There’s Nothing ‘Blue’ About ‘Bluezones’

There’s a concept I’ve seen tossed about in various articles lately called “blue zones,” or “blue zones living.” It’s an idea first examined by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic explorer, who with a team of demographers, scientists, and anthropologists, identified five areas of the world where people live the longest and healthiest. These “blue zones” — in as varied areas as Italy, Japan, California, Greece, and Costa Rica — have high numbers of centenarians (100+) and super-centenarians (110+).

Today, Buettner’s research has generated books, online courses, and consultant work with many cities around the world — places that bluezones.com recognizes as “certified bluezones communities” thanks to their efforts at community-wide healthy living. The basic tenet is this: good health is a community effort. And that community effort can transform the environments in which people live, work, learn, and play in order to improve community well-being, economic vitality, and resilience.

So What?

Bluezones.com often is invited to work with a community by local health systems in conjunction with city or county offices, and some recent projects have shown positive results. Developing a “bluezones” mindset seems to spur additional community involvement in food sharing programs, grant seeking for other projects, and the like. And according to bluezones.com’s data, people report feeling healthier, thanks to increased involvement in exercise, healthy eating, and other changes in lifestyle.

Some researchers disagree over whether Buettner’s findings are valid — a not-yet-peer-reviewed study found other factors may be at work in the five “bluezones” in the world. But many experts do agree on some of the main ingredients of living longer, healthier lives, and the results that can bring to an entire community.

Science + Community Are Making It So

In January of this year, Harvard Medical School shared the results of a 13-year study suggesting that the world may get one new medical treatment every decade that might reverse the aging of our cells by 10 years. This would delay illnesses — including heart disease, dementia, and cancer — and slow the aging process. What does the impact of such medical advances mean for us as older adults, and for our communities?

“I don’t think we should be thinking of 90-plus or even 100 as ‘extreme aging’ anymore,” clinical psychologist Michael Smyer told Andy Levinsky at The Boston Globe earlier this month. “We should be helping people prepare for this longevity.”

Key Bluezones Findings

Among the Bluezones principles that can become practices for healthy living:

  • Movement as a natural part of the day. Start slow if it has been a while since you did any regular movement, and slowly increase the amount over time. Find an activity friend if that helps, or set an alarm to remind you to stand up and walk around every hour or so.
  • Sense of Purpose. Also known as “why I wake up in the morning,” a strong sense of purpose was key to individuals in the five blue zones Buettner identified.
  • De-Stress. As The Lancet reported in 2022, stress and stress-related disorders can shorten life. So increasing a sense of well-being is important, whether via mindfulness or other spiritual practices or via friends, family, and community.
  • Community and social connections. PLOS Medicine reported in 2010 that individuals with stronger social relationships are 50 percent more likely to live longer than those who lack them. Choose social networks that support healthy behaviors.
  • Healthy lifestyle. Eat well — many experts today recommend a largely (though not necessarily exclusively) plant-based diet — and drink alcohol in moderation.

While it remains to be seen if the world’s five bluezones places really do measure up to the science, the basic idea of it takes an entire community of people working together to deliver health and well-being to all of its citizens rings true. If you start with yourself, improvements will happen in your interactions with others. And that can change the world.

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