- The book is based on the author’s research on the regions of the world where people live the longest and healthiest lives, called the Blue Zones.
- The book identifies nine common factors that contribute to their longevity and well-being, such as moving naturally, having a purpose, eating more plants, belonging to a community, and choosing your friends wisely.
- The book provides practical tips and suggestions on how to apply the lessons from the Blue Zones to our own lives and improve our mental and physical health.
We all want to live a longer, happier life, but what is the best way to go about it? One method is to look at the places with the greatest proportion of people living into their 100s to see what lessons we can learn from their lifestyles. From the islands of Okinawa and Sardinia to the desert communities in Loma Linda, California, these “blue zones” show us how to slow down, reconnect, eat well, and ultimately live longer and happier lives.
What the places with the most elders have to teach us about living longer and fuller lives.
READ THIS BOOK SUMMARY IF YOU:
- Wonder how people live to be over 100
- Are curious about the effects of diet on longevity
- Want to know how social support leads to a longer life
Table of Contents
The secret to living a long and healthy life is among the most sought-after information in the world. As it turns out, where you live might make a considerable difference. In this summary, we learn about blue zones, places the people who live the longest call home.
National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging have identified locations across the globe whose residents are most likely to live to 100 and beyond. By understanding how these centenarians have come to reach such an advanced age, we can learn habits and attitudes that we can emulate in our own lives.
The blue zones teach us not only about living longer lives but also about living richer lives. In the course of researching blue zones, Tokyo-based business executive Sayoko Ogata met 104-year-old Ushi from Okinawa. Meeting Ushi changed Ogata’s life: Seeing the simplicity of her life and the kindness with which she treated strangers motivated Ogata to give up the long hours of her Tokyo job and spend more time caring for others. The secrets of the centenarians are more than just health-related gimmicks; they are inextricably linked to every facet of life
Like Juan Ponce de León in the 16th century, we are still searching for the fountain of youth, and to date, we have little to show for it. We still haven’t found any way to put the brakes on aging. All we can hope for is to have a light touch on the accelerator instead of flooring it on our journey toward old age. Compared to the fast and furious society in other parts of the world, people in blue zones engage in activities and cultural practices that put less stress on the body and mind, slowing the aging process.
There is no magic pill to prevent or reverse aging, but exercising and eating well, maintaining strong social connections, and engaging in activities that you care about can help add years to your life. Each blue zone has its own special recipe for longevity. Studying the zones alongside one another reveals nine consistent central elements to living longer.
The Sardinian Blue Zone
Aranza, a small village on the Italian island of Sardinia, has an unusually high number of centenarians. Moreover, despite women living longer than men on average globally, Sardinia is home to an exceptionally large number of long-lived men. Sardinia is a pastoral island with a long history. Many residents of its small villages know the stories of each family going back generations. One of the older Sardinians, Tonino, makes his living butchering cows. He and his wife, Giovanna, grew up poor, eating mostly what they could produce on their own land — primarily bread, cheese, zucchini, and fava beans. Meat was saved for Sundays and special occasions.
Wine is consumed daily in Tonino and Giovanna’s house. Sardinian wine, made from Cannonau grapes, is bright red and contains flavonoids, pigment-producing chemicals also found in red fruits like tomatoes and berries. Flavonoids are known to reduce rates of cancer and heart disease. Goat milk and goat cheese, staples at their table, might also be a secret to longevity, since they contain more calcium and vitamin A than the bovine varieties.
Social factors also appear to make Sardinia a blue zone. Tonino and Giovanna are a close couple, even after all these years. They finish each other’s sentences and share many lighthearted jokes. Giovanna notes that while Tonino goes out to butcher cows, she keeps track of the family finances. Beyond Giovanna and Tonino’s home, multigenerational families live together. Children and grandchildren care for their elders.
The terrain here has led to more active lifestyles. Since the region is too rocky and steep for industrial farming, shepherding became the profession of choice. Walking 5 or more miles a day, as the Sardinians do, is good for the heart, bones, and muscles. Finally, in terms of male longevity, the willingness of Sardinian women to take on the lion’s share of household stress seems to have helped their husbands live longer.
The Blue Zone in Okinawa
Okinawa, like Sardinia, is an island, situated in the Japanese archipelago. Okinawa’s population is similarly inclined to longevity. Ushi, the woman whose kindness and love of life had a profound impact on Sayako Ogata, calls this island her home. Ushi sits on a tatami mat in her house with her 70-year-old daughter and friends in their 90s. Near the back door are well-used work gloves and tools from her garden. The group has a meal of stir-fried bitter melon, rice, and fennel tea. This is Ushi’s moai, her social support network, which has seen her through the ups and downs of life. Despite Okinawa’s difficult history, plagued by poverty and war, the centenarians of the island have found tools that enable them to live long and healthy lives.
One of the keys to a long life on Okinawa is ikigai, essentially a reason to wake up in the morning. Additionally, most older Okinawans have relied on a plantbased diet, full of stir-fried vegetables, sweet potatoes, tofu, and bitter melon. Pork is eaten only on special occasions.
Almost all Okinawan centenarians grow or used to grow a garden. Gardening involves physical activity and requires the body to make a variety of natural motions that help maintain strength, balance, and flexibility, even in the later years of life. Gardening also reduces stress and provides fresh vegetables. Soy, found in tofu and miso soup, contains flavonoids, which protect against heart disease and cancer. Fermented soy has probiotic properties. Additionally, sunshine and time spent outdoors give Okinawans optimal vitamin D levels, even in winter.
Older Okinawans aren’t just active gardeners but also walkers. Eating on the floor on mats means that they spend time getting up and down from the floor, which maintains strength in the lower body and prevents falls.
The gardens of Okinawans provide medicine as well as food; mugwort, ginger, and turmeric are all garden staples with proven medical benefits. Centenarian Okinawans aren’t meek in old age. Although many had difficult early lives, they enjoy the pleasures of the present and spend time with younger people.
An American Blue Zone
A blue zone doesn’t have to be on a remote island; these areas of longevity also exist in the United States. Loma Linda, California, is another place where people manage to live well beyond the average life span.
One such person is Marge Jetton, one of about 9,000 Seventh-Day Adventists in the region. Jetton, like the rest of Loma Linda’s Adventist population, understands the importance of the Sabbath. The strictly enforced 24-hour break offers a sanctuary from the tyranny of work and gives time to focus on family, community, and God. It relieves stress and strengthens social networks. Additionally, the Sabbath is a time for exercise and provides opportunities to give something back to the community, which offers a sense of purpose.
Adventists who maintain a healthy body mass index stay active and eat meat rarely, if ever. They also benefit from low blood pressure, low cholesterol, and less heart disease than the general population.
Adventists spend their social time with like-minded friends. Sharing values and supporting one another’s other’s habits helps them to stay healthy and involved.
The snack of choice for Adventists is nuts, which many of them consume at least five times a week. Several major studies have confirmed that eating nuts is associated with better health and longer life expectancies. Furthermore, dinner is the lightest meal of the day and is eaten early. A light dinner promotes better sleep and can lower BMI. The Adventist diet is full of fruits and legumes, which reduce the chances of developing colon cancer.
Finally, Adventists in arid Southern California drink large quantities of water, which has been shown to reduce the risk of suffering a fatal heart attack by up to 70%.
Discovering Costa Rica’s Blue Zone
Another blue zone can be found in Nicoya Province in Costa Rica. The people of this region keep gardens, where they grow more than 40 kinds of fruits and vegetables. The favorite fruit of Nicoyans is the orange, which is high in vitamin C.
Nicoyans spend their lives involved in the physical tasks of running their households; 100-year-old Panchita still uses a machete to clear brush in her yard, for example, and spends much of her time cooking and chopping wood.
Costa Rican centenarians know that the key to a long and fulfilling life is to have a plan de vida, a sense of purpose and communal responsibility. They also tend to live with their children and grandchildren, which gives them support and a sense of community.
The hard water consumed in Nicoya has the highest calcium content in the country, which means stronger bones and lower rates of heart disease for Nicoyans. Costa Ricans consume a light dinner early in the evening and, like the Adventists, benefit from consuming few calories before bed.
Centenarians in the community have spent their whole lives involved in moderate physical work and finding joy in their daily chores. This means they spend plenty of time in the sunshine, which supplies them with high levels of vitamin D. This helps prevent osteoporosis and heart disease.
The Greek Blue Zone
Ikaria is a Greek island in the Aegean Sea near Turkey. The island is mountainous and rocky, which has historically spelled a hard life for its inhabitants. Still, a large number of its residents live to old age. Dr. Ilias Leriadis, a physician on the island, finds this longevity unsurprising. On a typical day, he opens his office at around 11 a.m., has herbal tea with his meals, and sits down to dinners that include wild greens, beans, and goat cheese.
Like their neighbors in Sardinia, Greek Ikarians benefit from drinking goat milk and eating goat cheese. Ikarians are also highlanders, so they get exercise simply by walking to neighbors’ houses. Exercise embedded in the patterns of daily life, such as maintaining a garden, biking to get around, and walking, is another key to long life.
The Ikarian diet contains plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as grains, beans, potatoes, and olive oil. Fresh olive oil is rich in antioxidants, and when cooked at low heat, it’s full of healthy fats. Ikarians also drink herbal teas containing antioxidants such as sage, wild rosemary, and oregano, which help keep blood pressure stable by getting rid of excess salt and water.
The midday nap is a central feature of Ikarian culture. Napping is shown to reduce the risk of dying from heart disease by 35%. Greek Orthodox Ikarians also participate in numerous fasts throughout the year, which reduces their caloric intake by about 30%. These occasional fasts may be a factor in their increased longevity.
The close social bonds on Ikaria also contribute to longevity. A study of more than 150 communities showed that people who were isolated had a 50% higher chance of dying within the next seven years than those with strong social networks.
Your Personal Blue Zone
If you live like the average American, the lifestyle of people in blue zones might seem utterly alien and unreachable to you. However, you can employ the Power Nine — nine practices that increase longevity. The Power Nine emphasizes diet, mentality, and social relationships, all of which are correlated with the life spans of the centenarians in blue zones.
Lesson one is to move naturally — without having to think about it. Running a marathon is impressive, but it is not as strongly associated with longevity as taking daily walks. Maintaining a garden, doing yoga, and hiking can all keep the body and mind active into old age and help you gain more good years.
Lesson two comes straight from the Okinawans: “Hara hachi bu.” This is a reminder to stop eating when your stomach is 80% full. Smaller dishes, low-calorie vegetables to bulk up meals, and mindful eating can reduce your caloric consumption and increase your life span.
Lesson three is to slant toward plants. While meat is central to many people’s diets, the longest-living people see meat as an occasional menu item rather than a staple. It’s not necessary to go fully vegetarian, but people in blue zones primarily consume grains, legumes, and vegetables.
Lesson four is all about the grapes: consuming red wine in moderation. Moderate wine consumption reduces stress and provides flavonoids that lower the risk of cancer. But remember, drinking more than a glass or two has negative effects on the liver that can outweigh the benefits of red wine.
Lesson five calls on us to find a purpose in life. Whether it is the Okinawan ikigai or the Costa Rican plan de vida, having a sense of meaning in your life reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, and stroke. Instead of just marking time, long life is about learning new things, planning for the future, and sharing with others.
Lesson six is to slow down. Ikarians take daily afternoon naps, and Sardinians are out in the streets socializing at 5 p.m. Running around all day might make you feel productive and active, but the constant rushing takes time off your life. Meditation, planning to arrive early, and cutting down on noise from TV and radio can be a way to work breaks into your life, even if adopting a true blue zone schedule isn’t feasible.
Lesson seven is to belong. Belonging to a community that cares for you and that you care for reduces the risk of premature death by 20%. Religious services are the bedrock of many blue zone communities, and participation in them is associated with lower mortality.
Lesson eight is to place loved ones first and make family a priority. Okinawans begin their days by honoring the memories of their ancestors, and families celebrate Sunday meals with their deceased relatives. Seniors who live with their families are mentally and physically healthier than those who live alone.
Lesson nine is to find the right tribe: other people who share blue zone values. Maintaining healthy habits and a positive lifestyle is easier when you’re surrounded by people who share your goals and values. Time set aside for the people in your social circle — ideally at least 30 minutes a day — builds the foundation for strong friendships that last a (hopefully long) lifetime.
About Dan Buettner
Dan Buettner is a National Geographic fellow and a New York Times bestselling author. His documentary on blue zones won an Emmy Award. He is the founder of Blue Zones, LLC, and an avid outdoorsman.
The book is a result of the author’s exploration and research on the regions of the world where people live the longest and healthiest lives. These regions are called the Blue Zones, and they include Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California. The author and his team of experts studied the lifestyles, diets, habits, and cultures of the people in these regions and identified nine common factors that contribute to their longevity and well-being. These are:
- Move naturally: The people in the Blue Zones do not exercise in a conventional way, but rather engage in regular physical activity that is integrated into their daily lives, such as walking, gardening, or doing household chores.
- Have a purpose: The people in the Blue Zones have a clear sense of why they wake up in the morning, which gives them meaning and motivation. They call it ikigai in Okinawa and plan de vida in Nicoya.
- Downshift: The people in the Blue Zones have ways to reduce stress and relax, such as napping, meditating, praying, or socializing. They also have a positive outlook on life and do not dwell on the past or worry about the future.
- Follow the 80% rule: The people in the Blue Zones eat until they are 80% full, which prevents overeating and obesity. They also eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or evening and avoid eating anything else for the rest of the day.
- Eat more plants: The people in the Blue Zones eat mostly plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. They also consume moderate amounts of animal products, mostly fish, eggs, dairy, and meat. They avoid processed foods, added sugars, and salt.
- Drink moderately: The people in the Blue Zones drink alcohol in moderation, usually one or two glasses of wine per day, preferably with food and friends. They avoid binge drinking or drinking to excess.
- Belong to a community: The people in the Blue Zones belong to a faith-based community that provides them with social support, shared values, and a sense of belonging. They attend religious services regularly, regardless of their denomination.
- Put family first: The people in the Blue Zones prioritize their family relationships and spend time with their spouses, children, parents, grandparents, and other relatives. They also respect and care for their elders and involve them in their daily lives.
- Choose your friends wisely: The people in the Blue Zones surround themselves with friends who share their healthy habits and positive attitudes. They also belong to social circles that provide them with companionship, encouragement, and accountability.
I found the book to be very informative and inspiring. The author has done a remarkable job of collecting and presenting the data and stories from the Blue Zones regions. He also provides practical tips and suggestions on how to apply the lessons from the Blue Zones to our own lives. The book is not only about living longer but also about living better.
The book is well-written and easy to read. The author uses a conversational tone and a mix of scientific evidence and personal anecdotes. He also includes photos, maps, charts, and recipes that illustrate his points and make the book more engaging. He does not claim that his findings are definitive or universal but rather invites us to learn from them and experiment with them.
The book is not a one-size-fits-all prescription but rather a guide that offers various options and possibilities. It acknowledges that different people may have different preferences and circumstances that affect their choices and outcomes. It also recognizes that there are other factors that influence longevity and well-being besides lifestyle habits such as genetics, environment, health care access etc.
Overall I think that this book is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to learn how to live longer from the people who live the longest. It is not a book that tells us what to do but rather a book that shows us what we can do. It is a book that will make us think differently and act differently. It is a book that will make us live longer.