The “Blue Zone”: Secrets to living a longer and better life

Written by Shonagh Walker for Australian Seniors. 

According to Blue Zones, a team of demographers and researchers that study places in the world where people live the longest and healthiest lives, key places of longevity include Okinawa, Japan, Sardinia, Italy and Ikaria, Greece. These places are officially known as ‘blue zones’.

Japan’s ingredients for a longer life

The Okinawa islands at the southern end of Japan are known for their low rates of cancer, heart disease and dementia. They are also renowned for having the longest-living population of women on the planet. Okinawans enjoy a strong dedication to friends and family, maintaining ‘moai’, which is a lifelong circle of friends that supports people well into their senior years.

Okinawan people are active their entire lives. Whether it is walking or gardening, they enjoy daily exercise that offers a wide range of motion and also helps to reduce stress. And they also enjoy a special diet. According to Blue Zones, “Older Okinawans have eaten a plant-based diet most of their lives. Their meals of stir-fried vegetables, sweet potatoes and tofu are high in nutrients and low in calories.”

Melbourne-based nutritionist and naturopath Karina Francois certainly approves. “You simply cannot go past this kind of eating,” she says.

An image of a street in Sardinia in the Blue Zone

Drink wine like a Sardinian

A cluster of villages on Sardinia is another one of the Blue Zones. According to data collected by Blue Zones, 93% of male centenarians drink wine every day (almost twice the Italian average), while the classic Sardinian diet comprises wholegrain bread, beans, garden vegetables, fruits and mastic oil (extracted from the resin of a plant).

“Eating a diet rich in plant foods provides us with important nutrients, phytochemicals and fibre, which are cornerstones for good health and wellbeing,” says Sydney based nutritionist Fiona Tuck.

“Including small amounts of wine, particularly red wine, adds polyphenols [a micronutrient packed with antioxidants] to the diet.”

Eat and sleep the Mediterranean way

Also known as “the island where people forget to die”, Ikaria in Greece enjoys an isolated culture rich in tradition, family values and longevity. It is reported that Ikaria is almost entirely free of dementia, and that one in three folks make it to their 90s.

While this can be put down to a number of factors, it is their diet that seems to add years to their lives. Ikarians enjoy strong red wine in moderation, which is high in the antioxidant resveratrol and also eat a variation of the Mediterranean diet, with an abundance of fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, beans, potatoes and olive oil. “The Mediterranean diet has been proven time and again to be the best for our health,” says Fiona.

They also enjoy the lovely European tradition of an afternoon nap, which according to Harvard Medical School improves learning, memory and creative thinking.

Finally, fasting comes into play. While we are all currently crazy about intermittent fasting in western society, Ikarians belong to the traditional Greek Orthodox church, which recommends regular fasting periods.

“Calorie restriction and fasting can help keep weight in balance, but it also may have other longevity benefits,” says Fiona. “It is thought to assist with blood sugar regulation, cholesterol, insulin sensitivity and gut health.”

Read more about seniors and their opinions on increasing life expectancy and what this means for society in the Australian Seniors Series: 100 Year Lifespan report