Lessons from the Blue Zones on How to Live Longer

Photo by Free-Photos on Pixabay

The quest for ever lasting life is as old as humanity itself. Humans have a natural and understandable fear of death and it’s totally logical that we would want to put it off for as long as possible. The Epic of Gilgamesh from the eighteenth century B.C., often regarded as the earliest surviving work of great literature, tells the story of Gilgamesh’s quest for ever lasting life[1].

Just over two thousand years ago, China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang, obsessed over the search for an elixir for eternal life. Ironically, he thought that consuming mercury may well be the answer, and it is possible that this actually contributed to his death at the relatively young age of 49[2]. In fact, the Chinese tried all manner of things, and it is suggested that gunpowder was first formulated in the ninth century by Chinese alchemists still busy trying to cook up the elixir for eternal life[3].

Fast forward to the twelfth century and the Western world, and we read of the legend of the the lost Christian kingdom of Prester John, where Mr. John was said to have lived an extraordinarily long life due to his possession of the Fountain of Youth (oh, and a river of gold too!)[4]. Sadly the land of Prester John remains an undiscovered mystery.

In the sixteenth century, Ponce de Léon travelled even further afield in his quest for the elusive Fountain of Youth. Thought to have been an associate of Christopher Columbus on his second journey to the New World, he returned in 1513, travelling to what is now Florida, in search of the everlasting life[5]. He too never found it (Lucas Cranach the Elder has filled in the blanks for us with his 1546 painting of the Fountain of Youth depicted above).

From the mundane to the magical this is just a snapshot of humanity’s attempts to extend life. And in the modern age we have our new breed of alchemists and explorers. Silicon Valley billionaires have turned to science and experimental bio-hacking in a bid to live extended lives. The likes of Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos are spending a lot of money trying to live forever[6]. Dave Asprey is known for trying all manner of equipment and supplementation aimed at increasing his lifespan. Do we live longer in the modern era? What can we learn from those societies that do consistently live longer than average?

The Myth of Longevity in the Modern Era

From these esoteric practices to modern science and experimentation, we have tried any number of approaches to extending our lifespan. Have we made any progress or has it all been in vain? What does the future hold and is it possible to live much longer than we already do.

You could argue that we have had a certain degree of success. In the majority of the developed world life expectancy has increased throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries, and generally sits at around eighty years across both sexes[7]. However, it appears to have topped out, and is now trending back downwards. For example, in 2017 the average life expectancy for an American was 78.6 years, which is down a tenth of a year from the 2016 figure[8]. Arguably our “comfortable” modern lifestyles are breeding a whole new range of chronic illness and diseases that are making it harder for us to live longer.

Furthermore, one thread of modern science suggests that as things stand it may be impossible for humans to live for much beyond one hundred and twenty years or so[9]. Telomeres are disposable buffers that protect your chromosomes (think plastic tip on a shoelace). Each time a cell divides your telomeres shorten. Once they get too short the cell becomes senescent, it can no longer divide and it dies. You get the picture. Basically, once enough of your cells can no longer divide and start dying off, you too will die. Although it is worth noting that scientists are looking at methods of prolonging the lifespan of our telomeres[10].

This brings me to one final point. Modern man thinks he is vastly superior to his forefathers. We are lead to believe that the lives of our ancestors were far more brutish and short than ours, and that it was only post industrial revolution and into the modern tech era that we began to experience a vastly improved quality and quantity of life.

This may in fact be a conceit and misleading, in part due to simple maths and how life expectancy is calculated (it’s true that these days more of us live longer, pulling up the average life expectancy of our species)[11]. However, there are plenty of fairly compelling examples of our ancestors living to a ripe old age.

Whilst some claims are hard to verify and rather anecdotal they are plentiful and seem to offer enough consistency to suggest humans have always had the capacity to live up to and beyond one hundred years old. In a bid to offer some more tangible evidence to support this I’ll detail a an example that is not particularly far fetched, and seems to offer enough evidence to support claims that we’ve not really moved the dial that much in terms of how long we can live.

Back in ancient Rome, in the first century, Pliny wrote an entire chapter detailing the lives of people who lived for a notably long time[12]. Among them he lists he lists the consul M. Valerius Corvinos (100 years), Cicero’s wife Terentia (103), a woman named Clodia (115 ), and an actress called Lucceia who was still performing on stage at 100 years old.

Enter the Blue Zones

It is fairly clear that there will always be anomalies, and that environment and genetics will always play a role in how long any one particular individual can live. However, there are specific pockets around the globe where individuals within these specific societies collectively and consistently exhibit a particularly high life expectancy.

Dan Buettner is a longevity expert who has travelled the world researching the underlying habits of these societies that live the longest. He calls these longevity hotspots the Blue Zones. He originally presented his findings in a National Geographic article[13], and followed up in detail findings in his excellent book, unsurprisingly entitled The Blue Zones[14]. The specific regions in question are; Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece), and Loma Linda (United States of America).

What is particularly interesting is that Buettner was able to identify a number of common threads that ran through these different societies. This suggests that there are very specific things that individuals and societies can do to live longer. And better yet there is no need to search out the Fountain of Youth or invest in expensive equipment and drugs.

Buettner was able to distil this information into nine specific categories. What is particularly interesting is that whilst some of them are fairly obvious, such as diet and exercise, there are many other categories relating to community, faith and a sense of positive purpose that one would not naturally associate with longevity. These areas which modern science is now starting to explore, and I have included references below for those that wish to explore this research.

You will note that these categories are typically split between internal or physiological, and external or community, and often overlap. I’ve put them in my own order, starting with those incorporating the wider community and then narrowing down to the categories that are specifically related to the individual.

Put Family First

We tend to hide our elderly away in nursing homes, and loneliness is a silent killer. It is suggested that having a caring, supportive and positive family environment can give peace of mind, security, happiness, and companionship, all of which may contribute to living longer[15]. Make time for your loved ones, it will benefit you and them.

Belong to a Positive Community

You might be surprised to know that positivity has the power to help us longer, even more so within the context of an overwhelmingly positive community containing strong bonds between community members[16]. Connect with your neighbours, your colleagues. Make friends, be positive. It’s an enjoyable thing to do anyway and it may help you live a longer and happier life.

Have a Sense of Faith

I’m not a religious person, although I do consider myself a spiritual person. Therefore, I found this category particularly interesting. There is a strong correlation between faith and spirituality and longevity[17]. It links back to the point about positivity and community, and the following point around purpose. Seemingly, investing in your spiritual side gives you a reason to keep going. Find what works for you.

Find Purpose

On that note, we probably all know that one elderly relative was full of life and vitality until they retired, at which point they literally withered away and died. I saw it happen to my grandfather when he broke his leg and could no longer tend to his garden. Find and cling to your purpose as you grow older. Make sure you stay useful to yourself and society as a whole, as there is genuine evidence to suggest it will keep you young[18].

Minimise Stress

For most of us the world is a stressful place, and it is killing us[19]! Wether through meditation, breathwork or hanging out with friends and family, find a way to de-stress, relax, tap into your parasympathetic nervous system and allow your body and mind to rest and heal. This is also linked to getting good quality sleep, another facilitator of longevity, and you can read my detailed thoughts on that topic here and here.

Eat a Mainly Plant Based Diet

There are many benefits of a predominantly plant based diet[20], and this is seen throughout the Blue Zones. They tend to eat locally sourced, nutrient dense whole foods, predominantly plant based, with plenty of wild herbs and spices, and supported by high quality, natural sources of animal protein. Modern diet research and trends support this approach and most of us should be able to incorporate this approach into our own diets.

Eat Mindfully

It’s not just what we eat but how we eat. There are a few Blue Zone trends to note here. Firstly, there is no need to eat to excess. Caloric restriction is a key driver of longevity[21]. Secondly, chew food slowly as this allows digestive enzymes in the mouth to get to work on breaking the food down before it hits your stomach. Eat mindfully and slowly until you are about eighty percent full, and then stop. It’s also worth looking into the potential benefits of intermittent fasting, and I’ve covered that in detail here.

Drink Wine

What we drink can help us too. What many would consider the “Mediterranean” approach to alcohol consumption has been shown to increase longevity, reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and does not appear to influence the overall risk of cancer[22]. Wine is rich in antioxidants and has multiple benefits if consumed in moderation, so go ahead and enjoy a glass of wine with your dinner.

Move Naturally

Many of us are sat at a desk all day and then go hard for an hour at the gym. This is not how our ancestors operated and nor is it how the Blue Zone societies operate. Instead they tend to engage in a high volume of low level physical activity continuously throughout the day, which has been shown to contribute to longevity[23]. If you do have a fairly sedentary lifestyle then try and take the stairs rather than lift, get a standing desk, or set aside a ten minutes each hour for a brief stroll. Be creative, and keep moving.

Piecing It Together and Putting It Into Practice

When you compare and contrast, it is quite clear that all of these categories are parts of an integrated whole, a way of living. It is also worth noting that other commonalities across the Blue Zones include other factors such as being out in nature, getting plenty of sunshine and refraining from smoking. And there you have it, nine secrets (and a few extras) from the Blue Zones that may indeed help us live longer too.

Of course we do not live in the peaceful Blue Zones, blessed with great environment and often strong genes. Therefore, we will still be at the mercy of our environment and genetics to a certain degree. And I will leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions, but in my opinion it is well worth exploring these simple approaches to longevity. At the very least I’m sure we can all agree that regardless of any potential longevity benefits, it just sounds like a great and fun way to live.