William Miller, MD
Living Longer and Healthier: Part 3. Blue Zones
The Blue Zones Project is based on the idea that by studying communities in the world that have a disproportionately high percentage of people living over the age of 100, common themes might be identified that could then be adopted by other communities to promote health and wellbeing. It started with the work of two researchers of longevity, Michel Poulain and Giovanni Mario Pes. They were studying men living in Sardinia, Italy, who were over the age of 100 (centenarians) and observed that these people appeared to be concentrated in a particular area of the island, which they referred to as a “blue zone” so named because they drew a blue circle around the area on their map. In 2004, they published their findings in the journal Experimental Gerontology.
This observation was then written about by National Geographics journalist, Dan Buettner, who teamed up with Poulain to attempt to identify other similar communities with unexpectedly high rates of centenarians. Together, they have identified five communities that they have dubbed Blue Zones. They are Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece), and Loma Linda (California, US).
After interviewing many of the centenarians in these communities, the two believe that they have identified some common themes. These include close family relationships, community engagement, a plant-based diet (especially legumes), consuming modest sized meals and staying active by regularly engaging in moderate physical activity. Buettner, who then founded the Blue Zones organization, has written several books describing their observations and promoting Blue Zones as a model for other communities to adopt.
The Blue Zones Project is a movement to help communities to create a supportive environment that educates community members about the Blue Zones principles and encourages people to incorporate these principles into daily living. The original principles have been further developed into what Blue Zones refers to as the Power 9. First is developing a sense of connectiveness with others including developing a sense of belonging, putting loved ones first and surrounding oneself with others on a similar journey towards better health and wellness. Next is eating healthy which includes having a diet that is slanted towards plant-based foods, but does not rule out eating a small amount of meat, a moderate amount of alcohol consumption if one is so inclined and eating smaller portions. Next is placing importance on one’s sense of purpose in life and following a practice to reduce stress such as meditation or walking in nature. Lastly, staying physically active in natural ways such as hiking and working in a garden.
In April 2020, Adventist Health acquired Blue Zones as part of its mission to improve the overall wellness of the communities in which they serve. Scott Reiner, then CEO of Adventist Health explained the rational for the acquisition as looking into the future of healthcare where the goal should be to keep people healthy by creating easy access to healthy lifestyles. He went on to say that this is part of Adventist Health investing in communities to improve people’s overall wellbeing.
The hope is to bring Blue Zones to all communities in Mendocino County. Last month marked the kick-off for Blue Zones on the Coast. The plan includes hosting workshops to help people learn about the Power 9. To sponsor events, such as walking tours, hikes, cooking classes and more to help folks get started. There will be groups formed to bring local community people together to support each other in making lifestyle changes. There is also planned outreach to local restaurants to promote healthy options on menus.
There are critics of the claims promoted by Blue Zones. One criticism is that the claims are largely observational, based on interviews of locals and have not been subjected to rigorous scientific analysis. For example, the fact that a community has a high proportion of centenarians and that they also follow a particular diet does not automatically indicate a causal relationship.
Having said that there have been numerous studies looking at nutrition and health that support the concepts espoused by Blue Zones even though the studies did not specifically involve the Blue Zones diet. The nutritional concepts that have been scientifically shown to be beneficial include reducing fried foods, avoiding highly processed foods, avoiding foods high in added sugar and pursuing diets where red meat is not the central part of the meal. There have been 58 communities in the US that have adopted Blue Zones projects. There has been evidence that some of these communities have been successful in reducing childhood obesity as a specific goal, which we know is a major risk factor for developing diabetes. Other Blue Zones communities have reduced cigarette smoking which is known to contribute to the development of heart and lung disease as well as many cancers.
Another area of research that supports the concepts of Blue Zones as a community project deals with lifestyle changes. We all know that making such changes can be very difficult. However, it has been shown that being surrounded by a supportive group of people who are also working in a similar direction can be very successful in helping us bring about such changes. Many Blue Zone participants report a greater sense of well being and happiness in their lives as a result of the sense of community and stress reduction that they achieved.
“The engaging Blue Zone journey creates pathways for making the healthy choice the easy choice,” says Judy Leach, Adventist Health Mendocino County Well-Being Executive and President of Adventist Health Mendocino Coast. “The 5-year project towards Blue Zone community certification will focus on people, places and policy. With a goal of helping people live longer, better - schools, restaurants, grocery stores and city sponsored infrastructure will join together in creating easy access for heathy options.”
Whether or not one chooses to fully embrace the Power 9, it certainly seems that they all make a lot of good, common sense. If we can come together as a community to support healthy living, then that also seems like a good idea. You can learn more about Blue Zones in Mendocino by visiting the website https://mec.bluezonesproject.com/home .