08 April 2013

blue zones

i recently heard a story on blue zones on the radio. blue zones are areas where people seem to live longer - where there is a much higher than average number of centenarians.

i with there was more notice paid to altitude. one of the researchers pointed out that the zones tend to be in mountainous areas, and i remember noticing that in a book i read years ago (on another topic entirely) that noted life expectancies of different peoples living hard-scrabble lives, and it struck me that the longer-lived people were all in mountainous areas, and the shortest-lived people all lived near sea level. that correlation jumped out at me and lodged at the back of my mind, until years later when i started hearing about altitude training for athletes, and then about african runners and marathon training camps that have opened in the great rift valley in kenya, where the elevation is a whopping 2200m above sea level.

i would love to see a global study comparing life-expectancy at different altitudes, distance above sea level seems to have a big impact that we don't really understand yet.

anyway, back to blue zones. i find this project interesting for the same reason that i am interested in the united states' national weight control registry (nwcr) - instead of coming up with an idea and trying to develop a study to prove if it works or not, these studies take a huge group or groups of people who have already acheived the desired goal (longevity for blue zones, sustained weight loss for the nwcr), and work backwards to see what these people have in common, and how their habits can be applied to other people who are working towards those goals.

the blue zones group has identified 9 principles for longer living, which doesn't include altitude (which is not that easy to change for most individuals, anyway), but does include some useful info. much of it seems to be the standard common-sense stuff that we hear everywhere, but it bears repeating.

  1. move maturally instead of working out hardcore, incorporate exercise into daily routines - walk or bike to the market, do gardening, sweep the front walk every day.
  2. purpose they say having a sense of purpose can add seven years to your life! as well as giving you a reason to wake up in the morning.
  3. down shift blue zone people have a daily ritual of some sort to de-stress - a nap or a prayer or a glass of wine.
  4. 80% Rule stop eating when you are 80% full. for most people it takes about 10 minutes before the "full" message gets from belly to brain, so if you're still eating when you get the message, you've overdone it. not to mention the numerous studies that show that calorie restriction is one of the surest ways to longevity (that's getting 80% of your rda, not starvation or anorexia). although in the radio program, they mentioned that calorie restriction was most important for young people; by the time you hit middle age, it doesn't have an impact. so starve your kids and enjoy midlife!
  5. plant slant eat your veggies, especially legumes! we've all heard this before. interestingly though, the area with the most centenarians (in sardinia) included a lot of pork in their traditional diet, and even in blue zones where less meat was eaten (as little as 5 servings a month) pork was the meat of choice.
  6. wine @ 5 moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. the ideal is 1 or 2 glasses per day of red wine (preferably sardinian cannonau), with friends and/or food. i'll try that, in the name of science!
  7. belong out of 263 centenarians interviews, 258 belonged to a faith-based community. doesn't matter which particular denomination you follow, as long as you get together with fellow travellers once a week.
  8. loved ones first multi-generational living is common among the blue zone people - parents, grandparents, children, all living together (or nearby) and taking care of one another. divorce rates are low, and children are raised with love to be caring and compassionate towards their elders.
  9. right tribe habits - good and bad - can be spread from friend to friend. long-lived people have friends who have similar good habits, thus naturally supporting one another's choices.

i'm feeling a bit smug that i'm doing a number of these things already - walking and cycling, advocacy, lots of fruit and veggies and whole grains, attending service every sunday. i definitely need to work a de-stress into my schedule, and drink more wine! 80-20 is something i'm working on, in part by timing my meals so i'm not absolutely famished by the time i sit down to eat. i've also been making a point of eating in the lunchroom instead of at my desk, which provides a little break in the day, and i find i eat less. family is tricky as i have no parents, but i have definitely been spending more time with my sister lately, and my father-in-law and brother-in-law are in the neighbourhood so we see them fairly regularly too. one place i am definitely falling short is point number 9 - i don't get to spend a lot of time with friends because i'm so busy with work/the kid, and when i do, we're usually in vent-session mode, and reinforcing bad habits instead of good! oopsie.

in any case, it helps to have a list like this which is relatively straight-forward and gives some pats on the back as well as good starting points on what needs more work.


  1. Interesting post. Like you I am doing many of these things already. One of the main problems is that I don't drink wine.
    Sardinia is in Italy and in most of the island there is no pollution. I spent a couple of years there when I was in the Navy.
    About the mountains. I live in a city near a town 650 m. on the sea level. People on that hill live longer.

    1. interesting about people in the hills near you living longer! i find it fascinating the role altitude appears to play in health. i expect it's a mix of things - less pollution, more physical activity, and less oxygen (which seems crazy, but athletes sometimes do hypoxic training for endurance).