Want to know the secret to longevity? Here’s what Blue Zones can teach us about being healthy and happy.

Throughout the course of the last decade, “Blue Zone” demographic researchers have set out to answer one question: Why do people in certain cultures live significantly longer than others?

A concept researchers use to describe areas in which people live the longest, Blue Zones are areas that are geographically defined in which people either:

  • Live to age 100 at extraordinary rates,
  • Have the highest life expectancy, and/or
  • Have the lowest rate of middle age mortality.

From Sardinia, Greece, to Okinawa, Japan, Blue Zones are geographically diverse, yet culturally similar in many ways.

So what is the key to longevity, and what do these regions all have in common?

What regions are considered to be Blue Zones?

Blue Zone regions are all over the world, yet the people who live in them share many behaviors and habits.

Blue Zone regions are all over the world, yet the people who live in them share many behaviors and habits.

The leading researcher on Blue Zones, Dan Buettner set out to see which areas of the world contain the most centenarians and to understand what they have in common about a decade ago.

In his book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Buettner identifies seven specific Blue Zone regions:

  • Sardinia, Italy: In Sardinia’s mountain villages, a significant proportion of men live until they are 100 and beyond.
  • Acciaroli, Italy: One-third of Acciaroli residents live until they are 80 years old.
  • Okinawa, Japan: People in these islands are among those who live the longest on Earth.
  • Loma Linda, California: People in Loma Linda live longer than most people in North America.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica: In Nicoya, it is common for people to live active lives past the age of 100.
  • Icaria, Greece: Icaria has the highest percentage of 90+ year olds on the planet. Additionally, they have 20 percent lower rates of cancer and 50 percent lower rates of heart disease. They also have virtually no dementia.
  • Oland, Smaland and Skane, Sweden: These small towns in southern Sweden have more than 40 times the number of centenarians than the country’s national average per capita.

What attributes do Blue Zone cultures have in common?

Blue Zone residents eat plant-based diets and drink alcohol moderately and regularly.

Blue Zone residents eat plant-based diets and drink alcohol moderately and regularly.

Despite living in very different regions of the world, people who live in Blue Zones have a surprising amount of habits and characteristics in common.

There are nine main commonalities that Buettner and his researchers believe attribute to the long, happy, healthy lives people in these areas live:

Nine main commonalities of Blue Zone residents

Moderate, regular physical activity:

The people who live the longest aren’t necessarily gym go-ers, but rather live in environments that foster constant, regular, natural movement. For instance, people living on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica may take daily walks on the beach. People living in southern Sweden may work in their gardens throughout the day.

Life purpose:

The Blue Zone organization estimates that it’s possible to add up to seven years to your life expectancy by exploring and pursuing a life purpose.

In Italian, it’s called “plan de vida,” and the Okinawans refer to it as “Ikigai.” In English, we refer to it as a reason to be, or to rise in the morning. Whether you pursue your passion for business or for pleasure, it makes sense that having a reason to live may help us live longer, happier, healthier lives.  

Stress management and reduction:

A growing body of research shows that in addition to contributing to anxiety and depression, stress leads to chronic inflammation, a contributor to virtually every major chronic disease.

Blue Zone residents aren’t any more immune to stress than the rest of us. However, there is one thing they do that most people don’t: they establish routines that reduce stress.

For instance, the Okinawans spend a few minutes each day remembering their ancestors. Seventh Day Adventists living in Loma Linda, California, pray. And Sardinians have happy hour!

Moderate calorie intake:

People who live in Blue Zones around the world tend to have moderate calorie intake. The Okinawans say a 2,500-year-old Confucian mantra before their meals that reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are just about 80 percent full.

Plant-based diet:

Beans are central to most Blue Zone diets.

Beans are central to most Blue Zone diets.

Blue Zone diets center around plants, including beans, green leafy vegetables and plant-based oils and fats. Most people living in Blue Zones don’t eat meat more than once a week.

Likely just as important as what they do eat is what they don’t eat. The longest-lived people throughout the course of the last century have avoided low-quality, processed foods that do not contribute to health. Instead, they focus on eating a diet that is high in complex carbohydrates and includes medium levels of healthy fats and medium to low levels of protein.

Alcohol in moderation, especially wine:

Most people in Blue Zones drink alcohol moderately and regularly. One to two glasses per day of wine – especially the Sardinian cannanaou wine, which has the highest levels of antioxidants of any wine in the world – seems to help foster good health and longevity.

There is a trick, though: Be sure to drink it with friends. Studies show that it’s not just the polyphenols in wine that impact our health, but also the sense of belonging we feel when we enjoy food and wine with friends.

Spiritual or religious practice and community:

In one study the Blue Zone organization conducted, only 5 out of 263 centenarians they interviewed did not belong to a faith-based community. Although the denomination does not seem to matter, just being with others who are likeminded and participating in a spiritual or religious practice seems to contribute to longevity.

Family engagement:

Prioritizing time with family is a pillar of most Blue Zone cultures.

Prioritizing time with family is a pillar of most Blue Zone cultures.

Most people who live in Blue Zones live near their family – and live with them and care for them if they are elderly. Studies also show that those of us who commit to a life partner live longer.

Social engagement:

Having a social circle that practices healthy behaviors could be central to the secret to longevity. In Okinawa, people create “moais,” or social support groups that commit to each other for life.

Research shows that cognitive behaviors, such as happiness and depression, as well as physical behaviors, such as smoking and overeating, are contagious. So it may not just be the time these cultures spend together, but the healthy habits they naturally help each other practice that is key to their health and happiness.

Drink water like a centenarian!

Centenarians avoid processed sugar, both in their food and their drinks, and rely on plenty of pure water to stay hydrated. Healthy Human’s:

Be sure to check our Live Life Healthy blog daily for additional health hacks from around the world.

What Blue Zone behavior will you adopt this week?

Are you inspired to try to incorporate any of these practices in your daily life? Let us know in the comments below!