Special to The Recorder
Longevity, the length or duration of human lives, is an intriguing topic that has been studied by numerous researchers. Many methods or strategies have been proposed to increase the average human lifespan, but finding concrete evidence of what works and what doesn’t is often challenging. In most cases, living a longer life is a multidimensional achievement that involves avoiding disease and disability, keeping high levels of physical and cognitive function, and staying engaged in social, leisure and other productive activities. The search to understand the secrets of longevity is more than simply about discovering how to live longer; it is also about how to live a healthier, happier and more meaningful life. Studying regions of the world where people live measurably longer lives can provide us all with some important insights on keys to meaningful longevity.
These regions have been labeled “blue zones” by two researchers, Gianni Pes and Michel Poulin, who used it to describe longevity hotspots – regions of the world that produce the greatest concentration of centenarians. Residents of these areas are known to experience fewer life-reducing diseases and enjoy longer, healthier lives. Blue ones are scattered across the globe in towns in Japan, Italy, Costa Rica, Greece and the United States.
Even though these locations are separated by thousands of miles, blue zone residents appear to share the following lifestyle factors: they do not smoke, they place a priority on family, they participate in moderately strenuous physical activity every day, they stay socially connected and engaged, and, though exceptions exist, they consume a diet centered around fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Smoking and Longevity – Smoking status is a common thread that binds blue zone groups, and not surprisingly, is extremely rare among centenarians. Smokers in any culture live fewer years than nonsmokers, though even longtime smokers can benefit from smoking cessation so it is never too late to quit!
An Emphasis on Family and Social Connectedness – All blue zone groups place great significance on family time and togetherness, and they put family ahead of their other problems or concerns. Family-related factors that nurture longevity include spending a significant amount of time with your children, engaging in a loving, monogamous relationship, and keeping your aging parents close by. Social connectedness, or a sense of belonging in a community, helps blue zone residents in times of crisis or distress. Benefits of this permanent support network include reduced anxiety during stressful life events, a sense of belonging and purpose in the world – all factors that have a positive impact on health.
Regular Physical Activity – Moderately strenuous physical activity is an intimate part of daily life in blue zone groups. Walking, gardening, tending herds and other manual tasks are built into the daily schedule, keeping many blue zone individuals in a state of near-constant movement or motion. Increased physical activity levels are essential in boosting longevity, though researchers sometimes disagree on the intensity with which this exercise should be performed. Your health care professional can give you the best advice on what level will benefit you most as an individual.
A Healthy Diet – Blue zone diets are largely plant-based and include plenty of nuts, beans, greens, and whole grains. Some Blue zone diets also include a small amount of meat or fish as well as cheese and red wine. Blue zone members’ increased consumption of vegetables and unprocessed foods provides them with natural antioxidants and other nutrients that may help prevent chronic disease.
To stay as active and healthy as possible, consider making some changes to your diet and exercise regime, but consult with your health care provider first before doing anything drastic, particularly regarding exercise. Certainly if you smoke, remember that it is never too late to quit and experience the health benefits associated with a non-smoking lifestyle. If you find you are lacking connectivity to family due to distance, consider establishing social connections through golf or tennis or through programs at the local library or senior center. Let’s take the lessons learned from the blue zone groups and apply what we can to our own lives in order to not only live longer lives, but happier and healthier ones as well.
Dr. Erika Hamer, DC, DIBCN, DIBE, is a chiropractic neurologist and owner of Ponte Vedra Wellness Center with offices in Ponte Vedra Beach and Nocatee Town Center. Dr. Hamer also runs Ponte Vedra Training Company, specializing in doctor supervised training programs customized according to individual goals and physical limitations.