The term "Blue Zone" originated in the demographic research of Dr. Gianni Pes to identify villages and towns in Sardinia with a higher proportion of centenarians than the average surrounding population. He represented each such location with a blue dot; the blue dots concentrated in the Barbagia mountainous region of Sardinia, forming a "Blue Zone."
The term was then taken up and populated by adventurer, Nat Geo journalist, longevity enthusiast, and researcher Dan Buettner. Buettner then pioneered the idea of longevity Blue Zones through his bicycle world-journey, in which he visited the 5 Blue Zones identified as the home to above-average proportions of centenarians, both compared to the global and respective countries populations.
In these 5 Blue Zones, people are most likely to healthily celebrate their 100th birthday with perfect health and full functionality:
- Okinawa, Japan, is home to the world's longest-lived women, with 4.95% of Okinawan women and 0.82% of Okinawan men celebrating their 100th birthdays, and a combined centenarian rate of 3.3% for the mixed population, three times higher than the Japanese average.
- Sardinia, Italy, is home to the world's longest-lived men, with 1.09% of Sardinian women and 0.44% of Sardinian men celebrating their 100th birthdays, and a combined centenarian rate of 0.7% for the mixed population, almost twice the Italian average.
Here it is important to note that the Blue Zone in Sardinia doesn't cover the entire island as it concentrates in particularly mountainous areas over 700 m above sea level, with surprising reasons underlying this, discussed later in this article.
- Ikaria (Greece), where a whopping third of the population gets to celebrate their 90th birthday.
- Loma Linda (California, USA), home to the Adventist community that enjoys an extra 10 years of life compared to the average American next door.
- And last but not least, Nicoya, Costa Rica, has an average life expectancy of 85, 12 years above that of either Costa Rica or the United States.
To put these numbers into perspective, the US life expectancy in 2023 still lingers at 79 years, that of Germany is shy of 82 years, and that of China is 77 years. The worldwide average still lingers at 73 years.
These Blue Zones offer a treasure trove of untapped insights into the formula of long life and healthy active aging, which remain to be tapped into by most people on the planet. The efforts of Dan Buettner, Dr. Pax, and many other longevity researchers have illuminated the intricacies of life in the Blue Zones. Uncovering aspects that will prove invaluable for humanity, especially as the identity of the Blue Zones gets diluted by encroaching modernity and consumerism.
Though each Blue Zone is unique, a broader view of the daily life, habits, and even geography of the 5 Blue Zones yields some unmistakable patterns, most of which are very counterintuitive to the modern way of life. And while the lessons are too numerous to give justice to, here are my most valued lessons from learning about the Blue Zones and their inhabitants.
Blue Zones' Location and Geography
Blessed solitude is where history pauses to collect its breath: our Blue Zones are mostly tranquil hideaways with post-card-worthy scenery and rare tranquility, from Okinawa's breakaway location over 600 km from Japan to the remote Costa-Rican peninsula of Nicoya passing by the harbor-less Greek island of Ikaria and the unformidable mountains of Sardinia standing tall and unyielding to invaders for millennia. The only peculiar exception is the Blue Zone in Loma Linda, as we will discuss later in this article.
Moderate warmth and beaches all around: all Blue Zones are located either in subtropical or Mediterranean climate zones and enjoy amicable temperatures all year round, with the average daily temperature remaining in the favorable range of 10°C to 30°C.
This is very peculiar as it invokes thoughts regarding a wholistic approach in which human health and the wellbeing of the planet converge, as living at an amicable temperature automatically reduces the carbon footprint related to heating, air conditioning, and adjacent applications.
With the lovely temperature, all Blue Zones offer direct or very nearby access to natural beaches, and who of us wouldn't enjoy such a blessing?
Diet in the Blue Zones
Veggies rule supreme: the predominance of a plant-based diet in all Blue Zones is unmistakable. The geographic isolation has made local staples the backbone of people's nutrition, and this has persisted. Though very diverse, all Blue Zone diets offer enough plant-based protein and diversity to cover all nine essential amino acids. The vigor of Blue Zone seniors and centenarians goes a long way toward challenging the modern fallacies regarding meat being essential for healthy nutrition.
Moderation is king: Okinawans say "Hara hachi bun mi," which means eat till 80% full. In a sense, this long-standing wisdom has preceded the science of caloric restriction, which remains the "gold standard" of metabolic longevity interventions.
Carbs are more innocent than we are made to think: another constant through the Blue Zone are the balanced diets, which are relatively rich in carbohydrates. Be it Okinawan purple sweet potatoes or Sardinia's traditional sour dough bread and beans and pasta stews, ending with Niconya's traditionally prepared corn tacos, the Blue Zones are ripe with original recipes, ensuring that carbohydrates are enjoyed in a balanced and healthy manner. The secret is lowering the glycaemic index of carbohydrates via various preparation steps and by consuming them along with fiber-rich veggies and legumes. A deeper reflection on western diet trends easily unmasks how out of balance we are, even when we aim for healthy outcomes. By trying to hold individual macronutrients' culprits (be they carbohydrates or fats), modern health trends pushed by mass media miss the point on balance, moderation, and the virtue of freshly prepared food.
A little wine "to gladden the heart of man": a refreshing and reassuring trend for fellow wine lovers is the consumption of local wines in Blue Zones, most prominently in the two Mediterranean longevity hubs of Sardinia and Ikaria.
These local red wines are rich in polyphenols, including the once-celebrated resveratrol, with its metabolic advantages and cardio protective properties. More likely, though, the chief benefit resides in the unwinding and mood-elevating effect of a small glass of wine enjoyed with one's family and close friends.
Natural activity as a way of life
"Exercise" is a foreign word in the Blue Zones, as activity is intricately and inseparably woven into the fabric of the daily lives of their inhabitants. Amazingly, the Blue Zone in Sardinia concentrates in the steepest mountainous villages. Okinawans maintain their core strength by bashing furniture from their homes and sitting on the floor, while for Loma Lindan Adventists, group sports are another way of experiencing their faith and sense of community.
Family is the root of standing tall and strong and living long: strong family bonds are another given in the Blue Zones, with a virtuous cycle of parents caring for and investing in their children. This, in addition to the fact that multigenerational families often live together or in proximity, has ensured the survival of family values across multiple generations, despite the predominant individualistic trends sweeping through wider society.
Faith is not only in one's heart but also in fellow humans: Blue Zones have all retained simple and traditional systems of faith that are focused on the community, with an emphasis on proactive elements and participation in the community. Furthermore, inhabitants of the Blue Zones show extraordinary levels of communal spirit and solidarity. In Okinawa, the term "Moai" refers to a lifelong social support group, which also has a financial dimension as friends pool their money to help the group members in times of need. In the Mediterranean Blue Zones, the extended family forms the basic fabric of the social solidarity system, while Loma Lindans focus on their common faith as their communal glue.
Knowing why you wake up every morning: this is a simple one that we could all relate to. A life well lived is one of purpose, and it turns out that purpose, or what Okinawans call "Ikigai" and Nicoyans call "Plan di Vida," is the perfect fuel for a long, healthy, and fulfilling life.
Putting my scientist hat on, I couldn't help but feel humbled by the centuries of human experience obtained from the seniors and centenarians in the Blue Zones. While some futurists already promise magic eternal youth pills and others get fully obsessed with quantifying themselves, it pays well to start by focusing on what has always been available to each and every one of us. The Blue Zones are a reminder that 21st century science and technology should also look back and leverage the treasures of accumulated wisdom that have been foregone by modernity, industrialization, and hyper-individualism.
I hope you enjoyed this article; if you have, I would like to strongly recommend the new Netflix documentary series "Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones" by Dan Buettner.
1 Poulain, M., Herm, A., & Pes, G.M. (2012). The blue zones: Areas of exceptional longevity around the world.
2 International Institute of Longevity.
3 Longevity's secret sauce, "A way of life that keeps cells young in one region of Costa Rica".
4 Buettner D, Skemp S. Blue Zones: Lessons From the World's Longest Lived. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016 Jul 7;10(5):318-321. doi: 10.1177/1559827616637066. PMID: 30202288; PMCID: PMC6125071.