Unlocking the Secrets of Centenarians: Lessons from the Blue Zones

Here are some life-enhancing habits from communities where people live the longest

In a captivating new Netflix series, viewers are transported into the world of longevity, a quest that spans decades. The world’s highest concentration of centenarians can be found in the most remote corners of the Earth, residing on idyllic islands and nestled in mountain villages. As NPR’s Allison Aubrey reveals, at a time when life expectancy in the United States is facing challenges, there is much to be gleaned from the habits and lifestyles of these remarkable centenarians.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: One of the most intriguing aspects of individuals thriving well into their 90s and beyond is that they are not actively striving to maintain their health. Enter National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner, the architect behind identifying five unique regions across the globe that host the highest density of centenarians, aptly termed “blue zones.”

DAN BUETTNER: The residents of blue zones aren’t fixated on diets or exercise routines. Their focus is simply living their lives.

AUBREY: Many of these blue zone communities are situated on remote islands, including Sardinia off the Italian coast, Ikaria, a secluded Greek island in the Aegean Sea, and Okinawa, an archipelago a thousand miles from Tokyo. One common thread that binds them is their approach to nourishment – a preference for uncomplicated, home-cooked meals.

BUETTNER: The foundation of the longevity diet across the world consists of whole grains, leafy greens, root vegetables like sweet potatoes, nuts as a healthy snack, and a daily serving of beans, which has been associated with an extra four years of life expectancy.

AUBREY: While they are not strictly vegetarian, their meat consumption is a mere fraction of the typical American diet. Their culinary repertoire includes modest amounts of cheese and fish, enriched with aromatic herbs and plants often cultivated in their own gardens.

BUETTNER: It may be peasant food, but the secret lies in their ability to transform simple fare into a delectable feast.

AUBREY: Physical fitness for blue zone residents does not involve gym memberships. Instead, they seamlessly incorporate movement into their daily routines. For example, tending to their gardens isn’t solely about sustenance; it keeps them agile through activities like bending, squatting, and muscle use.

BUETTNER: Gardening nudges them into daily activities such as weeding, watering, and harvesting.

AUBREY: While most of us may not enjoy the luxury of living in idyllic climates beside turquoise waters and sandy beaches, we can still draw inspiration from the blue zone inhabitants, particularly their strategies for maintaining strength as they age.

BUETTNER: In Okinawa, residents often sit on tatami mats or low tables, necessitating them to rise and sit numerous times. This practice, akin to squats, fosters stronger lower bodies, improved balance, increased hip flexibility, healthier backs, and reduced risk of falls.

AUBREY: Another pivotal insight from these blue zones is the cultivation of close-knit social bonds and the embrace of a more unhurried pace of life. In Okinawa, small social circles known as “Moais” thrive, while on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, the church serves as the communal cornerstone.

BUETTNER: The residents, often of the Catholic faith, prioritize church attendance and community festivals. They rely on one another for support, creating a harmonious symbiosis.

AUBREY: This interconnectedness sustains these communities, partially driven by necessity as they are isolated from the modern world’s connectivity and conveniences. Although these traditional ways of life may be fading due to dwindling populations, Dan Buettner asserts that there are numerous aspects we can adopt.

BUETTNER: Opting for walking over driving, reducing screen time in favor of genuine face-to-face interactions, discovering and acting upon one’s sense of purpose through volunteering or supporting family, and dedicating time to cooking one’s meals are all timeless practices observed in the blue zones worldwide, resulting in measurably longer lives.

AUBREY: It’s not just about extending one’s years; it’s about enhancing the quality of life. The combination of wholesome food, strong social bonds, regular physical activity, and a sense of purpose offers a recipe within everyone’s reach. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAC MILLER SONG, “DANG!”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.