What are the world's blue zones which may hold the key to living to 100 and beyond?

Key to longevity highlighted by research in five communities with greatest proportion of centenarians

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Areas around the world with the highest ration of people aged over 100 could hold the key to enable longer life among the wider population.

Research across 20 years in five communities in Italy, Japan, Costa Rica, Greece and California, known as blue zones, unearthed secrets to long life that could increase the numbers living healthier into old age elsewhere.

Blue zones are demographically confirmed, geographically defined areas with the highest percentage of centenarians, those who are at least 100 years old, compared with the rest of the world.

A very important aspect to healthy ageing is having sense of purpose and a reason to wake up in the morning
Dr Zemer Wang, medical director at DP World’s Aviv Clinics

Dan Buettner, an explorer and author, has studied five blue-zone communities around the world to understand more about why some people live considerably longer than others.

“The key factor across all the blue zones is that the centenarians living there did not wake up one morning and decide they wanted to live to 100,” Mr Buettner told The National.

“They simply lived in environments that nudged them into daily movement, encouraged social connectedness and plant-based eating – making the healthy choice not only easy, but unavoidable. We found that all the blue zones shared nine common characteristics that we feel create this environment of health.”

Demographers, anthropologists and epidemiologists found five blue zones around the globe: Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica, and Loma Linda in California.

The so-called power-nine universal factors are natural movement, a sense of purpose, reduced stress, eating in moderation, plant-based diets, moderate but sociable alcohol intake, a sense of belonging or faith, strong family connections and social circles that encourage healthy behaviour.

“The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron or run marathons,” said Mr Buettner.

“Instead, their environments nudge them into moving without thinking about it. Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy and the world’s longest-lived people have routines to shed stress.

“In Okinawa, Japan, the people have a mantra 'Hara hachi bu', said before meals as a reminder to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 per cent full. And while centenarians typically eat meat, it is only five times per month.

“Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers, especially if they share those drinks with friends, and attending faith-based services four times per month – no matter the denomination – adds up to 14 years of life expectancy.

“Centenarians put their families first. They keep ageing parents and grandparents nearby, commit to a life partner and invest in their children. We know the world’s longest-lived people chose or were born into social circles that support healthy behaviour.”

Obesity influence

Health-conscious friends can also add a positive influence, Mr Buettner said, while those with three close friends who are obese are said to be 150 times more likely to be obese themselves.

The findings show the environment around us plays a major role in sustaining good health into old age.

Experts said only 20 per cent of what determines how long we live is dictated by our genes, with the other 80 per cent driven by lifestyle and environmental factors.

“In these blue zones where people actually age or live for longer, you can see they have a lot of things in common,” said Dr Zemer Wang, medical director at DP World’s Aviv Clinics in Dubai, where reverse ageing research is being conducted.

“The first one is that they're all very physically active. So it can be in Sardinia, in a place where they herd their goats in the mountains, and people in their sixties and seventies are still walking up those mountains.

“And it has to do with calorie-deficient diets, where people do not eat until they're completely satiated on a regular basis. Another factor is low stress, good social connections and family values.”

According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report on longevity and ageing in Gulf populations, regional age distribution is relatively young compared to most developed nations.

In 2023, the median age in Japan, Denmark, Switzerland, the UK and US was 42, whereas that of Gulf countries was only 30.

The oldest person in the world is Spanish woman Marla Branyas Morera, who is 117.

In the top 10, three are from Japan, three from the US, with a Briton, Venezuelan and Brazilian making up the list.

“A very important aspect to healthy ageing is having a sense of purpose and a reason to wake up in the morning,” said Dr Wang.

“Whenever people retire, some all of a sudden become sick and then they die. This is not a myth. When you have less sense of purpose, you start to deteriorate.”

Rapidly ageing region

A recent PwC report covering the GCC showed those living in the Middle East were ageing at a significantly faster rate than populations in developed nations have done previously.

The trend has been driven by changes in fertility rates and lifespan.

A gleaming silver lining for healthy ageing is a longer working life that could invigorate economies with a later retirement age.

With more people working into later life, changes are being drafted in to increase the statutory retirement age across the world and curb stopping work early.

Life expectancy has increased from about 45 in 1850 to nearly 80 today and it is expected to keep rising.

Between 1840 and 2002, life expectancy increased by 2.5 years every decade due to significant advances in health care, sanitation, nutrition and education.

However, while the number of supercentenarians (those older than 110) has increased dramatically, their average age has not, indicating lifespan has not been greatly extended.

“Being healthy involves more than merely consuming appropriate nutritious foods, exercising and getting enough sleep,” said Dr Frank Lipman, a longevity researcher and proponent of biohacking to determine facets of healthy living at the Wellth Clinic in Dubai.

“Longevity is the accomplishment of a long life. We may hope for a long life so that we can spend many years with our loved ones or travel the world.

“However, living to a ripe old age does not always imply healthy or joyful longevity, particularly if it is accompanied by weakness or disease. If we are not thinking about how to live as long as possible in good health, we are missing the bigger picture.”

Updated: March 20, 2024, 9:06 AM