian and Costa Rican counterparts, this region of Japan is known for the longevity of its female population. In fact, the women over 70 years of age in Okinawa are the longest-living population, world-wide. 

But what’s so unique and special about each of these regions? And why do they have such high concentrations of robust older adult populations? 

Let’s explore the conclusions Blue Zone researchers gathered, as a result of their identification and study of these regions—to help you learn the commonalities the people of these regions share, which may offer the keys to unlocking the secrets to healthier aging. 

What Can Blue Zones Teach Us about Healthy Aging?

Once the Blue Zones were located and their populations’ data was collected and collated, researchers wanted to learn what lifestyle traits were shared amongst inhabitants of these unique regions. 

Their hope was that these commonalities could be leveraged and applied to the lives of anyone hoping to achieve a longer, healthier life. 

Dan Buettner and his colleagues were able to determine several areas of lifestyle overlap between inhabitants of Blue Zone regions. They went on to dub these lifespan-enhancing behaviors the Power 9®.

These nine behavioral and lifestyle patterns were determined to hold the power to enhance one’s chances for living a longer, healthier life. 

Let’s review these nine crucial behaviors for enhanced longevity—so you can see what reality moves the needle when it comes to healthy aging. 

Shared Lifestyle Habits and Behaviors of Blue Zone Inhabitants

two happy smiling older adults from a blue zone

Dan Buettner and his scientific colleagues pinpointed nine key lifestyle similarities between Blue Zone inhabitants, which they believed to play an important role in their ability to outlive the general populace by around ten years. 

They dubbed these shared longevity habits the Power 9

Here’s a breakdown of these nine healthy lifestyle habits, shared by Blue Zone super agers—

1. The “Don’t Eat Until You’re Full” Rule

Folks in Okinawa like to remind themselves before tucking into a meal to only eat until they feel 80% full. They use the mantra, ““Hara Hachi Bu” to help them stick with this healthy lifestyle hack. Surfing the gap between when you’re no longer hungry and when you’re full is a great way to maintain a healthy weight—a key factor in healthy aging.

2. Keep it Plant-Based

You’ve likely heard the buzz around “The Mediterranean Diet.” In a nutshell (ha!), this plant-focused way of eating minimizes meat intake, while favoring foods like nuts, veggies, fruits, beans, and whole grains. Linked to lower rates of dementia, diabetes, and heart disease, this way of eating is favored by folks in Blue Zones. 

3. Cheers in Moderation

You might be surprised to learn that alcohol made this list—but it did! Specifically, wine. The Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda enjoy wine together in moderation. 

So don’t be afraid to toast your long, healthy life with friends. Just make sure you don’t overdo it. 

4. Gotta Have Faith

Belonging to a faith-based community and believing in something larger than yourself is a major link shared by Blue Zone inhabitants. While denomination doesn’t matter, those who participated in and attended spiritual services weekly were shown to add more than a decade to their life expectancy. 

5. Find Your Tribe 

Connecting with friends is a powerful balm against aging. Sharing your time with a close group of friends can help you maintain healthy lifestyle habits, reduce stress, and enhance feelings of fulfillment and belonging. And that’s what life’s all about! 

6. Family First

Blue Zone folks are very family-focused. Family comes first, and there’s a lot of emphasis placed on family togetherness—of both immediate and extended families. 

7. Stress Less

Stress happens. But folks in Blue Zones have strategies to help them address and minimize its negative impacts on their lives and wellbeing. Meditation, yoga, and tai chi are some stress-busting staples, used widely across Blue Zones. 

8. Get Moving! 

Blue Zone residents find lots of ways to build natural movement in their daily lives. From walking, to gardening, house chores, to swimming—they find a way to keep active and enjoy regular physical activity. 

9. Seek Your Purpose 

Isolation and loneliness are an epidemic amongst older adults. 

Did you know, a quarter of people aged 65 and older in this country meet the criteria for being socially isolated

This becomes a big issue when you consider that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) conducted a recent study that found isolation and loneliness amongst older adults was associated with a significantly increased risk for dementia, premature death, and medical issues (including heart attacks and strokes). 

Having a reason to get up and at ‘em each day makes a huge difference in your chances for longevity and overall health and wellbeing.

How to Incorporate Blue Zone Lessons in Your Daily Life

Now that you’ve learned about Blue Zones and what their inhabitants have in common, it’s time to think about how you can build Blue Zone lessons into your life. 

When you consider the data that proves Blue Zone inhabitants tend to live a decade longer than the average—these life lessons become a vital component of crafting your healthy aging lifestyle plan. 

Of course, it’s all about using what works for you. After all, the goal is to enjoy your life—not merely to lengthen it! 

older people on a walk in a blue zone

Here are some tips for how you can build some Blue Zone habits into your daily life—

  • Keep fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables close at hand—this way, you’ll never have to look far for healthy snacks! You can even check out Dan Beuttner’s Blue Zone-inspired cookbook for some recipe inspo! 
  • Consider the lifestyle habits of your “tribe” to ensure you’re surrounding yourself with folks who practice and encourage healthy habits. 
  • Build some form of physical activity into your daily routine—whether it’s biking, walking, hiking, swimming, or even gardening—a little bit of regular physical activity does wonders for your health and longevity. 
  • Practice mindfulness, yoga, or meditation. You’d be amazed how much these simple practices can improve your mood, and help you bust stress.
  • Seek out volunteering opportunities—like at a local church or animal shelter. 
  • Drink plenty of water! Dehydration is a major issue amongst older adults—get in the habit of drinking enough water. Maybe treat yourself to a cute water bottle to remind yourself to sip throughout the day. (Pro tip—Once you’re effectively hydrated, you won’t need to run to the bathroom as often, because your body will know what to do with the hydration you’re getting)  
  • Make time for friends and loved ones

With these tips and info, you’re sure to be well on your way to living a Blue Zone lifestyle—and reaping the many benefits to your overall health and wellbeing. 

Speaking of wellbeing—at WayWiser, we take yours to heart. The benefits of our app include personalized assistance with care coordination, and financial management support. Our Word to the Wise blog is here to offer you all the info, advice, and resources you need to live your best life. Check in regularly for new content on topics of interest to you. 

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