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BLOG BY Charlotte Green BSc

Lessons We Can Learn From The Blue Zones

Around the world, a few select geographical regions have been designated Blue Zones due to a significantly higher life expectancy in these areas compared to anywhere else on the planet. The Blue Zones include the Italian island of Sardinia; the Greek island Ikaria; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California1. Although certain genetic factors may contribute to their famous longevity, perhaps the most important reason for such low rates of chronic disease in these regions is their lifelong healthy lifestyles. Despite cultural differences, each of the Blue Zones consume a traditional balanced diet, which is predominantly plant-based and low in processed foods. However, the reason for their longevity is far more than their diet alone. The people in each region remain physically active far into their older years yet set aside time daily for rest. Perhaps most importantly, each community prioritises social connection, especially with family and close friends, helping to cultivate a sense of belonging1. It is clear that there is something each of us can learn from these regions to help us lead healthy and happy lives.

Diet

All of the Blue Zones are known for a predominantly plant-based diet, with only small amounts of meat, fish, and dairy products2. Plant based diets have been associated with decreased rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease3. This is due to low levels of saturated fat consumption, as well as plenty of fibre and an assortment of phytonutrients.

In particular, both Sardinia and Ikaria follow a traditional Mediterranean diet, which has been widely studied for its associated health benefits. The components of the Mediterranean diet include:

• Lots of colourful fruits and vegetables

• Plenty of wholegrains, nuts, and seeds

• Plant-based protein sources like legumes and pulses, as well as small amounts of meat and fish

• Moderate consumption of red wine

• Daily extra virgin olive oil4

The abundance of fruits and vegetables are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, such as beta-carotene and polyphenols. These all help protect against oxidative stress, which causes damage to the body’s cells and becomes more prevalent as we age. However, a varied diet is key because multiple nutrients from different sources can work together to have a greater effect on preventing inflammation in the body5. Therefore, the risk of developing several major chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, which is linked to inflammation, is reduced.

Furthermore, the traditional Blue Zone diets are high in fibre from the consumption of wholegrains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. This is particularly beneficial for the gut microbiota, the community of micro-organisms that reside in the large intestine, providing a multitude of health benefits. They are able to digest the fibre that our own body cannot, using it as a nutrient source to allow them to thrive. Also, when they break down this fibre, they release chemicals known as short chain fatty acids, which are known to decrease inflammation throughout the body5.  

Additionally, the Blue Zone diets are rich in polyphenols, powerful plant chemicals known for their health benefits. Good sources of polyphenols include berries, apples, black grapes, turmeric, red wine, coffee, and cocoa6. In particular, Sardinia and Ikaria are known for frequent extra virgin olive oil consumption, which is rich in phenolic compounds7. In fact, polyphenols are the most potent antioxidant, with a group known as the flavonoids being associated with protection against cardiovascular disease8.  

Movement

Physical activity is incorporated into the lives of all those who live in the Blue Zones, and their longevity and happiness has been attributed in part to consistent daily movement. For example, Sardinian shepherds are known to walk around 5 miles each day, even at the age of 801. The health benefits of physical exercise have been widely studied, and include protection against cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and even certain mental health conditions9. In addition to aerobic activities, muscle strengthening exercises are also important to consider. They not only help maintain muscle mass, but are beneficial for bone strength as well, therefore reducing the risk of developing osteoporosis later in life9.

However, what is important to recognise is that, in the Blue Zones, emphasis is placed on natural movement like walking, gardening and household chores throughout the day, rather than short bursts of organised exercise, which is in contrast to our predominantly sedentary modern lifestyles. Therefore, a key thing to remember is to incorporate movement consistently throughout the day, which could be as simple as a few stretches at your desk every hour or a walk outside on your lunch break. Furthermore, any form of movement can be beneficial, so it should be something you enjoy. Whether that is walking, running, yoga, HIIT classes or simply pottering around the garden, they can all contribute to our health and happiness.

Community

One of the keys to longevity in the Blue Zones is that they have cultivated a sense of belonging in their communities. They place great importance on social connections, especially with close family and friends. For instance, Okinawans form what is known as “moai”, which is a circle of five friends that support each other throughout life1. When we think about improving our health, we often focus on changing our diet and exercise regime, yet social connection is often forgotten. Despite this, longitudinal studies have shown that the effect of social isolation on mortality is comparable to smoking, and even exceeds that of obesity and physical inactivity10. Thus, prioritising spending quality time with loved ones could help to boost both mood and physical health.

Conclusion

For the people of the Blue Zones, a healthy lifestyle has been part of their culture and communities for generations and is a significant contributor to their famous longevity. There is much we can learn from these communities, but perhaps the most important thing to remember is that there is no one single thing that will automatically guarantee good physical and mental health. It is all about taking a well-rounded approach. Yes, a diverse, balanced diet and exercise are important, but equally so is fostering a sense of togetherness and community, which is so often forgotten in our fast-paced modern lifestyles. Spending precious time with those we love can make us feel happy in the moment, whilst also playing a role in safeguarding our long-term health.

This article was written by Charlotte Green who is a final year undergraduate studying Biological Sciences at Durham University. She is particularly interested in the role of the gut microbiota in health and how nutrition influences this, so hopes to pursue a Master's degree in nutrition once she graduates. Charlotte has developed a passion for science communication and is also a guest contributor to the @forkingwellness Instagram page. You can find Charlotte on Instagram @charlottevictoria23.

References

1.        Buettner, D. & Skemp, S. Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine vol. 10 318–321 (2016).

2.        Nieddu, A. et al. Dietary habits, anthropometric features and daily performance in two independent long-lived populations from nicoya peninsula (Costa rica) and ogliastra (sardinia). Nutrients 12, (2020).

3.        Kahleova, H., Levin, S. & Barnard, N. Cardio-metabolic benefits of plant-based diets. Nutrients vol. 9 (2017).

4.        Muñoz, M. A., Fíto, M., Marrugat, J., Covas, M. I. & Schröder, H. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with better mental and physical health. Br. J. Nutr. 101, 1821–1827 (2009).

5.        Tosti, V., Bertozzi, B. & Fontana, L. Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet: Metabolic and Molecular Mechanisms. Journals of Gerontology - Series A Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences vol. 73 318–326 (2018).

6.        Cardona, F., Andrés-Lacueva, C., Tulipani, S., Tinahones, F. J. & Queipo-Ortuño, M. I. Benefits of polyphenols on gut microbiota and implications in human health. Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry vol. 24 1415–1422 (2013).

7.        Chrysohoou, C. et al. Determinants of All-Cause Mortality and Incidence of Cardiovascular Disease (2009 to 2013) in Older Adults. Angiology 67, 541–548 (2016).

8.        Meccariello, R. & D’Angelo, S. Impact of polyphenolic-food on longevity: An elixir of life. An overview. Antioxidants vol. 10 (2021).

9.        Gremeaux, V. et al. Exercise and longevity. Maturitas vol. 73 312–317 (2012).

10.      Yang, Y. C. et al. Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 113, 578–583 (2016).

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