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health

People in the world’s ‘blue zones’ live longer – their diet could hold the key to why

20 Comments
By Justin Roberts, Joseph Lillis and Mark Cortnage

Aging is an inevitable part of life, which may explain our strong fascination with the quest for longevity. The allure of eternal youth drives a multi-billion pound industry ranging from anti-aging products, supplements and diets for those hoping to extend their lifespan.

If you look back to the turn of the 20th century, average life expectancy in the UK was around 46 years. Today, it’s closer to 82 years. We are in fact living longer than ever before, possibly due to medical advancements and improved living and working conditions.

But living longer has also come at a price. We’re now seeing higher rates of chronic and degenerative diseases – with heart disease consistently topping the list. So while we’re fascinated by what may help us live longer, maybe we should be more interested in being healthier for longer. Improving our “healthy life expectancy” remains a global challenge.

Interestingly, certain locations around the world have been discovered where there are a high proportion of centenarians who display remarkable physical and mental health. The AKEA study of Sardinia, Italy, as example, identified a “blue zone” (named because it was marked with blue pen), where there was a higher number of locals living in the central-eastern mountainous areas who had reached their 100th birthday compared with the wider Sardinian community.

This longevity hotspot has since been expanded, and now includes several other areas around the world which also have greater numbers of longer-living, healthy people. Alongside Sardinia, these blue zones are now popularly recognized as: Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California.

Other than their long lifespans, people living in these zones also appear to share certain other commonalities, which center around being part of a community, having a life purpose, eating nutritious, healthy foods, keeping stress levels low and undertaking purposeful daily exercise or physical tasks.

Their longevity could also relate to their environment, being mostly rural (or less polluted), or because of specific longevity genes.

However, studies indicate genetics may only account for around 20-25% of longevity – meaning a person’s lifespan is a complex interaction between lifestyle and genetic factors, which contribute to a long and healthy life.

Is the secret in our diet?

When it comes to diet, each blue zone has its own approach – so one specific food or nutrient does not explain the remarkable longevity observed. But interestingly, a diet rich in plant foods (such as locally-grown vegetables, fruits and legumes) does appear to be reasonably consistent across these zones.

For instance, the Seventh-day Adventists of Loma Linda are predominately vegetarian. For centenarians in Okinawa, high intakes of flavonoids (a chemical compound typically found in plants) from purple sweet potatoes, soy and vegetables, have been linked with better cardiovascular health – including lower cholesterol levels and lower incidences of stroke and heart disease.

In Nicoya, consumption of locally produced rice and beans has been associated with longer telomere length. Telomeres are the structural part at the end of our chromosomes which protect our genetic material. Our telomeres get shorter each time a cell divides – so get progressively shorter as we age.

Certain lifestyle factors (such as smoking and poor diet) can also shorten telomere length. It’s thought that telomere length acts as a biomarker of aging – so having longer telomeres could, in part, be linked with longevity.

But a plant-based diet isn’t the only secret. In Sardinia, for example, meat and fish is consumed in moderation in addition to locally grown vegetables and traditional foods such as acorn breads, pane carasau (a sourdough flatbread), honey and soft cheeses.

Also observed in several blue zone areas is the inclusion of olive oil, wine (in moderation – around 1-2 glasses a day), as well as tea. All of these contain powerful antioxidants which may help protect our cells from damage as we age.

Perhaps then, it’s a combination of the protective effects of various nutrients in the diets of these centenarians, which explains their exceptional longevity.

Another striking observation from these longevity hot spots is that meals are typically freshly prepared at home. Traditional blue zone diets also don’t appear to contain ultra-processed foods, fast foods or sugary drinks which may accelerate ageing. So maybe it’s just as important to consider what these longer-living populations are not doing, as much as what they are doing.

There also appears to be a pattern of eating until 80% full (in other words partial caloric reduction. This could be important in also supporting how our cells deal with damage as we age, which could mean a longer life.

Many of the factors making up these blue zone diets – primarily plant-based and natural whole foods – are associated with lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Not only could such diets contribute to a longer, healthier life, but could support a more diverse gut microbiome, which is also associated with healthy aging.

Perhaps then we can learn something from these remarkable centenarians. While diet is only one part of the bigger picture when it comes to longevity, it’s an area we can do something about. In fact, it might just be at the heart of improving not only the quality of our health, but the quality of how we age.

Justin Roberts is professor of Nutritional Physiology, Anglia Ruskin University. Joseph Lillis is a PhD Candidate in Nutritional Physiology, Anglia Ruskin University and Mark Cortnage is a Senior Lecturer in Public Health and Nutrition, Anglia Ruskin University.

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

© The Conversation

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

20 Comments
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Also observed in several blue zone areas is the inclusion of olive oil, wine (in moderation – around 1-2 glasses a day), as well as tea. All of these contain powerful antioxidants which may help protect our cells from damage as we age.

Good to know. We cook with a lot of Olive Oil and my favorite go to alcohol is red wine.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

There also appears to be a pattern of eating until 80% full (in other words partial caloric reduction. This could be important in also supporting how our cells deal with damage as we age, which could mean a longer life.

What "this?" Eating until 80% full specifically, or partial caloric reduction in general? Because there are more ways to restrict your calories than being slightly hungry all the time.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

The article makes it painfully clear there are a lot of possibly related factors (from stress to genetics) that could be influencing the longevity in these zones, and until each factor is characterized (at least to the point of seeing if it is actually important or not) diet may not even be as important as it is presented here. For all we know people with good genes, no stress and that perform physical tasks every day could live a comparable long and healthy life even if they changed their diet.

-7 ( +2 / -9 )

Aly Rustom

We cook with a lot of Olive Oil

Excellent choice!

Work coming out of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that people who consumed more than half a tablespoon of olive oil per day had a 28% lower risk of dying from dementia compared with those who never or rarely consumed olive oil.

And that replacing just one teaspoon of margarine and mayonnaise with the equivalent amount of olive oil per day was associated with an 8-14% lower risk of dying from dementia.

While their work did suggest that people using olive oil generally had healthier diets overall, the authors noted that the relationship between olive oil and dementia mortality was independent of overall diet quality.

Plus it tastes great. Score!

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Add to my earlier comment: The authors stressed the importance of additional studies - randomized controlled trials - to confirm the effects and determine the optimal quantity of olive oil to consume in order to reap these benefits. But insists that theirs adds to the body of evidence supporting the benefits of olive oil in the diet.

Plus it tastes great.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Olive oil and avocado oil have ranked high in a variety of health studies. Just be careful to read the ingredients and origin before buying however. We were buying the same brand of olive oil as we did in the U.S. literally up to a few months ago, but took a closer look after a tip from a friend. There in small print in Japanese, it said that the oil is “Italian inspired” olive oil. Same brand and look and feel - just be very vigilant.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Good to know. We cook with a lot of Olive Oil and my favorite go to alcohol is red wine.

Thanks for sharing.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

The critical point imo not elaborated on in this article (not a new article btw), is that all citizens in Blue Zones are part of active communities. They have lifelong bonds with family, neighbours, friends and residents sharing the common environment.

They are valued and have meaning in life through association.

Diet / activity alone may not ensure longevity.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Also avoiding what NOT to eat is IMPORTANT! Plus, regular physical activity, interests, friends & purpose in life!

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Good to know. We cook with a lot of Olive Oil and my favorite go to alcohol is red wine.

Thanks for sharing.

You're welcome.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

raditional blue zone diets also don’t appear to contain ultra-processed foods, fast foods or sugary drinks which may accelerate ageing.

This is big. Ultra-processed foods, sugar and carbs are heavily associated with cardio-vascular disease and cancer. The lack of these three components in all the Blue Zones says a lot.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

It takes more than just a diet but a well-balanced one with fresh produce, vegetables, and fruit. Weight control. Exercise of the mind and body. No smoking and limited alcohol intake. Good relationships with family and friends.

Avoid processed foods and too much fatty foods. Drop the sugar.

Since the increase in the price of olive oil, in countries like Spain fake virgin oil has been discovered.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

If you look back to the turn of the 20th century, average life expectancy in the UK was around 46 years. Today, it’s closer to 82 years. We are in fact living longer than ever before, possibly due to medical advancements and improved living and working conditions.

A major contributor to the increased average life expectancy is lower infant mortality.

For instance, the Seventh-day Adventists of Loma Linda are predominately vegetarian.

Ah yes, that group played a major role in the creation of the US dietary guidelines, which played a major role in the obesity and overall poor health of Americans. Dr. Anthony Chaffee does a good job describing the weird stuff they did.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@bearandrodent

I agree that many "olive oils" are not authentic. A famous low-carb researcher mentioned that he tested the Costco brand (Kirkland) virgin olive oil and found it to be legit. So I've been buying that ever since...

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Not sure about that list, but for example Scandinavian countries are at the top of average life expectancy and we cook more with butter/margarine. I'd say money is the most important factor and if a country has universal healthcare or not. Having money and time to care about your body is of most importance, especially since Monaco is the current number 1 in life expectancy. Basically just a tax haven for the rich.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

JRO, I agree that having more wealth gives one more time to choose and cook healthier foods and be more educated on it, but Okinawa, one of the Blue Zones, is the poorest prefecture in Japan, so I think wealth has some impact but not a major one.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

JRO, I agree that having more wealth gives one more time to choose and cook healthier foods and be more educated on it, but Okinawa, one of the Blue Zones, is the poorest prefecture in Japan, so I think wealth has some impact but not a major one.

I didn't really mean cook healthy, although that helps as well, wealth is more about having free time in you older years and having the money for better and more frequent healthcare. For example I don't think Japan has a high life expectancy mainly because they eat healthier but because old people here tends to use local clinics as community centers, the average person here goes to the hospital more in a year than I did in my whole life before coming here, mostly it's unnecessary but it does help in finding serious illnesses faster, which I think is the main reason for people here living longer than most countries. Then of course having a less stressful life where money is not a problem probably adds a couple of years as well.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I dont this is sth sensational. Of course if you live in nice climate, amoung great nature, far from smoggy city, eat healthy food and dont have a hectic lifesthle(i think its not hectic in Sardinia) you are bound to live long.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Eating mostly vegetarian but not refraining from the occasional fish, chicken or lean red meat. Tons of olive oil, raw garlic, a bit of wine and a bit of bread daily. No smoking and no sugar (sodas, etc). No synthetic additives.

There, I just saved you thousands of dollars in customised "lose fat quickly" diets.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Health is the number one issue.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

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