The environment and culture in longevity-boosting Blue Zones offer aging guidance for everyone.
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senior woman at dinner table surrounded by family
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For people in most parts of the world, celebrating 100th birthdays for themselves, their family members, or their friends is rare. But in Blue Zones—those parts of the world with more centenarians than anywhere else—common environmental factors offer a healthy aging model for the rest of us to learn from. "There is not a pill for longevity or a fountain of youth, but only about 20 percent of how long the average person lives is dictated by our genes," says Dan Buettner, Blue Zones founder. "The other 80 percent is dictated by our lifestyle and environment. Making the choice to set up your environment for health is the best step."

What are Blue Zones?

Buettner, a National Geographic fellow and New York Times bestselling author, was working with a team of demographers, researchers, anthropologists, and epidemiologists when they found five regions where the number of men who lived to 100 outpaced the rest of the world: Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicooya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California. Buettner named these areas Blue Zones (after the color of the pen the team used to mark them on the map). Though the language and cultural details of each spot varied, Buettner identified a consistent element: "The key factor across all the Blue Zones is that the centenarians living there did not wake up one morning and decide they wanted to live to 100," he says. "They simply lived in environments that nudged them into daily movement and encouraged social connectedness and plant-based eating, making the healthy choice not only easy, but unavoidable."

What Makes a Blue Zone Lifestyle?

As Buettner and his team looked more closely at each Blue Zone, they found nine individual characteristics—which they dubbed the Power 9—that they believe contributed to residents' longevity. Some are practical habits for diet and fitness: In these zones, meals are primarily plant-based—heavy on beans, light on meats; people practice eating only until they are 80 percent full; and they drink wine in moderation ("Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers, especially if they share those drinks with friends," says Buettner). Instead of purposeful workouts, says Buettner, "Their environments nudge them into moving without thinking about it; the world's longest-lived people don't pump iron or run marathons."

Other characteristics focused on attitude and mental health. A sense of purpose increases life expectancy by seven years, says Buettner, while "attending faith-based services four times per month, no matter the denomination, adds up to 14 years of life expectancy." Developing habits to manage stress can help prevent chronic inflammation, a key factor in age-related disease. Community is also important in these areas: "Centenarians put their families first: They keep aging parents and grandparents nearby, commit to a life partner, and invest in their children," says Buettner. And they surround themselves with people who live a healthy lifestyle, too: "They chose—or were born into—social circles that support healthy behaviors."

What Can You Learn from Blue Zones?

The concept of Blue Zones inspired olive oil expert Katerina Mountanos to start her own company, Kosterina, importing extra virgin olive oil directly from Greece, where her family is from. The company's entire line—olive oil, balsamic vinegars, dark chocolate bars, olive oil cake, and natural skin care products—relies on early-harvested olives rich in natural antioxidants. "I think we can all aim to integrate some of the simple behaviors from Blue Zone way of life in the name of our health and happiness," she says. "The people of the Blue Zones enjoy life! They eat delicious foods, but nothing processed, they sleep as much as they need to, they move naturally, and they sit down to family dinners and coffee with friends regularly. They invest in their relationships and are constantly surrounded by friends and family that they love. It gives them purpose in life."

Buettner's Blue Zones books ($13.98, amazon.com) offer tips and recipes for modeling your own environment after the Blue Zones lifestyle, while the company's community initiatives work toward improving public health across the United States. Pulling essential lessons—even small ones—from Blue Zones can increase your individual lifespan, too, says Buettner. "Find a group of health-conscious friends," he says. "De-convenience your home so you are gardening and doing housework by hand, get a standing desk, or do your meetings while walking, get a dog, make a few meals a week completely plant-based, and put fruits and vegetables on the counter in sight." All of these tweaks add up: "The healthy choice becomes not only easy," he says, "but unavoidable."

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