Secrets of the Blue Zones: where people live longer, healthier lives

Secrets of the Blue Zones: where people live longer, healthier lives

From left: Deborah Winn-Horvitz, JAA president & CEO; Tony Buettner, keynote speaker; and Mitchell Pakler, JAA board chair. 
(Photo by Sandy Reimer)
From left: Deborah Winn-Horvitz, JAA president & CEO; Tony Buettner, keynote speaker; and Mitchell Pakler, JAA board chair. (Photo by Sandy Reimer)

“Eighty percent of living longer is in your control,” according to Dan Buettner, researcher and author. “Only about 10 to 20 percent of how long we live is dictated by our genes.”

In America, 1.7 people in 10,000 live to 100. In Okinawa, Japan, 6.5 people in 10,000 live to 100. In Okinawa, the rates of heart disease and cancer are a fifth of what they are in the United States. Obesity and diabetes are rarely found.

In America, 1 in every 4 deaths is from heart disease; heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. In Ikaria, Greece, people have almost no dementia, 20 percent less cancer and 50 percent less heart disease than the American population. And they live eight years longer on average.

Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, Calif., outlive other Americans by about 10 years on average.

Buettner, with a team of anthropologists, demographers, epidemiologists and other researchers, scoured the world for locations where people live to be 100 — in good health — searching for the secrets of their health and longevity.

They identified five locations that have the highest concentrations of centenarians in the world: they dubbed these locations Blue Zones. These certified Blue Zones are Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, Calif. But Blue Zone residents don’t just live longer, they are more active well into their 90s and 100s.

To what do these nonagenarians and centenarians owe their superb health and longevity?

This was the topic of the talk given by Tony Buettner, head of Business Development for Blue Zones and brother of Dan. Tony Buettner was in Pittsburgh recently as the keynote speaker at the Jewish Association on Aging’s Annual Meeting, discussing his brother’s research and findings.

A new, significant project of the JAA was also introduced at the Meeting: a memory-care project for alzheimer’s disease and dementia based on the work of Dr. John Zeisel, a nationally renowned geriatric researcher. Called The ‘I’m Still Here’ Approach, it is a nonpharmacologic approach to dementia care.

The event also recognized the exceptional contributions of Dan Leger, R.N., recipient of the Volunteer of the Year Award, and reported on the finances and activities of the JAA.

Following Buettner’s talk, the audience was treated to a variety of tasty Blue Zone-style salads, kosher and parve, such as chick pea salad, roasted beets, hummus and edamame salad. These dishes incorporated many of the foods common in these long-lived communities. Beverly Brinn, director of development at JAA, points out that “the research substantiates that eating foods of this type does prolong life.” In addition, the dishes were “very well received and delicious.”

The latest initiative of Buettner is to convert the longevity characteristics (listed in this story) into practices that can fit the American lifestyle. To this end, the Blue Zones Project has been partnering with cities in America that are interested in improving the health of their residents by implementing features of these healthy habits. Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Naples, Fla.; Albert Lea, Minn.; and Fort Worth, Texas are some of the cities that have already begun this process.

Deborah Winn-Horvitz, president and CEO of the Jewish Association on Aging, explained that the JAA is in discussion with Pittsburgh’s mayor’s office to bring the Blue Zones Project here: “Because of the demographics of our population, it would be very appropriate.” She pointed out that “people in the Blue Zones are living with an amazing quality of life well into their 100s.”

Buettner’s presentation at the annual meeting was to “introduce the topic and start the conversation.” Brinn added that “the focus of the project is not on changing the behavior of individuals, but rather on changing the infrastructure to make healthy choices easier for people.”

Winn-Horvitz and Brinn have had preliminary meetings with a “very interested” mayor’s office. Winn-Horvitz explains that implementing this project in Pittsburgh would “involve working with everyone from restaurants to supermarkets to employers to schools. The whole basis is, it’s a communitywide initiative.”

To make this happen, Brinn points out, “a lot depends on a strong grassroots effort: members of the community who have an interest as well as government, foundations and providers, like restaurants, grocery stores and schools. To create a Blue Zones initiative, many people need to be sitting at the table to create a collaborative venture and to execute this health initiative.”

In his talk, Buettner described the nine common characteristics of all Blue Zone populations (detailed in his brother’s book, “The Blue Zones,” which was given out free at the meeting). While some of these characteristics focus on what the centenarians eat, others are more holistic: The researchers found that health is more than just dietary choices.

Blue Zone centenarians’ formula for longevity:

>> Incorporate physical activity into your daily routine. Centenarians didn’t belong to gyms or run on treadmills or exercise for the sake of exercise — they had active lifestyles, where walking or gardening was a regular part of their day-to-day life. When they did intentional physical activity, it was to do things that they enjoy.

>> Feel a sense of purpose or meaning in life — why you get up in the morning. It could be a job, a hobby, a family or just your own personal goal in life.

>> Take time out to relax, “smell the roses” and relieve stress. For the Loma Linda residents, all of whom are Seventh Day Adventists, it was “the sanctuary in time,” the Sabbath.

>> Put family, and spending time with family, high on the priority list.

>> Engage with a social support network of people who share your values and lifestyles.

>> Belong to a spiritual community.

>> Stop eating before you feel full. Eat until you are 80 percent satisfied.

>> Drink red wine in moderation.

>> Eat a primarily plant-based diet, including beans and fish, but with very little meat.

Winn-Horvitz notes that, relevant to Jewish tradition and practice, “one of the commonalities that they found in all of the Blue Zones was the concept of spirituality as well as social connection. And being part of a strong Jewish community here in Pittsburgh, we have the basis of that.”

“While we are observing Shabbos or the High Holidays, being around family and friends and making those strong connections and sharing our prayers … together” these activities tie in with a number of the Blue Zone practices.

Brinn added that “Buettner also mentioned that in the Torah, in Bereshit, it says that God gave us fruits and berries to eat.” Seventh Day Adventists reference Genesis 1:29 as the reason for their vegetarian diet.

Brinn pointed out that “the Blue Zone Project is the largest public health project in the U.S.” Both Winn-Horvitz and Brinn would like to invite the community to join with the JAA to help in the effort to implement Blue Zones in Pittsburgh to “help our community age more successfully.”

They also thanked Dr. Martin and Bracha Leora Fenster for their sponsorship of this event.

Simone Shapiro can be reached at