So You Want To Be A Centenarian?: A Look into the World’s Longest-Living Populations

Illustrated by Neha Adari

The average life expectancy in the United States is 78.6 years, and yet, there are specific communities across the world with people thriving well past their 100th birthday [1]. The cause of this discrepancy has been hazy up until about a decade ago, and new discoveries and research has been conducted ever since. 

With his team, National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner traveled to communities around the world with the highest proportions of centenarians. Building upon the demographic work conducted by researchers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, Buettner identified his first five locations: (1) The Barbagia region of Sardinia, (2) Ikaria, Greece, (3) the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, (4) Okinawa, Japan and (5) Loma Linda, California. From the blue circles Pes and Poulain drew around these “longevity hotspots” on their map, the term Blue Zones was coined [4]. Representing an incredibly diverse subset of the world, these five places have seemingly minimal similarities. However, a Danish Twin Study found that longevity is only slightly heritable, and only about a quarter of the average lifespan is genetically determined— the rest, it is assumed, is left to external factors [3]. 

Following this logic, Buettner went on to learn from the people in each of these communities, identifying the lifestyle practices that may contribute to their longer life spans [4]. While the cultures of the people in each Blue Zone differ quite significantly, Buettner was surprised to see patterns in their behavior and way of life, which essentially fell into nine main categories. 

The first component of longevity: natural exercise. Though gym memberships, Soul Cycle and Peloton may occupy our current weekly routines, none of the Blue Zone communities have strict exercise regimens. Instead, these people have more labor-intensive activities built into their day-to-day routines. The Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda go on nature walks as part of their religious following, and the other communities “grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work” [5]. This distinction between exercise as an inherent part of life rather than an obligation may be a major factor to an extended life span.

A second facet of the Blue Zone life is the retention of a sense of purpose. These longevity hotspots have different names for this— “ikigai” to the Okinawans and “plan de vida” to the Nicoyans [5]. A sense of purpose can take many forms, but the general consensus is that having a reason to wake up in the morning increases happiness and motivation, in turn lengthening life span. 

While stress is a normal part of the human condition, people living in Blue Zones have practices built into their routines to center themselves. As explained on the Blue Zones organization’s website, “Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour” [5]. This management of a less stressful lifestyle lends itself to a decrease in chronic inflammation, which is associated with heart disease, cancer, diabetes and several other diseases with a direct impact on life expectancy [6]. 

These three practices, along with others such as having a reliable support system, belonging to a faith-based community, maintaining a primarily plant-based diet and intermittent fasting are all contributors to the centenarian lifestyle. Now that the “secrets” to reaching three-digit birthdays are public knowledge, it is practical to want to implement them into your personal life. As Buettner outlines in his Ted Talk, his Blue Zone discovery is only one component of reaching 100 years [2]. Winning the “genetic lottery” is a large component, however, these particular lifestyle habits may still add a few years to life. The principles can be used as a sort of roadmap— a guide for achieving longevity going forward. Buettner notes that an American’s body typically has the capacity of reaching 90 years of age, but again, the average is only 79. 
As habitual creatures, making the conscious decision to implement changes to our behavior can be formidable, even when the reward is as large as 11 more years of life. Small, practical steps may be the most realistic way to emulate the lives of our Blue Zone counterparts. Slowly weaving these lifestyle practices into our daily routines like walking or biking more often, replacing red meat with plant-based protein and intentionally prioritizing family are just three objectives to begin with. After writing a book and branding Blue Zonesas an organization and business, Buettner has established a community of people intrigued with the prospect of extending their lives. A life like that of the Blue Zones people may be something to strive for, but if not, consider it just a fascinating look into the study of longevity.

Edited by Neha Adari
Illustrated by Neha Adari

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