Jacob Factor, Chief Photographer
The Blue Zones
In 2002, Dan Buettner, founder of Blue Zones LLC, began a study of places around the world that had the highest life expectancy, according to his article, “The Island Where People Forget To Die,” published in the “New York Times” magazine. In this study, Buettner and his colleagues found five places, the Blue Zones, that met their criteria: Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica.
Over the next decade, Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, lead many expeditions to find out what exactly made the residents of these places live so long.
“No one secret explains why people in the Blue Zones tend to enjoy long, healthy lives,” Buettner writes in a special edition “National Geographic” Magazine about the Blue Zones. “It’s really an interconnected web of factors, including what they eat, their social networks, daily rituals, physical environment and sense of purpose—all those things that propel them forward and give their lives meaning.”
In the Ikaria Study, researcher Christina Chrysohoou found that Ikarians tend to eat slowly and with friends or family, according to Buettner’s article, “The Secrets of Living Longer” published in the November 2005 issue of National Geographic.
“This means less stress, and that means healthier eating. When you eat a meal in a hurry, or with pent-up worry, stress hormones like cortisol interfere with the digestive process. Your body doesn’t absorb nutrients and antioxidants as well; the calories you consume are more likely to end up as fat on your waistline than energy for your cells,” she said.
“Ikigai” is a Japanese concept that, according todefinitions.net, means “a reason for being” or, in Okinawan culture, “a reason to get up in the morning.” Researcher in the Okinawa Centenarian Study Craig Willcox said this sense of purpose could be a factor in Okinawan’s longevity.
According to “National Geographic,” older Okinawans are also a part of moais, a social circle of people who offer emotional support to each other. (Remember the term moai; it is now being used in the Blue Zones Project here in Shawnee)
Another possible source of Okinawan’s longevity, Buettner writes, comes from a Confucion-inspired adage, “hara hachi bu” that Okinawans say before eating a meal to remind themselves to stop eating when they are 80 percent full.
Sardinia’s team collaborator Gianni Pes found in a lifestyle survey that shepherds on the island “were up to 10 times more likely to live to 100 than men in the rest of Italy,”.
“It seems that the shepherd’s regular, low-intensity physical effort—slowly walking up and down the mountain slopes—might provide a better model for the type of exercise that the rest of us should be doing,” Buettner writes in the special edition “National Geographic” magazine
Social relationships have also been seen to play a role in the longevity of Sardinians.
“A cultural attitude that celebrated the elderly kept them engaged in the community and in extended-family homes until they were in their 100’s. Studies have linked early retirement among some workers in industrialized economies to reduced life expectancy,” Buettner writes in the “New York Times” magazine.
Gary Fraser, director of the Adventist Health Studies in California, found several practices of people in Loma Linda that most likely increase their longevity: eating a plant-based diet with small amounts of dairy or fish; not smoking; maintaining medium body weight; eating a handful of nuts four to five times per week; doing regular physical activity.
Buettner and his colleagues, Michel Poulain and Luis Rosero-Bixby, after two expeditions to Nicoya, concluded that Nicoyan’s longevity is owed part to “their strong faith community, their deep social networks and their habit of low-intensity physical activity.”
“What if generations of people could live longer, healthier, happier lives? What if it wasn’t so hard to do because their surroundings made it easy?”
What began as a series of National Geographic expeditions eventually became an initiative to bring key components of the Blue Zones’ success in well-being to other communities across the United States, thus the Blue Zones Project.
From the expeditions, Buettner and his team found nine traits that every one of the original Blue Zones share that contribute to their residents’ longevity and well-being. Dubbed the “Power Nine,” these traits are being used to transform the way the project communities approach well-being.
Miriam Bell, an organizational leader for the Blue Zones Project Pottawattomie County called the Blue Zones Project a “well-being initiative that focuses on the health of the community by impacting people, places and policies to make sure that the healthy choice is the easy choice for everybody.”
According to the Blue Zones Project website,bluezonesproject.com, 37 communities in nine different states, including the entire states of Hawaii and Iowa, have become a part of the Blue Zones Project.
The Blue Zones Personal Pledge is a four-step plan of action to get people to start taking an interest in their own well-being.
“[The pledge is] an awareness piece so that somebody can learn a little bit about their own well-being, maybe take stock of what they’re currently doing and think of things they can do for their well-being,” Bell said.
The four steps are: learn about the Blue Zones; measure your current state of well-being; participate in Blue Zones Project events; and complete a personal well-being checklist.
Bell said the Blue Zones Project Pottawatomie County has several opportunities to get involved, through Moais.
“Moais come from the Okinawa Blue Zone,” Bell said. “And [individuals] learn how to meet people and build relationships and expand their friendship network: Purpose Moais where individuals can get together and discuss their purpose in life; Walking Moais where people get together and walk, not necessarily to count steps but to have conversations; there’s also Restaurant Moais. Once we have ten blue zones project approved restaurants, we’ll have groups of about 6-8 people going to different restaurants each week to try a healthy recipe.”
The Blue Zones Project began their Walking Moais Monday, and will have another Walking Moai event Thursday September 28, at 6 p.m. at Boy Scout Park.
The Project also has volunteer opportunities. Go to their website for more information and to make the pledge.