The Promise of 'Blue Zones' - Blue Week


By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of Gerd Altmann.

Humanity’s desire for immortality is rooted in our history here on Earth. The mythological “Fountain of Youth” represents one of mankind’s greatest quests to cheat death.

Legend has it that Spanish conquistador, Juan Ponce de Leon sailed to the New World in 1493 to search for that very fountain. Though his expedition was unsuccessful (or even factually denied by new research), we still yearn to find ways to extend lifespan today.

For Dan Buettner, the myths to longevity are proven true throughout the world’s locations where populations live longest.

Buettner began his research in 2004. He was inspired by the The Danish Twin study, which concluded that 80 percent of what determines human health and long life relates to specific behaviors, habits, and environmental interactions.

With the help of funding from National Geographic, the world’s five “Blue Zones” were uncovered–five cities harbor populations with greater life spans than anywhere else on Earth. These regions also hold the greatest concentration of centenarians, or people who are over 100.

After each location was evaluated, Buettner and his team of researchers discovered 9 behaviors that facilitate longevity. These findings were comprised into The New York Times bestseller Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.

The next step of the Blue Zone organization was to introduce these discovered longevity approaches into American cities. Thus started Blue Zones Expeditions, which is now an active organization.

Nicholas Buettner, brother of Dan Buettner and Executive Producer of Blue Zones Expeditions, spoke with BTR about their efforts with different US cities. He and his teammates work to introduce long-term, systematic changes for a healthier community.

“Now that we have this baseline we can bring these back here to America and in some ways try and influence the health and our culture based on what we learned,” says Buettner. “Teams of people in the field really try and encourage people to change the environment to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

The team is comprised of various experts in the health and aging fields along with the researchers from the National Institute of Health.

Backing up, where are these Blue Zones? After about six years of studies in various exotic places, researchers decided upon the certain cities: Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, CA; Sardinia; Italy; and Nicoya, Costa Rica.

Another Blue Zone location was Okinawa, an island located just south of mainland Japan. Sometimes referred to as the land of immortals, Okinawa has some of the lowest mortality rates in the world. Unsurprisingly, their speech is riddled with ancient phrases that express healthy, positive outlooks on life.

“Hara Hachi Bu” is said at the dinner table in Okinawa. The proverb is a 2500-year-old Confucian mantra that translates to “eat until you are 80 percent full.”

The Blue Zone researchers took note of this proverb and practice. They integrated it into their Power 9 factors for longevity, which are evidence-based behaviors, habits, and lifestyle choices that are exhibited across all five “Blue Zones.” In addition to eating lightly, the criteria includes daily exercise, purposefulness, stress relievers, and a plant-based diet. They also saw that all five places made use of their natural environments.

Albert Lea, Minnesota, was the first American demonstration site where researchers and experts from the National Institute of Health and Healthways spent time implementing reforms. Visiting schools, parks, restaurants, and corporate buildings, audits aimed to construct the environment as a catalyst for healthy living.

One reform was to change the infrastructure of parks to allow more bike lanes and accessibly pathways. The project, supported by AARP and the United Health Foundation, began in 2009 and has since increased residents’ average life expectancy by 3.1 years, using the Blue Zone’s Vitality Compass assessment.

Then for schools, Dr. Leslie Lytle, Department Chair of Health Behavior at The University of North Carolina and Advisor at Blue Zones, helped introduce healthier habits, like limiting junk food. For exercise, she organized “walking bus” programs that encourage kids to travel to school by foot.

Lytle tells BTR that she ran into some obstacles while trying to transform communities.

“There were parents and school board members who wanted their kids to have access to pop and candy,” says Lytle. “It was really a much deeper issue than just the school’s policy on it and it’s an example on the need to work with the whole community.”

Since the Blue Zone crew worked in Albert Lea, around 15 other cities have won in competition to have these representatives collaborate with their communities. California’s coastal cities of Hermosa, Redondo, and Manhattan Beach have all participated.

Currently, the team is working on its biggest city to date: Fort Worth, Texas. With 400,000 inhabitants, the population gives the group new challenges, notes Joel Spoonheim, Healthways’ Executive Director of Community Programs at Blue Zone Projects.

The usual 2 to 3 years to implement Blue Zone changes to a city will take about 5 years for Fort Worth, given its size. Reforms and innovations are also tested in each new city.

One example is Inventure group workshops that help individuals find their purpose in life. The workshop has been reformed and now expands beyond a 2-hour session for those who are interested.

Spoonheim speaks with BTR on the impact of developing a Blue Zone city.

“If you have a reason to get up in the morning you also happen to make a lot of small decisions throughout the day that contribute to your health,” says Spoonheim. “In three years, we can create a lot of capacity for the community and a lot of change across the different sectors.”

These reforms are meant to incentivize the community to continue healthy behaviors long after Blue Zones leaves. The organization aims at the greater municipal and structural transformations, beyond just individual choices.

Maybe the Fountain of Youth is only a dream, but for the real world, Blue Zones helps keep the idea of immortality alive. The stark reality is, however, if the cities in America are willing to sacrifice the comforts of routine for the adoption of a healthier future.