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The Blue Zones
By Dr. Paul Yim

             Imagine a place of health and longevity, an active society, connected families, vibrant people who have
 
a purpose-filled meaning for the soul.  Imagine a place where living to 100 years or more is considered nothing unusual.

             Imagine such a place and you just might be imagining one of “The Blue Zones” –
four groups of the
longest-lived people groups in the world highlighted in the New York Times best-selling book by the
same title. In his book, Dan Beuttner and his team of researchers search the globe to find the world’s
 
longest-living cultures that have the highest ratio of centenarians – people who live to 100 years or more.
Over the course of their travels, they discover each group’s secrets of longevity and, on this page, we can too.

             First, how did these areas get the name “The Blue Zones”? Well . . .
Long ago and far away, . . . the longevity team assigned a research member the task of marking their
 world map. This member happened to use a blue marker to denote clusters of centenarians.
Hence, the term “The Blue Zones”. The end. :)

            Though this rather “unscientific” explanation is true, the apparently random color designation may
 
actually be serendipitous. We are familiar with the term “True Blue” which describes qualities of
 loyalty, devotion, and faithfulness. And in our search for MY Blue Zone, we will see that loyalty
and faithfulness are more important to longevity than is geographic locale.

             Let’s visit each Blue Zone and learn their secrets to health and long life.
Afterwards, we will find “MY
Blue Zone” – the ONE Blue Zone that you and I can imitate and enjoy health and longevity.

             Our first stop is Costa Rica. In this country that already enjoys longer-than-average life spans,
there live
a group of natives on the peninsula of Nicoya where the ratio of centenarians is the highest in the
country.   Notable characteristics of these indigenous people are:

            
  1.   Faith – their religion is Catholic

              2.   Activity – intense daily exercise

              3.   Sunshine – plenty of it

              4.   Water –Nicoya’s has the highest calcium content in Costa Rica

              5.   Nutrition – their dietary staple consists of beans, squash, and corn tortilla. And their year-long
                    growing season allows fresh fruit consumption throughout the year.

             6.   Family – whether by choice or out of necessity, the elders live with their families.

             7.   Adultery – curiously, over 70% of Nicoyan men have cheated on their wives. (Far from being a
                   longevity factor, my wife said that adultery would be a life-SHORTENING factor for most men.
                   Being interested in longevity, I didn’t argue the point).

Next, we visit a genetically isolated group of people on the island of Sardinia, Italy. Researchers observe
      that Sardinians:

              1.    Live in mountainous villages

              2.    Activity – Sardinians walk, walk, walk, including up and down mountains

             3.     Family –celebrating old people is part of their culture

             4.     Nutrition –Pecorino: a special cheese made from special milk from special sheep that graze on special grass.
                    This cheese has super-high concentrations of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid),
a particular omega-3 fatty acid.

              5.     Drink – Cannonau wine: a special red wine that has 5-10 times more antioxidants than typical red wine

    But modernization and mechanization are taking their toll on more and more Sardinians, who favor the new way of life
 
over traditional culture.
And the Sardinians’ longevity is rapidly disappearing due to the changing diet and sedentary lifestyle.


            Our third Blue Zone is Okinawa, Japan where the island is home to a distinct group of people who are genetically and
 
culturally different than mainland Japanese.
            They have their own religion and even a separate language. Japan as a
 
nation has the highest longevity in the world but the prefecture of Okinawa has an even higher ratio of centenarians than
            Japan. Interesting points about Okinawans include:

             1.    Nutrition – their diet is LOW in caloric density (translation: they eat a lot but the calories add up to little).
                    They also eat 8 times more tofu than Americans.

             2.     Self-control – Okinawans follow the Confucian teaching of “Hara Hachi Bu”, or eat until you’re 80% full.
                     This relatively painless form of calorie restriction may well account for the fact that their traditional body
                     mass index (BMI) is around 18-22 compared to 26-28 for Americans.

             3.     Purpose – the “Why I get up in the morning”. This strong sense of purpose adds 7 healthy years of life.

              4.    Social network – the elderly belong to Moais, a social group of friends who meet regularly to share joys,
                      sorrows, and meals.

              But they, too, are losing their edge on longevity. Researchers now observe 2 distinct populations in Okinawa:
    an older, traditional group who adhere to their past cultural way of life and a new group who adopt a Western lifestyle and
    diet. Okinawa now has the most fast food restaurants in Japan and coincidentally has the highest obesity rate in all of Japan.

             Our final stop is Loma Linda, California, the only Blue Zone in the United States. Located in an essentially
     desert area of Southern California with some of the highest levels of air pollution in America, Loma Linda
     seems an unlikely place for a Blue Zone. But a genetically diverse faith-based group called Seventh-day
     Adventists have put Loma Linda on the map with their lifestyle and longevity. Living in an area surrounded
     by fast food restaurants, pollution, traffic congestion, and stress, how do these Christians manage not only
     to survive but to extend their life expectancy beyond any other group in America?

             1.    Rest – they have a literal 24 hour Sabbath each week. Unplugging from the stress and demands
                    of the work week, they spend time with friends, family, nature, God.

             2.    Social network – Adventists have a large social network of people who follow similar lifestyles

             3.    Breakfast – they emphasize the importance of a big and healthy breakfast

             4.    Plant-based foods – Adventists are generally vegetarian, taking their cue from Genesis 1:29 where
                    God prescribes a plant-based diet for His newly created human family.

             By following these simple guidelines and avoiding substances such as tobacco and alcohol, they extend their
life expectancy to equal the Japanese, who have the highest life expectancy in the world. Adventists are not
only the most genetically diverse Blue Zone but also the only Zone not losing their longevity.

            Why is this? Until recently, a Western diet and sedentary lifestyle were relatively unknown in the other 3 Blue Zones.
But when these life-shortening factors were introduced, they adopted the new culture and are now rapidly losing their lead on longevity.
This leads us to the conclusion that the other Blue Zones were living long out of necessity, not by
choice.
To benefit from the Blue Zones, we need “True Blue” faithfulness to the Blue Zone culture.
Only then will you
have the fortitude to withstand the life-shortening pressures that we encounter all too often in Western society.

            So, which Blue Zone for ME? For a genetically diverse population, living in a modernized Western society, the
Adventist Blue Zone is the only choice. Just mimic what they do and we can expect to attain health and longevity like the best of the best. Live Long, Live Well . . .


Paul Yim, MD
Family Practice Physician
Axis Medical, Inc.

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