Guest Column: What is the Blue Zone?

RBC | I went to my aunt’s 100th birthday party last month. It was fantastic, nearly 50 family members attended. My aunt is still mobile, cognitively sharp, makes her bed every morning, exercises three to four times a week, attends church and is very outspoken. After blowing out candles on her cake, I asked her, “What is the secret to living to 100?” She thought for a minute and forcibly said “Eat your vegetables!” This is from a lady who defies all the typical social determinants.  She never learned to drive, but navigated metro Denver with three children using public transportation. School was difficult. She grew up during the Great Depression with less than optimal nutrition, she lived on a ranch where access to healthcare was virtually non-existent and women worked just as hard as the men. I’m sure it was more than just the vegetables.

In public health we are fascinated with Blue Zones in our nation and world. These are geographic areas with statistically many more centenarians than other areas. The concept grew out of demographic work done by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain who identified regions of high longevity in the world.  As the two men zeroed in on the villages with the highest longevity, they drew concentric blue circles on the map and began referring to the area inside the circle as the Blue Zone. National geographic brought the concept to the populous with their 2005 cover story “The secrets of a long life.” The blue zones identified were Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and a group of Seventh-day Adventists living in Loma Linda, Calif.

The commonalities of Blue Zones studied include:

1. People move naturally and often throughout the day — walking, gardening, working, etc.

2. Having purpose. The Okinawans call it ikigai and the Nicoyans call it plan de vida. Knowing why you wake up in the morning.

3. Stress is part of life, but Blue Zone centenarians have stress-relieving rituals built into their daily routines.

4. People stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full and eat their smallest meal in the evening.

5. Beans are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Vegetables, fruit and whole grains round out the rest of the diet and meat is eaten in small amounts.

6. Moderate, but regular consumption of wine (with friends and/or food) is part of the lifestyle.

7. Being part of a faith community adds years to life expectancy.

8. Having close and strong family connections.

9. Close friends and strong social networks

Many communities in the United States are determined to become Blue Zones, from Klamath Falls, Ore., to Naples, Fla., to Albert Lea, Minn. These communities are keenly aware of the economic impact of quality longevity. Happy, healthy, people who live long and prosper are great for the economy.

Could Rio Blanco County become a Blue Zone?  Public health staff are working hard to turn our shade to “blue,” but with limited staff, we need partnerships, volunteers and citizens willing to learn and change. Think about the list of nine mentioned and lets start planning our own 100th birthday parties!

By Julie Drake | Director of Public Health