Is there a key to living a long and healthy life?
A popular answer to this question has looked to so-called Blue Zones, a nonscientific term given to geographic regions where people supposedly have higher longevity, according to a 2016 review published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine (opens in new tab).
The longevity hotspot concept was first outlined in a 2004 study published in the journal Experimental Gerontology (opens in new tab). Researchers identified the Italian island of Sardinia as the region with the highest concentration of male centenarians, or people who live to be 100 or older.
Building on this work, National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner and other researchers identified four more longevity hotspots. Although the regions are geographically and culturally distant from one another, these Blue Zones share a lot of characteristics, which may be the key to understanding why their inhabitants tend to live longer, Buettner proposed in his 2008 book “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.”
However, the idea of Blue Zones has been called into question. A 2019 preprint study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, suggested that people in the Blue Zones may not live longer than their counterparts after all. Instead, the high number of recorded supercentenarians, or those older than 110, in these regions might be due to poor record keeping or even pension fraud.
If the notion of Blue Zones is iffy, do any of the factors Buettner identified hold up? Some, it turns out, are based on solid science, while others have much less scientific backing. And much of the research suggesting health or longevity benefits from certain lifestyle factors is based on observational evidence, so it’s not possible to prove that these lifestyle factors are truly what cause people in these regions to live longer.
Where are the Blue Zones?
In his book, Buettner described five known Blue Zones:
- Icaria: A small Greek island in the Aegean sea
- Ogliastra, Sardinia: A region of an Italian island in the Mediterranean
- Okinawa: An island off the coast of Japan
- Nicoya Peninsula: A peninsula in eastern Costa Rica
- The Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda: A community in the hilly valleys of California
What do the Blue Zones have in common?
According to Buettner, there are nine common features of Blue Zones:
Physical activity: Blue Zone centenarians maintain high levels of physical activity and frequently engage in manual labor. For example, Sardinia’s community of shepherds is known to walk more than 5 miles (8 kilometers) a day.
Purpose: Okinawans call it “ikigai,” and Nicoyans call it “plan de vida,” both of which convey the idea “why I wake up in the morning.” This sense of purpose is deemed to be the source of life satisfaction, which contributes to a longer and happier life.
Sleep: Blue Zones centenarians prioritize rest and sleep. For example, Ikarians are known to take midafternoon naps, while the Loma Linda community recognizes the Sabbath, or a day of rest and worship, once a week.
The 80% rule: People living in Blue Zones do not tend to overeat. The name of the rule stems from an old Okinawan mantra spoken before meals, which reminds people to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full.
Plant-based diet: The diet of Blue Zone centenarians is based largely on plants.
Moderate alcohol consumption: Buettner believed that moderate alcohol consumption of some Blue Zone centenarians contributed to their long life span.
Sense of community: Strong community ties promote longevity, according to Buettner. For example, Okinawans are known to create secure social networks that provide financial and emotional support to the community members.
Loved ones first: Strong family ties are the cornerstone of Blue Zones communities. For example, the Seventh Day Adventists live in tight-knit communities where children take care of their aging parents.
Social encouragement: Blue Zones centenarians live in social networks that promote healthy behaviors, thus making it easier to stick to a healthy lifestyle, Buettner suggested.
What science says about the Blue Zones
The science suggests people in the Blue Zones don’t necessarily live longer. For instance, while people in Japan have the highest longevity of any country in the world, men in Okinawa don’t live as long as their counterparts elsewhere in the country, on average, according to a 2012 study in the journal Gerontology (opens in new tab).
However, some of Buettner’s overall conclusions about what factors may increase longevity still hold up. For instance, he argued that lifestyle factors are more important for human longevity than genetics are — a statement largely supported by evidence. According to a 2018 article published in the journal Genetics (opens in new tab), the heritability of human longevity may be as low as 10%, while the National Library of Medicine website MedlinePlus (opens in new tab) suggests that genes contribute about 25% to differences in lifespan between people.
When it comes to physical activity and risk of mortality, the evidence is fairly unanimous: Highly active people are less likely to die prematurely, according to a 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the journal Preventive Medicine (opens in new tab).
Nutrition has the potential to support healthy longevity, said Annette Creedon, a registered nutritionist and nutrition manager at the British Nutrition Foundation (opens in new tab).
“It is estimated that one in five deaths globally is linked to having a poor diet, and an unhealthy dietary pattern is associated with several chronic conditions, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain cancers,” she told Live Science in an email.
Blue Zones are very consistent in the types of foods they include, Creedon said. Common themes include a high intake of plant foods (including fruits, vegetables and whole grains), protein sources (including plant-based proteins, such as legumes, nuts and seeds), and some seafood, poultry, lean meat, low-fat dairy products and unsaturated oils (such as olive oil).
“Studies (opens in new tab) have found that healthy plant-rich dietary patterns are associated with reductions in the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, as well as death from all causes,” Creedon said.
Evidence also supports the claim that calorie restriction may promote longevity, according to a 2020 review published in the journal Ageing Research Reviews (opens in new tab). The “80% rule” may improve risk factors involved in the development of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and neurological disorders, the review authors suggested.
Contrary to Buettner’s claims, current research indicates that moderate alcohol consumption does not help people live longer. According to a 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (opens in new tab), moderate drinking does not reduce mortality, and low-volume drinkers may appear healthy only because the “abstainers” tend to avoid alcohol because they have other health conditions.
Moreover, contrary to some popular claims, wine does not appear to produce a different mortality rate compared with other types of alcohol, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (opens in new tab). And while scientists in the past argued that compounds in wine known as polyphenols may be beneficial for health, there is still a lack of solid evidence that wine polyphenols contribute to a longer life span, according to a 2020 review published in the journal Molecules (opens in new tab).
Having a high sense of purpose may help extend a person’s life span, according to a 2016 meta-analysis published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine (opens in new tab). Sense of purpose was related to a reduced risk of dying from any cause and a reduced risk of cardiovascular events. However, further research is needed on the mechanisms linking life purpose to health outcomes.
On the flip side, stress and stress-related disorders vastly increase the risk of all-cause mortality, according to a 2022 meta-analysis published in the journal The Lancet (opens in new tab).
However, the notion that daytime napping promotes longevity may not be correct, according to a 2015 meta-analysis published in the journal Sleep (opens in new tab). On the contrary, napping for more than an hour a day is linked to a higher risk of mortality, the researchers found.
Excessive daytime sleepiness could also be a sign of a condition known as hypersomnia. If someone is regularly napping throughout the day but still feeling tired, it is important to speak to a medical professional.
Research largely supports Buettner’s claim that strong social connections and close community ties promote longevity.
According to a 2010 meta-analysis published in the journal PLOS Medicine (opens in new tab), individuals with stronger social relationships are 50% more likely to live longer than those who lack them. This was calculated as an odds ratio (OR) — the ratio of the chances of an event happening in one group to the chances of the same event happening in the second group. Put another way, an OR of 1.5 means that by the time half of a hypothetical sample of 100 people has died, there will be five more people alive with stronger social relationships than people with weaker social relationships.
The strongest association was found for social integration — a measure of one’s engagement in their community. These results were consistent regardless of age, sex, health status or cause of death.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Tuesday, Feb. 14 to correct the definition of supercentenarians. They are older than 110, not 1100.