Blue Zone Thinking – finding the elixir of life nearer home

The Greek Island of Ikaria
No two people age in exactly the same way or at the same rate. Psychologically and physically, some people are ‘old’ before they turn 30. Others twice their age, appear to be ‘ageless’.

There are five small areas around the globe where people live 10 years longer than the western average. These areas are known as ‘Blue Zones’, so called because of the blue rings on demographer Michel Poulain’s maps locating the areas where people lived longest – Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia, Loma Linda in California, the Greek island of Ikaria and the Nicoya peninsula in Costa Rica.

There is some suggestion that expectations play a crucial part in longevity and certainly in these five areas people living there are not surprised that they remain physically and sexually active well into their 90s. They also have much lower rates of cancer and heart disease, and suffer less depression and dementia.

But, what if we don’t happen to live in a Blue Zone; is there anything we can do towards living a long and healthy life? Unless we live in a very isolated community such as Ikaria, where transport connections are few and far between and the way of life has changed little for centuries, studies show those who retain their vitality and a love of life have certain traits: they are open to change, accept new ideas, welcome the unknown, and are less stuck in their ways.

‘Use it or lose it’ applies to all ages. If we don’t keep mentally and physically active we become less able. From around the age of 30 our bodies start to falter at the rate of about 1% a year.

Genetics plays a part in the ageing process but the major influence on successful ageing is down to us. With the right choices, the human body and mind can improve and heal.

It is estimated that 30% of longevity is in the genes and 70% is lifestyle. Those who live to be 100 and beyond tend to be non smokers, physically active (though seldom have special exercise regimes), have maintained fairly constant weight, and rarely say they have special diets.

The average western diet contains more salt, sugar and saturated fat than the body needs, and most of these are found in processed foods. Many of us can talk knowledgeably about anti-oxidants, polyphenols, fibre and omega three fatty acids, but are still confused about what to eat because of the never ending onslaught of dietary and health advice from scientists and the food processing industry.

Inhabitants of blue zones would understand Michael Pollan’s Food Rules in which he suggests amongst, other things, to avoid foods that no ordinary human being keeps in the pantry, not to eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food and to eat food that comes from plants, not made in plants.

The common mindset amongst people living in the Blue Zones is the expectation of a long and happy life. They have a strong attachment to freedom, independence, self-reliance and adaptability. It’s a cliché, but if your cup’s always half full, it’s sunshine and blue sky living all round.

Mary Evans Young is co-author of ‘Ageing with Attitude – A Guide for baby boomers not ready to hang up their boots.’