If you are interested in pursuing a long and healthy life and haven’t heard of the “Blue Zones,” then you might want to read up on the subject. In a recent Wall Street Journal, there was a write-up about the country of Sardinia, made up of about 14 different villages and home to a genetically homogenous population which constitutes one of the Blue Zones in the world. These zones have in common the fact that they have the highest number of centenarians (100 or older) compared to other populations. Some other places which are known as Blue Zones include Costa Rica, Greece, Okinawa, and even an American subgroup: the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.
By studying these groups, Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones Solution, has analyzed how the healthiest groups in the world eat and live and how they achieve their longevity. We find as we read his book that there are common factors which we can all aspire to and attain so that we might share in the same longevity that these cultural groups do. This involves food choices, availability of various vegetables and fruits, and quantity of meat eaten. Other non-food factors include socialization, close family structure, and activity level.
If you examine the Scandinavian data on twins who were separated at birth, you will see that genetics played a 20 percent role and lifestyle an 80 percent role in longevity. Additionally, of the 80 percent, 20 percent of the good effect of aging came from exercise and the rest from nutrition (or lack of it). Having said that, most of the genetic strands that control life span are indigenous to the somewhat closed population of Sardinia. Of course, how you treat your body determines the effectiveness of your genes. Epigenetics is the term used when a person can override a bad gene with a better than usual lifestyle and nutrition. Culture and tradition as well as availability of basic food components (carbs, fat, protein) besides nutrients in foods and spices have stayed pretty stable through generations.
We can pretty much assume that these have been adequate to nurture the aging population. One must look at numbers, and in this case the average age of demise in men is 78, close to that the U.S. However, the average age of women is 86 years, a wider spread than the U.S., but the ratio of centenarians men:women is 1:1, accounted for by a gene on the chromosome which reduces male risk of coronary.
While you can’t control the genes you are born with, there are a few things you can do to increase your longevity. According to the book by Buettner, most “blues” eat carbohydrates, although the type of carbs eaten varies among the “blue” regions but with the same effect. These are complex carbs (minimal sugar producing) such as sweet potatoes in Okinawa, squash and corn in Costa Rica, and brown rice and whole grains in others. The remainder of their carb diet comes in fruits, vegetables, and beans.
In fact, beans produce more protein per dollar than beef and also furnish fiber. However, beans must be paired with another vegetable, nut, bean, or grain to allow production of a complete protein (such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs). Interestingly sourdough bread was a major staple, allowing carbs with a low glycemic index.
Socialization and family life are good catalysts to all of the nutrition factors in longevity. Sardinians get their exercise during daily work, in the house, the kitchen, on the job, or elsewhere. Americans spend about $110 billion per year on diets, exercise, and supplements, but there is an easier way. Just use this article as a guideline, supplemented by the book noted above.
The most exciting aspect is the fact that you can create your own “Blue Zone.” In Loma Linda, about 9,000 Seventh Day Adventists have done so. They follow similar guidelines as noted above, with no tobacco or alcohol use and adequate (12-15 percent) intake of complete proteins, mostly from dairy and fish. When I am thinking about my current five-year plan for staying as healthy as possible, I realize that I can create my own personal “Blue Zone.” Why not try it with me?
Dr. Carraway is the director of the Plastic & Cosmetic Surgery Center of EVMS. Call 757-557-0300 for more information.