By 2004, astrophysicist Michel Poulain had already changed careers and begun working as a demographer at Belgium's University of Louvain. Demographers study populations, determining their size and composition in order to predict how they will change in the future. This information is vital in determining things such as how many new kindergartens to build or how many new retirement homes are needed.
It was during 2004 that Poulain, along with Gianni Pes, a physician and epidemiologist at Italy's University of Sassari, published an article in the journal Experimental Gerontology that identified an unusual phenomenon that came to be called "Blue Zones".
What are Blue Zones?
Blue Zones are areas of the Earth where people live the longest, often reaching well beyond 100 years of age. Compare that to 73.4 years, which was the worldwide average life expectancy in 2019, according to the WHO.
"Blue Zones" got their name from the color which Poulain and Pes used to highlight the first such area identified, which was located in the province of Nuoro on the Italian island of Sardinia.
In 2005, American author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner wrote an article entitled "Secrets of Long Life" for the November 2005 issue of National Geographic magazine, and it became one of the best-selling issues ever. In 2006, Buettner collaborated with Michel Poulain to identify a second Blue Zone, located on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. By 2008, Buettner and Poulain had identified a third Blue Zone on the Greek Island of Ikaria.
That same year, Buettner published his book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest, and it became a New York Times Best Seller. In September 2009, Buettner gave a TED talk entitled, "How to live to be 100+" which has been viewed over two million times.
By April 2015, Buettner had identified a total of five Blue Zones around the world. They are:
- Sardinia, Italy - especially the areas of Ogliastra, Ollolai, and Barbagia of Seulo
- The islands of Okinawa, Japan
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- Ikaria, Greece
- Loma Linda, California.
Sardinia is an island off the west coast of Italy. A village there, called Seulo, holds the record for being the place where people live the longest in the world. Between 1996 and 2016, there were more than 20 centenarians living there, that is, people over the age of 100. That may not seem like a lot, but the population of Seulo is only around 830.
According to a recent article on the france24.com website, in the Nicoya Peninsula, which is located in the northwest of Costa Rica, currently, 1,010 people are aged 90 or older, out of a population of around 160,000.
Loma Linda, California is only 60 miles east of Los Angeles, and is surrounded on all sides by other suburban California towns. However, residents of Loma Linda live around 10 years longer than their fellow Americans, and they have lower rates of chronic diseases, including dementia.
What is it that makes Loma Linda so different? It has a high population of Seventh Day Adventists who believe the human body to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, and that it should be protected. Seventh Day Adventists believe in a Sabbath day of rest, and they eat a plant-based diet that is rich in whole foods and avoid taking narcotics and stimulants, including alcohol and caffeinated beverages. Loma Linda residents tend to remain physically active into their 80s and 90s, and many are actively involved in their faith and the church community.
What makes Blue Zones?
When scientists examined the DNA of residents living in Blue Zones, they found nothing to indicate that it had anything to do with the residents' longevity. Rather, what set Blue Zones apart was that they were geographically isolated from the rest of the world. That meant it took longer for fast food, processed foods, and diets containing more meat to reach those areas.
In Okinawa, Japan, where the new generation has a more modern lifestyle and is eating a more Western-based diet, residents are experiencing more health problems and longevity is shortening. The conclusion Poulain and Buettner came to is that diet and exercise play a vital role in the creation of Blue Zones. On Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula, people eat primarily what they grow themselves, including beans, whole grains, vegetables, and fruit, and their diet contains very little meat.
Besides diet, scientists have identified other factors that lead to a longer life. These include:
- Having a purpose in life and goals
- Having a social support network of family and/or friends
- Reducing stress
- Stopping eating when you're 80 percent full
- Enjoying wine or alcohol moderately
- Keeping physically active.
The Blue Zones Project
Dan Buettner has set up an initiative to bring the lessons learned in Blue Zones to other communities. In 2009, the first Blue Zones Project city was Albert Lea, Minnesota, a town of around 18,000 people. The city created more pedestrian crossings and wider sidewalks that allowed for outdoor dining. A five-mile walking and biking trail was created around a lake, and it now connects to neighborhoods, parks, and the downtown area. A new amphitheater provides a community gathering space.
Over 45 Albert Lea workplaces registered with the Blue Zones Project and made varying levels of change, including instituting worksite health clinics. A local grocery store added to its selection of healthy foods to make good choices easier for its customers. Healthy snack cart programs and Grab-and-Go breakfast programs were introduced in schools.
The city expanded its community garden space by 150 percent so residents could grow their own healthy food, and various smoking cessation programs were begun. In 2009, 23 percent of adult residents of Albert Lea were smokers, while in 2016, that figure stood at just 14.7 percent. This resulted in an $8.6 million savings in annual health care costs for Albert Lea employers.
After just one year, Albert Lea residents added 2.9 years to their life expectancy according to data calculated by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Healthcare costs dropped by 40 percent, and the city reported a 96 percent increase in pedestrian traffic and a 38 percent average increase in biking and walking throughout the community.
According to realtor.com, in 2015, Albert Lea ranked third in "The top 10 most affordable small towns in the United States that you would actually want to live."
Other Blue Zones Project cities have also been added, including the Southern California beach-side communities of Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, and Manhattan Beach. In the three beach-side communities, within three years their obesity rates fell by 14 percent, and their rates of smoking dropped by over 30 percent. Exercise and healthy eating increased by 10 percent.
In 2011, Iowa's then-governor Terry Branstad issued a challenge to his constituents, and four cities — Cedar Falls, Mason City, Spencer, and Waterloo — signed up to be Blue Zones Project cities. By 2013, 11 more Iowa cities were added.
The town of Spencer added new sidewalks, while Cedar Falls erected a pedestrian and bicycle bridge that allowed people to walk or bike to work. Mason City developed a plan to add more bicycle and pedestrian paths. Instead of meeting in a conference room, workers at the Mason City Area Chamber of Commerce began walking meetings, while other Iowans opted to take the stairs rather than the elevator.
Schools ditched their school buses for "walking school buses," with a parent or teacher walking a group of children to school.
In Cedar Falls, Iowa, residents have not only lost weight but there has been an almost 4 percent drop in people with high cholesterol and a 10 percent decline in the number of smokers. By 2013, Iowa was ranked as one of the healthiest states in America.
You can learn more about the Blue Zones Project at their website.