Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Secrets of Longevity, what we can learn from "blue zones"

On the blog Get Rich Slowly, April Dykman recently posted about the oldest-old in the world and how they got that way. Spurned on by an article about Sardinia, she read about how National Geographic refers to Sardinia and a handful of other places around the world as "blue zones". These zones are areas of the world that have a disproportionately large number of people over 100 years old.

Now, I've never heard this term "blue zone" before, and I'm still not quite sure where it came from. Wikipedia does have an entry on the subject and cites this scientific article as the first reference in the scientific literature. The wikipedia content, however, is eerily similar to both the post on Get Rich Slowly and another website which appears to promote travel and learning about these areas but has a seriously commerical feel to it.

The "blue zones" they mention are:
  • Loma Linda, CA
  • Sardinia, Italy
  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica (from GRS)
  • Icaria, Greece (from GRS)
Anyway, what I found most interesting about these blue zones is the Venn diagram which appears to have originated on the Quest website, but is posted in Wikipedia, and is adapted in text on Get Rich Slowly. Bottom line is that the things held in common by all the areas are:
  1. Family (ie: good family history but also good social support)
  2. Absence of smoking
  3. Diet based on legumes and plants
  4. Moderate physical activity
Other population-based observations that some (but not all) of the "blue zones" have include:
  • Polyphenols in wine
  • Turmeric
  • Nuts
  • Abstinence from alcohol
  • Whole grains
  • Faith
  • Gardening
  • Empowered women
  • Low stress
  • Soy
At some point, I have heard evidence (of varying quality and consistency) for pretty much all these things in promoting health and increasing longevity. The evidence is not necessarily that strong, however. Take for example the observation of "wine" and "alcohol abstinence" as both being linked to health and longevity. This may reflect the fact that while alcohol can reduce risk of some diseases (such as cardiovascular disease) it increases the risk of others (such as liver disease and even just the likelihood of accidental death).

As such, my guess would be that there is not likely anything special about "blue zones", perhaps it is just that they happen to be areas where a lot of these healthy activities and behaviors are commonplace and encouraged socially (as opposed to the poor diet and inactivity that is promoted by elements of Western culture). I feel pretty confident in saying that if all of America just had the first four (unfortunately, you can't choose your parents), we would certainly be a much healthier nation and who knows we might all live to 100.

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