There are five rare places in the world where people live longer, happier and more fulfilled lives, and two of them very close to us - in Italy and Greece. But why are these zones hotspots of longevity and good quality life, and what do the people who live there have in common?
For more than a decade, researcher and author Dan Buettner has been researching areas where the concentration of people over 100 is highest and where people are ageing without major health problems. In his research, he found that the secret of these hotspots is actually very simple: blue zone residents focus on values that reinforce social responsibility and promote a simple lifestyle.
They exercise frequently, avoid stress and eat a mainly vegetarian diet. They place great emphasis on family, spending time in nature, socialising and laughing, which gives them a sense of love and belonging. In addition, they live in close proximity to the sea and are able to enjoy beautiful views every day.
Doesn't sound so bad, does it? We could certainly learn a lot from the locals ourselves, and we're sure we'd all benefit from a visit to these beautiful places.
Where in the world are the Blue Zones?
Daily walking and lots of laughs accompanied with a glass of red wine.
A cluster of villages in the Ogliastra region on the eastern tip of this Italian island is considered the first recognised Blue Zone and home to the world's longest-living men. Why is this so?
A traditional way of life
Researchers began investigating the area in 2004 and found that its geographical location had left its people both genetically and culturally isolated. They have maintained a very traditional and healthy lifestyle; they still fish and hunt, they still grow their food, and they remain strongly connected to friends and family throughout their lives.
Sardonic wit and quality red wine
Sardinians are known for their specific sense of humour, so it is not surprising that they often laugh and enjoy a glass of red wine in the company of friends. They also drink goat's milk, which is high in nutrients and contains ingredients that protect against heart disease and Alzheimer's.
Vegetarian diet and lots of walks
The classic Sardinian diet consists of wholemeal bread, beans, garden vegetables, and fruit, with meat mainly reserved for Sundays and special occasions. Since most Sardinians have spent their lives as shepherds, they are used to long daily walks, which they continue to practise even after retirement.
Mediterranean cuisine, outdoor activities and socialising over tea (and red wine).
The small and rocky Greek island of Ikaria is known as "the island where people forget to die". The recipe for a long and healthy life for the islanders lies in their rich culture and traditional way of life.
A relaxed pace and many outdoor activities
Today, Ikarians are almost entirely free of dementia and other chronic diseases that are so prevalent in modern and fast-growing environments, and one in three people make it to their 90s. This can be attributed to a simple lifestyle that includes, among other things, drinking strong red wine, playing dominoes in the fresh air, and a relaxed pace of life that ignores clocks.
Herbal teas and afternoon naps as part of everyday life
The island has a varied Mediterranean-style diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, wholemeal cereals, potatoes, and olive oil. They also enjoy natural herbal teas, such as wild rosemary or oregano. Ikarians never skip their afternoon nap, which has a beneficial effect on stress hormone levels, which, after all, also influence heart disease.
Family and friends come first
Instead of cow's milk, Ikarians use use grass-fed goat’s milk, which is also hypoallergenic and as such a good choice for lactose-intolerant people. And last but not least, as in Sardinia, making social connections a priority and being connected to the community and family comes first.
Linda Loma, California
Volunteering, walking, and health as priorities
In this sunny area of Southern California, about 9000 people are members of a community that views health as central to their faith. As a result, they live as much as a decade longer than others in the US, and their longevity is largely due to vegetarianism, regular exercise and not drinking alcohol.
Lots of walks and healthy nuts
Similar to the first two areas, people in Loma Linda are active and walk a lot, which is why the rate of heart diseases, as well as some tumours, is the lowest in the country. They are basically vegetarians, meat is rarely on their menu, and they base much of their diet on nuts, fruit, vegetables, and whole-grain cereals. They swear by a rich healthy breakfast and a light dinner in the early evening.
Loma Linda residents strongly emphasise the importance of socialising with like-minded people who share their values. They also care a great deal about making others feel good and fulfilled in their company, and volunteer as a way of showing their gratitude to the community. This gives a deeper meaning to their lives and keeps them from depression.
4Linda Loma, California
Moai, Ikigai and the present moment.
The islands at the southern end of Japan have historically been known for longevity, once called the land of immortals. The largest island in this archipelago is Okinawa, known for having the longest-living women in the world. According to researchers, perhaps their greatest secret to longevity is their strong dedication to friends and family.
Okinawans maintain a very powerful social network called "moai". It is a small but strong circle of friends who support each other throughout their lives. They care for each other, provide financial and emotional support in times of need, and a sense of security that helps reduce stress.
Ikigai as a recipe for longevity
Okinawans also have a strongly formed sense of meaning and purpose in life, a driving force that the Japanese call "ikigai". Ikigai gives them a clear role, responsibility, and a sense that they are still important members of society, whatever their age.
They rely mostly on a plant-based diet and almost all residents have a garden where they grow mainly ginger, turmeric and sweet potatoes. Gardening allows them to spend a lot of time outdoors, be physically active and helps reduce stress while providing them with a constant source of fresh vegetables. The Okinawan diet is also rich in soy-based dishes such as tofu and miso soup. Flavonoids in tofu may help protect the hearts and guard against breast cancer. Fermented soy foods contribute to a healthy intestinal ecology and offer even better nutritional benefits.
Okinawans are fulfilled people, their philosophy is based on being in the present moment - they’re able to let difficult early years remain in the past while they enjoy today’s simple pleasures.
Nicoya, Costa Rica
The best quality food in the world, lots of socialising and a "plan de vida".
Another area whose inhabitants know the key to a good quality of life. On Costa Rica's peninsula Nicoya, residents boast a quality lifestyle, including economic security and excellent health care.
Plan de vida
One of the secrets to longevity for the people of Nicoya is their "plan de vida", or life plan - the reason they wake up in the morning. The Plan de vida propels a positive outlook on life, especially among the elderly, and helps keep them active.
Lots of laughter and gratefulness
They also have a strong focus on family, friends and neighbours, they know how to listen, laugh, and appreciate what they have. Nicoyan centenarians get frequent visits from neighbors and usually live with their children and grandchildren, who provide support and a sense of purpose and belonging. Despite their years, they feel useful and eager to contribute to their community.
Keeping it light and varied
The islanders drink hard water, which has the country's highest calcium content, perhaps explaining their low rate of heart disease, as well as stronger bones. They also spend a lot of time in the sun, which helps to produce vitamin D. Their diet is varied, but the vast majority consists of rice, maize, beans and fruit. They tend to eat lighter meals with fewer calories, especially at dinner.
6Nicoya, Costa Rica
Scientists have repeatedly confirmed that travel is essential for our health and well-being, but a visit to one of the Blue Zones can deepen even more our sense of purpose, belonging and peace. So what will be your next destination? ✈️❤️