The World’s “Blue Zones” and How You Can Live to Be 100

By Dr Ernst
June 30, 2017

There’s a term that has taken hold in the health and longevity world: Blue Zones.

The term originated in 2005 in a National Geographic article. Then, the article’s author, David Buettner, turned it into a book called The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest

The Blue Zones are five geographic locations across the world with the highest concentration per capita of people over the age of 100. And here’s another term for that: centenarians. Obviously, this has all sorts of health implications when we ask the question: What do these regions and the people within them have in common? Or to put it another way: How can we adapt our lifestyle to live longer based on the lifestyle similarities of the people who live in the blue zones.

What’s interesting is that while things like diet and exercise DO play a role in what makes these blue zones similar, there are other factors outside of what’s directly linked to the physical body that play an important role. We’ll get into both of those things.

But first, where are these Blue Zones???

They are, in order of longest lived peoples to shortest (though still quite long):

  • Okinawa, Japan. This is an island part of the Japanese Ryukyu island chain that stretches South of mainland Japan, fairly close to China and the Koreas. The population of this island is 1.3 million and, at this point, there are 740 centenarians. That’s .06% of the population.
  • Sardinia, Italy. This island in the Medditerannean between Italy and France has a very long-lived population. Researchers have narrowed the blue zone on this island down to one village called Ovodda. Out of 1,700 people, five are over 100. That’s 0.3%.
  • Loma Linda, California. This community a bit inland from Los Angeles is distinctive for its community of 9,000 Seventh Day Adventists. People from this faith are encouraged not to smoke, drink or eat very much meat—though they aren’t forbidden from eating meat, many of them don’t and most of them eat less meat than the average American. Residents of Loma Linda are 10 times more likely than the average American to reach the age of 100.
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica – This is a peninsula on the West coast of Costa Rica that sticks out into the Pacific Ocean. People here are about twice as likely to reach 90 years-old than the world average.
  • Ikaria, Greece. The people on this Greek island right off the coast of Turkey are three times as likely as Americans to reach the age of 90.

For a better reference point, let’s list the 10 countries where people live the longest. In order, they are Japan, Macau, Monaco, San Marino, Singapore, Hong Kong, Spain, Switzerland, France and a tie between Australia and Israel.

Can you think of any interesting similarities here?


For one, MOST of these places are coastal. And I don’t mean they have a coast. I mean the majority of the population lives basically right on the ocean. Five of the top 10 longest-lived countries have a Mediterranean coastline, and two of the five Blue Zones are on the Mediterranean Sea. The only top 10 country without any sort of coastline is Switzerland. Their longevity is attributed to the fact that Switzerland is arguably the wealthiest country in the world, which means people can afford top-notch health care and a healthy diet.

Interestingly, most of the Blue Zones are fairly remote and difficult to get to. Okinawa is an island fairly far from mainland Japan. Ikaria is one of the furthest islands from mainland Greece. The region in Sardinia that is a Blue Zone is deep in the mountains—on an island. It’s more difficult and costly to ship processed foods to these areas. The residents tend to eat less of it and more of what’s naturally around them.

Food & Water

One interesting similarity (particularly among Mediterranean countries) is olive oil, olives and lamb–all healthy fats–as well as a healthy helping of red wine—which is high in the powerful antioxidant polyphenol.

Water quality appears to be a big factor as well. Ikaria, Greece is fed mostly by mineral spring water. European countries tend not to fluoridate their water (5 of the 10 longest-lived countries are European). And the 13th longest-lived country, Sweden, is said by the OECD to have the highest water quality in the world. The water in Nicoya, Costa Rica is noted for being high in calcium and magnesium.

For all of these countries, the consumption of refined sugars is relatively low compared to the rest of the world.

Fish is a main staple in all of the blue zones. Three are islands where fishing provides a significant percentage of the food supply. One is a peninsula sticking out into the ocean on the tiny country of Costa Rica with giant oceans on either side. The only place that isn’t directly on an ocean is Loma Linda, California. But while Seventh Day Adventists there tend to discourage eating meat, they have a much more tolerant view of eating fish and many of them consider themselves pescatarians.

In the long-lived Asian countries (Japan, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore), teas high in antioxidants are very common, particularly green tea.

Nutritionally, the top 10 longest-lived countries and the 5 Blue Zones seem to fall into two camps: European and Asian. Both camps are low sugar and high fish. And both tend to drink things high in antioxidants. In Asia, it’s tea. In Europe, it’s red wine. And all Blue Zone regions tend to have diets high in legumes.

Cultural factors

These places tend to be culturally isolated. This is, in most cases, due to geographical isolation. But in the case of Loma Linda, California, it’s more of a religious cultural isolation. This makes for tight-knit communities where people have close friends as well as extended networks they can rely on for social support and fun activities.

They tend to have their extended families closer and involved. Elderly moms and dads are more likely to live near—or even with—their children and grandchildren. The elderly are less likely (or not at all) to be put in places like nursing homes. It’s not uncommon for three generations to live in the same house.

There is less “time urgency,” meaning people sort of get to things whenever they get to them. This can be very annoying and strange to someone in the American culture where we are taught to respect the clock and we tend to rush around. This is a less stressful approach to life.

Interestingly, gardening is a common activity for these blue zone cultures. Again, it reduces and manages stress.

In all of these cultures (but to a lesser extent Costa Rica), women are more considered socially equal to men.

In all of these cultures, moderate physical activity is common—whether that’s being more likely to walk then drive, or to participate in gardening, or even to work as a farmer or sheepherder well into one’s 90s.

Faith is a big part of these cultures. The Seventh Day Adventists are the obvious example. But in Sardinia, most people attend Catholic Church. In Okinawa, they are influenced by many Eastern religions, but the most common is called Ryukyuan, which is a sort of ancestor worship or “ancestor respect”-based religion. And to bring it back to the role of women in society, in Ryukyuan religion, women are considered spiritually superior to men. In Ikeria, Greece, it’s Greek Orthodox. Costa Rica is largely Catholic as well.

Smoking rates are lower than average in all of these cultures.

Quick reference – How to live like you’re in a blue zone

  • Drink lots of water and, if possible, make it spring water or filtered water.
  • Eat more fish than most people. It’s the Omega 3s that are probably helping to extend lifespans.
  • Don’t eat sugar.
  • Don’t smoke. But drinking in moderation might actually help, especially if it’s red wine high in polyphenols.
  • Eat healthy oils like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, etc.
  • Spend time with your family and cultivate good family relationships.
  • Spend time with friends and be involved in your community.
  • Reduce your stress. Gardening seems to work in the Blue Zones, but it might be woodworking or playing a musical instrument for you—or something else! You know what works for you.
  • Involve your faith—whatever that might be—in your life.
  • Consume antioxidants, particularly teas and particularly green tea.
  • Get moderate exercise every day. And it seems like it’s the everyday part that is important. You don’t have to crossfit or lift free weights every day. It’s more important just to avoid being sedentary.

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