What the world’s longest living cultures can teach us about the good life
Recently, I’ve found myself absolutely enamoured by communities that are renowned for longevity. In my mind, these broad-smiling Italians sit in humble courtyards on low to the ground seats (glass of wine in hand and a cheese platter nearby), surrounded by family and friends. They take slow strolls around their neighbourhoods, while away the hours in the garden, enjoy daily siestas and never ever rush. They don’t count calories, write to-do lists or keep a journal of the things that they’re grateful for – because gratitude is just a natural part of their existence. They’re not pushing or striving to live long, healthy lives by stocking up on the latest super food powders and walking the perfect number of steps each day. They’re not striving for anything – they are simply being, in the most delightful sense of the word. These are the people that we, ironically, aspire to be.
This of course is a picture painted in my own mental landscape – but I’m not the only one charmed by the idea. In fact, people have been actively studying ‘Blue Zones’ since 2005, when Dan Buettner coined (and trademarked) the term in his National Geographic article, The Secrets of a Long Life. Here, Buettner shared five regions in the world where populations live healthier and longer lives than others. These regions were: Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Ikaria (Greece) and the Seventh-day Adventist community of Loma Linda (California). Since then, Buettner has integrated the ideas of these societies into other parts of the world, creating outstanding results. Others have also jumped on the bandwagon of longevity curiosity, and there’s now an abundance of research that delves into the secrets of long-lasting health and happiness.
So, what’s the secret?
Kale Brock is one such Australian researcher who has written a book (The Longevity Book) and created a documentary (The Longevity Film) exploring the topic. During his research, Brock observed four main pillars of long-living cultures: Nutrition, movement, community and mindset. He says, “People in these cultures are eating a seasonal, local, organic and whole foods diet with very little or no processed food. Most often they grow their own!” He goes on to explain that the individuals in these societies get most of their ‘exercise’ from incidental movement that’s constant throughout the day, as opposed to many of us who smash out a quick gym session before sitting at a computer for ten hours. Brock also noticed that people in Blue Zones are very community focussed, “With an open door policy and a very socialistic mindset, humanistic engagement is rife throughout these places and smart phones are not. People talk to each other and smile, they hug each other and dance or sit back in a rocking chair to watch the afternoon go by as they sip a glass of red wine or a coffee”, he says. Finally, there’s a grace in ageing and an all round attitude of gratitude. Brock muses, “I would say most of the people over 90 that we met had an affable cheekiness about them that was very attractive…These people don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re not prone to panic or stress about the small things; there is a prominent sense of stoicism and pride amongst these people as they grow older and wiser.”
In his 2009 Ted Talk How to Live to be 100 + Buettner explains that lifestyle impacts longevity far more than genes. Although the study of longevity genes is a developing science, it’s clear that lifestyle can impact longevity in a significant way. Therefore, if we can find the optimal lifestyle for longevity then we can come up with a formula to follow ourselves. He says, “The best science tells us that the capacity of the human body is about 90 years, but life expectancy (in the US) is only 78.” However, in the Blue Zones, people are living well into their nineties and beyond. The secret? For Buettner, it’s how societies are organised. In Sardinia, social equity tends to increase with age, and therefore older people are very respected and valued, giving them a strong sense of purpose and belonging. In Okinawa, they eat a mostly plant-based diet with a big focus on moderation, have strong family relationships and a deep sense of purpose. And, in the American Adventist culture they dedicate 24 hours a week to devotion, nurturing their social networks and taking walks in nature. Buettner’s research uncovered nine evidence-based commonalities of the Blue Zones, known as the “power nine”.
The power 9: Top tips for longevity
Moderate, regular physical activity: There’s very little formal exercise in the Blue Zones, but incidental exercise is a big part of daily life. Lives are set up so that people are constantly nudged into physical activity. They are consistently moving between sitting and standing, walking up and down stairs, strolling to the store or to friends’ houses. When they do participate in intentional activity it’s something they genuinely enjoy.
Slow, mindful living: Everything is practiced slowly and mindfully, leaving little room for stress. Blue Zone inhabitants are often found with a glass of wine in hand, enjoying time with family, taking an afternoon nap or generally indulging in a slower pace of living.
Purpose: The Japanese even have a word for it: ikagai – your reason for waking up in the morning. For one woman interviewed by Buettner it was her great great grand daughter. People in the Blue Zones have a strong sense of purpose that they practice in their daily life, which often revolves around family and community.
Sustenance: Diet (in the sense that we use it) isn’t even a concept in these cultures. Food is about sustenance and is often fresh from the garden. Blue Zoners tend to eat a mostly plant-based, colourful diet that’s very low in processed foods and high in seasonal fruit and vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Moderation: When they do eat, they tend not to over-indulge. In Okinawa they have strategies for over-eating, and eat only until they are 80% full.
Enjoy a glass of wine: Again, moderation is key, but it’s not uncommon to find people in Blue Zones drinking a glass of wine with dinner. The Sardinians regularly enjoy a red wine rich in flavonoids, and always with friends.
Faith/Community: People in Blue Zones tend to belong to a faith-based community, with strong social ties and rituals related to their religion.
Engagement in social life – with the right people: Belonging to a tribe that is happy and healthy, whether you are born into it or actively seek it out, is an essential pillar of long-living cultures.
Family first: There’s a big focus on family in these communities, and researchers even found a strong connection between these relationships and lowered rates of chronic illness.
Happiness and longevity
There’s no denying that happiness and longevity go hand in hand. Those things that support us into our nineties, like good relationships, good food, a sense of purpose and a delicious drop of red undoubtedly contribute to our overall sense of joy in life. Brock agrees, “In the longevity cultures there is an omnipotent sense of contentedness that I’ve never seen or felt anywhere else in the world. These people operate with a deep present state awareness in all that they do, regardless if it’s a chore or a fun experience. If you have to work for ten hours today on the farm, that’s okay, there’s no rush or reason to stress – everything will happen when it’s meant to.”
Creating your own Blue Zone: Integrating the lessons into our lives
As well as writing a number of articles and books on the topic, Buettner is also the founder of Blue Zones – an organisation committed to providing information on long-living communities and integrating them into other societies. He has created a number of successful community projects in the US that utilise philosophies from the Blue Zones to enhance the wellbeing of its citizens. One such project was recently undertaken in Fort Worth, Texas. In 2013, Fort Worth was one of the lowest ranked cities in the country for health and wellbeing. This was based on the American Well-being Index – a system used to assess Americans’ perception of their lives and daily experiences through five interrelated elements – purpose, social, financial, community and physical. Five years after the project began, the overall wellbeing of the town’s inhabitants had risen, bringing them to the top 20% of the country. In 2019, residents were reporting higher levels of city pride, exercising more, socialising more and smoking less than when they embarked on their Blue Zones Project journey.
The project was designed to make healthy choices easier through permanent changes to the community’s environment, policy and social networks. Creating things like active transportation, safe routes to school, tobacco-free zones, spaces to de-stress, school gardens and corner-store transformations as well as free cooking demonstrations and purpose workshops all worked to gently nudge people towards healthier choices. The project’s outcomes included an increase in physical activity, residents reporting greater levels of happiness, and an increase in produce consumption. Of course, it costs to implement these changes, but millions were saved as health and work productivity improved.
Similar projects have been rolled out in a number of US cities with equally promising results. Overall, the country has dropped in reported levels of wellbeing, however, in the Blue Zone project areas wellbeing continues to rise.
Not all of us are fortunate enough to invite the Blue Zone Projects into our own cities, so I ask Kale what advice he would give to someone living in Australia who wants to integrate some longevity habits and philosophies into their own life. He says, “Tweak your life so that small changes become much easier to integrate into your regular routine. Instead of driving to work, why not walk? Or cycle? Or car pool with a friend to enjoy some conversation along the way? Got a work meeting? Make it an active one by walking and talking along the way to a local cafe. Grow your own vegetables and fruit or visit your local farmers markets to source seasonal, local, organic and whole food produce. Engage with your local community on a regular basis by volunteering or starting up a service-based business which gets you talking to people. I honestly now believe that the conversations I have as I walk down the street are as nourishing to me as my green smoothie in the morning.”
While it may not always be practical to take a daily siesta or invite the whole family over to dance as the sun sets, we can make movements towards being more socially connected and healthy. We can roll out our yoga mat each morning and commit to enjoying the sensation of moving freely. We can call our sister for a daily chat over a glass of red. We can eat more vegetables, ditch the supermarket for the farmers markets where possible, and find a sense of purpose in the work that we choose to do. We can sing in the shower and count our blessings daily, even when it feels as though the world is crumbling around us. And we can let that hug linger just a little bit longer. Because, regardless of whether you live to be 50 or 100, what is life without connection?
Words by Jessica Humphries for Wellbeing Magazine