Updated 06 September 2016

People live longer in the 'Blue Zones'

It t is difficult to pinpoint all the factors that will result in a long and healthy life, but our genetics, environment, and lifestyle factors certainly play a big role.


Ever wondered what it takes to extend the number of years you live and to ensure that you enjoy good health well into your old age?

If you have, you are not alone as researchers have been looking for years at what it takes to live longer. Longevity, however, is not a simple concept, given that many factors can and do influence our life expectancy and how our bodies age. These factors can be related to our genetics, environment, and lifestyle factors (stress, physical activity and nutrition) to name only a few.

Read: Lifestyle choices influence longevity

What are the Blue Zones?

In 2004, Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author, together with National Geographic discovered five places in the world where people live longer and better lives. These areas have been named the “Blue Zones”.

They found that people in these areas reach the age of 100 up to 10 times more than in the United States. On finding these areas, they took teams of scientists to each of these places to explore which lifestyle characteristics may explain their longevity.

The ‘Blue Zone’ areas are dispersed around the world and are listed below. Follow the links to read Dan Buettner’s summaries of what might explain the longevity of the people living in these areas:

Ikaria, Greece – a small Mediterranean island

Loma Linda, California – a sunny California town

Nicoya, Costa Rica - a peninsula region of Costa Rica, Central America

Sardinia, Italy – an island in the Mediterranean Sea

Okinawa, Japan - a long stretch of islands between the four main islands of Japan and Taiwan

What diet and lifestyle habits do these areas have in common?

Buettner shares what he believes are the nine common diet and lifestyle habits in these areas in a TED talk.

A recently published scientific article suggests that the lifestyle habits common to these populations are:

  • High levels of daily physical activity (e.g. gardening and walking)
  • A positive attitude (e.g. having a sense of purpose and moments of their day that include a break or ‘sense of calm’)
  • A diet that is largely plant-based (e.g. vegetables, wild plants, fruit) and low consumption of meat products

When looking at their diets, the authors conclude that they all share similarities with the Mediterranean diet, which has been extensively studied. This diet is characterised by consumption of seasonal foods, with olive oil and nuts as the main source of fat in the diet, large amounts of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, legumes, whole grains and moderate amounts of fish poultry and wine (not in excess) and is underpinned by daily activity.

Read: Mediterranean diet keeps seniors' minds healthier

It is important to note that their intake of red meat and meat products were low. The Okinawan diet, for example, has been described as being one that contains largely root vegetables (sweet potatoes), green and yellow vegetables, soy-bean based foods and medicinal plants. These characteristics are shared with Mediterranean diet and other similar dietary patterns.

What are the key aspects of these diets that have been linked to healthy ageing?

The healthy fats in these diets, i.e. mainly mono unsaturated fats, have been linked to reduced inflammation, optimal cholesterol levels and other factors that reduce risk for chronic disease. In addition, plant-based diets tend to be high in nutrients and lower in energy which results in a lower energy intake with a high intake of anti-oxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre.

All these nutrients contribute to lower blood glucose responses, lower inflammation levels and oxidative stress levels that contribute to reduce the risk for chronic age-associated diseases, and therefore promote healthy ageing and longevity.

It is however exceptionally important to recognize that it is not single nutrients in foods (e.g. a certain vitamin or mineral), but rather a combination of a variety of nutrients present in these healthy foods that contribute to health and longevity. Research has also established that following this healthy dietary pattern over an extended period of time, together with additional lifestyle or other non-food factors that determines our health.

Read: Healthy lifestyle fights ageing

Other research has suggested that the following simple rules can establish a dietary pattern for longevity: “Eat foods mostly from plant origin, not too much, in colourful variety, maximizing nutrients per bite.”

This means that we should be eating whole foods in a minimally processed form, eating a plant-centred diet, eating the right amounts for energy balance, using colour as a clue to increasing phytonutrient intake, and increasing the variety of foods we eat. In essence, we should focus on foods that are going to provide a lot of nutrients vs. energy (kilojoules) alone.

Can we say which diet is best for health?

David Katz of Yale University recently published a paper reviewing a number of dietary patterns to determine whether we can truly say which type of diet is best for health. The conclusion he reached was that if diet is seen as an overall dietary pattern instead of a set of strict principles, it is possible to say which diet is best for health. The evidence points to diets that:

  • Are made up of minimally processed foods direct from nature, or foods made up of these ingredients
  • Are made up mostly from plants
  • Contain animal foods that are themselves the products of pure plant foods

It was also concluded that this same dietary pattern is favourable for health promotion and prevention across the board, and that placing the emphasis on one particular food or nutrient is not advisable.

For more detail about how this can be translated into real foods on your plate, contact a registered dietitian.

Read more:

Scientists spot longevity gene

Mediterranean diet increases longevity in women

Watch grandpa’s pace for longevity


  2. The links outlining the lessons learned in each of the ‘Blue Zones’ are excerpts from Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from The People Who’ve Lived The Longest by Dan Buettner, 2008.
  3. Chrysohoou C, Stefanadis C. (2013) Longevity and Diet. Myth or pragmatism? Maturitas 76: 303-307.
  4. Jacobs D.R., Orlich M.J. (2014). Diet pattern and longevity: do simple rules suffice? A commentary. Am J Clin Nutr 100(suppl): 313S-9S.
  5. Katz D.L., Meller S. (2014). Can we say which diet is best for health? Annu Rev Public Health 35: 83-103.
  6. Wilcox D.C., Scapaginini G, Wilcox B.J. (2014). Healthy aging diets other than the Mediterranean: A focus on the Okinowan diet. Mechanisms of Ageing and Development 136-137: 148-162.


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