Freddie Mercury belted out this profound question, and now, researchers are wondering the same thing – but maybe more importantly, how do you live forever? How does one prolong lifespan, all the while remaining youthful and able-bodied, with sharp wits and one’s mobility intact?
Certain societies in the world have got it down-pat. That is to say, they’ve figured out the key to longevity, and have mastered the art of growing old gracefully.
And thanks to the research coming from the Blue Zones project, we’re getting a lot closer to the finding out the answer.
The Blue Zones Project is all the rage these days in the world of nutrition. A hot-topic, this concept was developed in 2004 as a result of National Geographic and longevity researchers teaming up with the aim to uncover the mystery of the astonishingly high life-expectancies of select societies around the world (1). These “pockets”, as referred to by researchers, each consist of communities in which certain characteristics and traits are shared, habitually passed down from generation to generation, and may hold the key to living a longer life.
So, who are these people, and how do they live so long?
Surprisingly, they don’t all live on the same continent. In actuality, they’re scattered all over the place, leading us to believe that maybe it is indeed the lifestyle these individuals lead, rather than simply a healthy diet or climate being the reason these people live so long.
At present, there are five known “Blue Zones” in the world: Ikaria (Greece), Loma Linda, in California, Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), and Nicoay, in Costa Rica. While all these communities are unique in their own ways, what really makes Loma Linda stand out is the fact that it is largely a Seventh Day Adventist community – and that other places in California surrounding the area did not share the same long-lifespans seen in the Loma Linda individuals. This leads us to believe that something in the lifestyle of those following this religion may have a great beneficial impact on the health and well-being of its followers.
But what is it really that all of these communities know that we don’t? What’s their secret? Why do the Seventh Day Adventists outlive others not following their religion? And why is it that in California, particularly, Loma Linda, they have such high life expectancies, compared to other places where the Adventists also live? How come Okinawa is home to some of the oldest people gracing this earth, and why does it have such low prevalence of heart disease, dementia, and cancers?
The answer to those questions can be speculated at this time, but not yet confirmed. The research in this field is ever-evolving, and as the project advances, the next few years will yield many new results and findings which will undoubtedly help us uncover the secrets these communities have known for generations.
Still, let’s take a minute to examine the shared habits of these long-living groups. The reasons they outlive the average North American could be attributed to the food consumed (commonly plant-based diets), the exercise they part-take in (daily physical activity), or the lack of stimulants (cigarettes, alcohol, etc.) consumed.
Most notably, however, it is to be said that a commonality of all these communities is the relationships they tend to, and the connections they make with others. One common denominator in these communities seems to be the emphasis on faith and family (1). Cognitive function is maintained through social engagement, and has been believed to affect nutritional intake of the centenarians (2). A study conducted in 2011 by Panagiotakos et al. found that many of the participants living in Ikaria aged over 90 years old did not live alone – rather, they part-took in co-habitation, with either relatives or spouse (3). Low scores of depression and loneliness were observed in this population, which is perhaps another factor affecting the overall well-being and once again hinting at the secret to their longevity (3). The study found low rates of smoking, high rates of physical activity, and lots of rest (afternoon naps all around!) were characteristic of the community (3). Combine these healthy habits with a Mediterranean diet, and we could be onto something big.
While this all may seem like nothing new, and in a sense, it’s really just a repeat of what we’ve always known – don’t smoke, eat less meat, eat more veggies, move your body, all that jazz – the research coming from The Blue Zones Project is still exciting and relevant, and may be bringing us one step closer to longer and healthier lives. If we all make little changes to our daily lives by taking cues from these communities through building strong and lasting relationships with others, napping more often, slowing down once in a while, and just enjoying the simple things in life, then maybe we too will age in a graceful manner, while realizing that it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to see a drastic change in overall health.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you believe that there really are secrets to longevity that can be uncovered, or do you think that genetics play the largest role in determining one’s lifespan?
(2) Davinelli, S., Willcox, D. C., & Scapagnini, G. (2012). Extending healthy ageing: nutrient sensitive pathway and centenarian population. Immun Ageing, 9(9).
(3) Panagiotakos, D. B., Chrysohoou, C., Siasos, G., Zisimos, K., Skoumas, J., Pitsavos, C., & Stefanadis, C. (2011). Sociodemographic and Lifestyle Statistics of Oldest Old People (>80 Years) Living in Ikaria Island: The Ikaria Study. Cardiology Research and Practice, 2011, 679187. doi:10.4061/2011/679187