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The Blue Zone Analysis
Longevity insights from the longest lived regions of our world and developing a questioning mind.
“Our most memorable moments in life will come from experiences shared with others.”— Anonymous
Written in the Stars?
In previous articles, I’ve made a point to permeate the idea that we are both responsible and accountable for our own health. If we hold this as a starting belief, the logic extends that it’s up to us to figure out how to integrate key habits from The Five Levers into our daily and weekly routines. If performed methodically and consistently, these key habits will help drive down our overall rate of mortality by reducing our risk for a bounty of diseases and blunting the overall negative impacts of aging.
In addition, these habits will increase our healthspan by making us feel stronger, leaner, more flexible and mobile, confident, joyous, fulfilled, and full of energy on a day-to-day basis both now and in the future. Now, this all sounds good and well in theory, but some questions prevail: How in control of our health are we? What about genetics? What about destiny/doom/fate? Glad you asked.
These questions are best tackled from both a scientific and philosophical angle. Let’s start with the scientific.
The Danish Twin Study established that only about 20% of how long the average person lives is dictated by our genes, whereas the other 80% is dictated by our lifestyle.
A study that looked at Danish twins aimed to determine the weight of genetic versus environmental factors on health and hospitalizations. What they found was that approximately a quarter (~25%) of how long we live is written in our genetics.
This is great news! If only 20-25% of our overall lifespan is predetermined then that means the remaining 75-80% is up to us and the environmental factors (i.e., sleep, exercise, diet, smoking, UV radiation, etc.) we choose to expose ourselves to.
To me, the fact that we can control around 75% of our health is a very compelling scientific argument as to why we should design our lifestyle around key habits from The Longevity Framework. However, I believe the philosophical argument to follow is even stronger.
There is great meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in life that comes from setting difficult goals and finding a way to achieve them. Not only is striving to improve ourselves physically and cognitively, which a lifestyle tailored around The Five Levers can achieve, meaningful over the long-term but it also has profound positive impacts on our daily lives.
The euphoria or “high” and the sense of accomplishment you experience after finishing a workout, feeling rested and rejuvenated after a proper night's sleep, executing with precision on your daily goals because of a simple morning meditation and journaling practice that primes you and sets your mindset for the day, the vitality, strength, and nourishment that comes with fueling your body with the right foods and in the right proportions. These are a few of many of the daily pleasures that come with leading a life in which you prioritize your health.
When you master your body and mind, you also greatly enhance your ability to conquer other areas of your life. Your confidence rises, you feel better on a daily basis, and you have a more lasting positive impact on those around you. The fact that doing these things will actually extend our lifespan is almost an added bonus. We get to feel and look great, experience more positive emotion on a daily basis, AND live longer as a result? Sounds like a win-win to me.
If you haven’t had these experiences or felt some of these emotions, that’s okay. Start by integrating key habits (80/20 it) into your life one by one. Applying The 80/20 Principle will determine the habits that have the highest impact for time and effort invested. Its application will help you start strong and build the necessary momentum to continue to develop more difficult habits downline.
I hope I’ve convinced you, if you weren’t on board already, that it’s both scientifically impactful and philosophically important to live a life guided by The Five Levers. Let’s now turn to deepen our knowledge by learning the secrets of the longest-lived regions in the world.
The Blue Zones
Blue Zones are regions of the world that have been recognized for having a higher than usual number of people live much longer than the average lifespan. Five of these regions have been identified:
Okinawa, Japan. Females from this region are some of the longest-lived in the world.
Barbagia region of Sardinia, Italy. The mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia have the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians.
Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Home to the world’s lowest rates of middle-age mortality rate and the second-highest concentration of male centenarians.
Ikaria, Greece. Home to one of the world’s lowest rates of middle-age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia.
Seventh Day Adventists. The highest concentration of which is around Loma Linda, California. On average, they live 10 years longer than their North American counterparts.
These areas are of great interest to those interested in lifespan extension and healthspan improvement. As such, the proclaimed founders of the Blue Zones, Michel Poulain, Dan Buettner, and Giovanni Mario Pes, have worked to identify commonalities the regions share in an attempt to better understand what factors may contribute to driving longer and healthier lives. Before breaking down the lifestyle factors that may be driving a longer-than-average lifespan, I feel a preemptive reminder of skepticism is required.
A Questioning Mind
There is certainly value to be found in studying and applying to our own lives certain aspects of Blue Zone lifestyles. However, that doesn’t mean you should drop everything and vow to strictly mimic the lifestyles of those in Blue Zones. There are many other important habits, not apparent in the lives of blue zoners, that modern science has proven to have a profound positive effect on increasing lifespan and improving healthspan.
For example, strength and aerobic training do not appear to be a focal point of Blue Zone centenarians but have been shown to be two of the most important things we can do to extend the length and bolster the quality of our lives. Take and apply what you find works best for your lifestyle and continue to focus on the habits, structured around The Five Levers, that modern science has proven to be effective.
Without further ado, here are the nine commonalities that are believed to drive longer and healthier lives in The Blue Zones.
The Nine Common Denominators
Incorporating movement outside of a dedicated exercise routine, whether it be gardening, housework, or utilizing a standing desk, should be a priority. Aiming to get at least 4,000 steps in per day and taking a short 10-minute walk after eating are simple yet important practices worth implementing.
Exercise should not replace daily natural movement nor should daily movement replace exercise. Going for a run doesn’t give you permission to sit around for the rest of the day. Formulate an exercise routine that incorporates each of its four sub-levers in addition to doing things like carrying your groceries up the stairs instead of taking the elevator.
Having a sense of purpose can go to great lengths in extending your life expectancy, let alone the beneficial impact it will have on the joy, fulfillment, and overall positive emotion you experience each day. The Okinawans term this sense of purpose “Ikigai” whereas the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida”, but both translate to “why I wake up in the morning.”
Why do you wake up in the morning?
Ikigai, and similar concepts such as the Swedish Lagom and Danish Hygge, have been recently popularized through a series of books on the topic of lifestyle design. Although they may differ in terminology and approach, they share the same aim which is creating a life for yourself that is meaningful, fulfilling, and joyful.
The meaning of Ikigai is communicated through a practical and actionable Venn diagram which also acts as a tool to facilitate a valuable reflection practice. That is, grabbing a pen and paper to jot down what each of these looks like in your life to better understand where you are now and how you can adjust to begin moving toward a happier and longer life.
It’s no surprise that one’s ability to deal with stress, or distress tolerance, has a massive impact on lifespan and quality of life. Constantly being under high levels of stress, indicated by excess cortisol over long periods of time (hypercortisolemia), has been proven to lead to chronic inflammation which is associated with every major age-related disease from cardiovascular disease to dementia.
People in Blue Zones have their unique way to shed stress. Okinawans take time to remember their ancestors each day, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap, and Sardinians do happy hour. Whether it’s meditation, journaling, prayer, taking a walk or nap, or just chatting with a friend for a few minutes, find a way to downshift and lower your intensity and stress throughout the day.
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The 80% Rule
“Hara hachi bu” is a 2500-year-old Confucian mantra that reminds the Okinawans to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. Blue Zone citizens tend to eat their smallest and final meal in the late afternoon or early evening. The wisdom of implementing caloric restriction, one of the sub-levers of nutrition, is of course now something that has been proven to have a positive impact on lifespan when implemented.
How often, for how long, and by how much one should restrict calories is dependent upon one’s starting place and goals and is still a subject of scientific contention. What does matter is the aim of caloric restriction, and a key tenet of nutrition in general, which is to consistently stay at a healthy weight.
Whether this is best achieved through periodic caloric restriction, not to be confused with malnutrition or starvation, or time restricted feeding and intermittent fasting depends on what works best for your lifestyle and preferences. For a more comprehensive overview of nutrition and the levers we can pull to optimize our nutrition practices, read this article.
The meat versus plant-based diet is the most heated and widely debated topic in nutrition today. There doesn’t seem to be much scientific consensus on which is superior, likely for a good reason. The following explanation isn’t cited by science, but it’s my estimate as to why we haven’t been able to draw any hard conclusions regarding the most optimal diet for lifespan extension.
We are all different. Our evolutionary paths differ widely which has spurred a plausible theory that the most optimal food for us to eat now is that which our great ancestors evolved to eat. Whether this is true or not, the train of thought is valid. If there was one diet that was truly superior to others for all humans, it seems likely that we would have figured it out by now.
The variability in nutrition science stems from the differences in our biochemical individuality, or in other words our unique nutritional needs based on a combination of our genetics, lifestyle, and environmental exposure.
With that caveat out of the way, a common trend observed across Blue Zones has been a plant-centric diet with little meat consumption. Beans, including fava, black, soy, and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat is consumed much less often and in much smaller portions than we are accustomed to.
On a personal note, I’ve decided in the last couple of years to air on the side of less meat. I consume meat in one meal a day at most, generally sticking to fish and chicken, and often taking a few days a week where I’ll consume no meat.
Wine at 5
Other than the Adventists, people in all Blue Zones drink alcohol moderately and regularly. It seems to be that the moderate drinkers who enjoy 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine) with food and friends, outlive the non-drinkers. And no, you can’t save up all week and have 14 drinks on Saturday.
My suspicion that there may be factors at play contributing to life extension other than alcohol is supported by inconsistent findings in studies that have looked at alcohol consumption and all-cause mortality. As Dr. Peter Attia puts it…
“It’s very difficult for me to believe that some alcohol is better than none. It’s possible that some alcohol is no worse than none in a healthy enough individual.”
Taking my own advice and applying a dose of skepticism, it seems unlikely to me based on what I’ve read that moderate alcohol consumption plays a role in extending longevity. Even if it does, it’s certainly not very impactful, or as efficacious, as many people may wish. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Linking back to Lever #4: Mental and Emotional Health, the world’s longest-lived people have strong social circles and communities that help them support healthy behaviours. Social networks shape your behaviours, are there to fall back on in times of difficulty, and are a source of many of our most memorable moments in life.
The Okinawans all belong to a “moais” which is a group of 5 friends that are committed to each other for life. This tightly-knit group supports each other and reinforces the development of healthy behaviours, both of which can be attributed to an increased lifespan and an improved healthspan.
Loved Ones First
Successful Blue Zone centenarians put their families first by living with or near aging parents and grandparents, committing to a life-long partner, and investing both time and love into their children. All of these have been proven to extend life expectancy but more importantly, in my opinion, is the additional time this allows you to spend with the most important people in your life.
To emphasize this point, I highly recommend reading a short article by Tim Urban called The Tail End. It’s probably one of the most impactful articles I’ve read in my life and has completely reframed my decision-making processes, how I look at my time, and how I choose to spend it.
Many centenarians belong to some faith-based community, the form of which does not seem to matter. I don’t think it’s the religion itself that is necessary, but instead the commonalities underpinning faith. Deeply, we all desire to be a part of something that is bigger than ourselves and to contribute to the betterment of others. Tony Robbins often relays this message through the adage “the secret to living is giving.” Based on Blue Zone studies, this appears to be true.
Whether religious or not, being part of some form of community where you can give to and help others is likely to tack on a couple of extra years to your life and certain to improve your quality of life. Contribution, which ties back to having a purpose in life, is one of the six essential human needs and will give our lives meaning beyond ourselves. Religion or being part of some form of community is an outlet to do just that.
Looking at the nine commonalities shared amongst the world’s longest-lived regions, three important takeaways are apparent to me. The first is the importance of our mental and emotional health and the useful practices we can implement to improve it. From creating a lifestyle centered around your purpose (Ikigai) to putting family first, developing a strong social circle and spending time with those people, and belonging to a community or giving back, it’s clear to me that our social and emotional connections will lengthen our lifespan and be the greatest source of joy and fulfillment in our lives.
Admittedly, I’m guilty of not paying enough attention to this part of my own life. It’s often not until after I’ve spent quality time with friends that the realization I’ve been discounting this aspect of my life dawns upon me. It’s easy to let this part of your life slip, thinking there are more “productive” ways to spend your time, and I’m trying to do a better job at making sure it does not.
My second takeaway is the importance of staying active. Yes, it’s important to have an exercise routine that encompasses all four pillars (aerobic, anaerobic, strength, and stability/flexibility/mobility), but it should not replace natural movement, such as walking, doing chores, or taking the stairs, throughout the day.
Lastly, the importance of consistently maintaining a healthy weight and stopping eating before being 100% full stuck with me. Not that this is groundbreaking news, but I think it’s such simple and practical advice that is often forgotten in today’s world. Staying at a healthy weight is such an easy metric to observe and it’s one of the best predictors of our risk for developing metabolic disease, cancer, and atherosclerosis.
Additionally, the corporatization of food has contributed to people within industrialized nations eating too much and too often. It’s okay to be hungry and you don’t need to stuff yourself at each meal. Reminders that I think we could all, myself included, use at times. As it turns out, leaving the table around 80% full is actually a great habit as you don’t finish feeling sluggish or bloated but instead energized, sharp, and ready to carry on with your day.
Take what is useful to you, experiment, and dispose of the rest.
And, as always, please give me feedback on Twitter or by hitting reply to this email.