Are Blue Zones A Myth?

If you knew the exact blueprint to live past 100, would you follow it? Immortality may be out of the cards (for now), but some say that taking a page out of the “Blue Zone” playbook could potentially prolong your lifespan.

By Andrea Mew8 min read
Pexels/Ömer ÇETİN

Whether browsing the aisles of your local health food store or reading up on Bryan Johnson-style “Blueprints” for longevity online, it would appear that humans have some innate fascination with prolonging life. Surveys back this up too, as the Pew Research Center has previously reported that nearly three-quarters of American adults wish they could live as long as 100 years. Many Americans report that they’d be open to centenarian status if they’re at least afforded a good quality of life without too much pain, chronic illness, or dependency on outside care.

This never-ending goal of longevity has captivated the human heart for quite some time now. After all, the oldest known epic ever written, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is centered around the quest for immortality. This search could very well be a noble one; live longer so that you can be a dependable provider to your loved ones or more effectively enact positive change in the world. But, it may also be a self-centered one. If you were to ask people why they want to live longer, some may cite superficial, egotistical reasons like accumulating wealth or social clout. 

“One of the things I don’t understand is why the Silicon Valley types want to live forever,” bioethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel once said in an interview with Time Magazine about why he hopes to die at or around age 75. “Obviously, they believe the world can’t possibly survive without their existence, and so they think their immortality is so critical to the survival of the world.”

Whether a person is simply afraid of death, thinks that the world may not function without them, hopes to make a greater impact on culture, or simply wishes for more minutes on God’s green earth with their loved ones, many of us value long life. Gerontologists, scientists who study aging and older adults, believe that many more of us could very well achieve this goal – if we live in “Blue Zones,” that is.

POV: You Live in One of the “Healthiest” Communities on Earth

Picture the warm, lush coast of Okinawa or the warm, biodiverse seaside island of Sardinia. These romantically mythical, yet entirely realistic, locations are fondly called “Blue Zones.” Recently highlighted in a Netflix documentary titled Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, these geographic areas are known to foster some of the longest, healthiest life spans among humans.

The concept has been tossed around for quite some time before author and National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner’s documentary dropped on Netflix. The concept of "Blue Zones” originally came from demographers Gianni Des and Michel Poulain, who outlined in blue pen a select few locations on Earth where people statistically live longer lives. But Buettner’s series takes viewers through the dietary preferences, lifestyle habits, and environmental conditions found in locations like Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia off the coast of Italy, Loma Linda in California, Ikaria in Greece, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and more.

"The essence of Blue Zones is people live a long time not because of the things we think – they're not on diets, they're not on exercise programs, they don't take supplements," Buettner said in an interview with CBS News. "They don't pursue health, which is a big disconnect in America, because we think health is something that needs to be pursued."

Are we all doomed if we don’t live in these geographic regions, though? Very few of us likely do, which is why Buettner additionally documented some of the “secrets” that people could adopt from "Blue Zones” to set up your surrounding environment for success and have healthier outcomes in life.

There are nine common denominators, which evidence identifies as uniting "Blue Zones” as hubs for health. First, people move naturally, meaning that their lifestyles incorporate physical activity. They don’t necessarily set up a time for spin class, but instead find themselves gardening outdoors for extended periods of time or walking notable distances to get produce at the market. 

Secondly, people have a more grounded, clear sense of purpose that keeps them feeling invigorated by the act of living. Third, they downshift or destress regularly. This prevents chronic inflammation from persistent stress, which builds in our systems over time and causes age-related diseases.

The next few evidence-based unifiers are all about food. Most folks in "Blue Zones” generally practice the 80% rule, meaning they eat bountifully but stop before they hit an uncomfortable level of fullness. Then, they may not be vegetarian per se, but they load up on fresh produce at every possible meal. And almost all "Blue Zone" residents regularly drink alcohol in healthy moderation, meaning they may have one or two glasses of wine each day.

A heightened sense of community is also found among these "Blue Zones.” Nearly all of Buettner’s researched centenarians (except for just one individual) belong to faith-based groups. There wasn’t one in particular, since these zones exist across the world where people practice anything from Christianity to Buddhism, but community involvement in faith was a connecting factor. Additionally, "Blue Zone" folks are all deeply involved in family life. From their own children to their spouses to their elderly parents, being committed to family is a "Blue Zone" trait. Finally, people in "Blue Zones” prioritize finding friendship with others who care about healthy, vibrant lifestyles.

Here’s How To Live Like an Okinawan

I have to admit, it’ll be quite hard for me to not turn this entire section into a love letter to Okinawa, Japan. Easily one of the places I yearn to travel to more than anywhere else in the world, Okinawan culture has fascinated me for most of my adult life. 

The love is so deep that my all-time favorite restaurant is a local dive run by one woman from Okinawa who maintains her business as authentically as one hopeful traveler could wish. Do I wish I could be a member of the Azumi royal family, singing Miyarabi’s Prayer to awaken King Caesar like in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla? Perhaps I do. But, I’ll get off my nerdy high horse for a moment to explain some of the amazing lifestyle habits found among Okinawans that lead to their long life.

400 miles away from mainland Japan, Okinawa has a quieter style of life than the hustle and bustle you’d find in Tokyo, Nagoya, or Osaka. Reportedly, as many as 68% of all Okinawans live to their 100th birthday. 

There are a few bits and bobs of dietary habits you could easily adopt from Okinawans and incorporate into your meal planning. First off, you need to be eating more purple sweet potatoes. This superfood is not only naturally delicious, but it’s packed full of nutrients you need. They have a hearty dose of dietary fiber, contain 150% more antioxidants than blueberries, have four times your daily vitamin A needs, half your daily Vitamin C needs, and also contain vitamin B6, iron, and copper. Furthermore, studies show these potatoes contain antifungal and antibacterial properties. 

Other healthy Okinawan food choices include dark leafy greens, seaweed like kombu or mozuku which are high in iodine, folate, iron, and magnesium, bitter melon called goya which can lower blood sugar, fermented soy like miso and natto which are great for your digestion, and lean, sea meats like canned sardines or fresh fish.

Okinawan cultural traditions also provide for a cohesive sense of community. There, it is tradition to form a “moai,” which is a safety net for emotional and even financial support if need be. These groups were originally formed to pool resources for public works but have grown into a social network system that people treat as their own second family. 

Another concept that guides Okinawans toward a healthier life is the quality of “ikigai,” or something you’ve probably heard called a raison d’être. Having a deeper sense of purpose or “reason to live” is proven to lead you out of adversity and even reduce your risk of heart disease and death.

Here’s How To Live Like a Sardinian

As the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, the autonomous Italian region called Sardinia is home to its own microcontinent of an ecosystem. Though it understandably shares a lot in common with the rest of Italy, Sardinia has its own unique history, language, and notably, healthy traditions – ones which lend to their "Blue Zone" status.

Our world’s longest-living male populations are found in Sardinia and are located mostly within the Ogliastra, Barbara, and Seulo communities. If you’re looking to adopt some Sardinian traits to improve your own longevity, a more Mediterranean diet is a great place to start. 

Though Sardinians are known to prefer olive oil (packed with vitamin E) to butter, they consume a lot of homemade cheeses (such as pecorino sardo) from grass-fed sheep and goats. Dairy from goat milk gives them a regularly high dose of omega-3 fatty acids. When they do eat meat, they tend to have oily fish like squid, anchovies, or sardines (also good for those omega-3s) or lean goat and lamb meat, but these proteins are typically reserved for Sundays or special occasions.

There’s no chance a Sardinian could ever go keto, since whole grains like barley make up about 47% of the typical diet. Barley is high in the soluble fiber called beta glucan which has been shown to help lower high cholesterol and blood pressure as well as promote good digestive health. Legumes such as fava beans and chickpeas are quite popular, and they provide more fiber, protein, and B vitamins.

As for their produce intake, Sardinians are known to eat plenty of artichokes, which are a rich prebiotic source of fiber and inulin, or broad and green beans, which have good boosts of folate and protein.

Though their diet is a bit more frugal, Sardinians are known to imbibe regularly with a glass or two of red wine in the evenings. Their particular varietal is known as Cannonau, which is known to be high in antioxidants and flavonoids.

People in Sardinia may walk up to five miles each day (especially the shepherds), which means they get ample heart-healthy cardio without too much pressure on their muscles, bones, and joints.

There’s a firm sense of friendliness among the Sardinians, and “Blue Zone” experts even say that they’re known to gather in the streets in the afternoon to catch up with one another and laugh. After all, the term sardonic (meaning bitter or scornful laughter) originates from Sardinia!

Recreating Sardinian life may prove difficult, as they are culturally quite isolated and work notably different jobs than those of us in the “laptop class.” Furthermore, the people of Sardinia have a rare genetic quirk known as M26, which has been linked to longevity. Since their gene pool is mostly undiluted, they happen to be a centenarian hub. Nevertheless, their close-knit family and friend structures, as well as healthy lifestyles, serve as a great model for better living.

Are Blue Zones a Myth?

All that said, studies have emerged that indicate that "Blue Zones” may be mostly mythical. Academics saw an uptick in scholarly interest in “Blue Zones” but acknowledge that there’s actually a lack of any substantive research to prove how special these areas really are. In fact, the quaint seaside villages with high populations of centenarians (and even supercentenarians, meaning over 110) like Okinawa or Sardinia have also been found to have some of the lowest life expectancies.

Researchers believe that misreported ages in Sardinia, for example, have led data to be misleading. Allegedly, many supercentenarians who were studied said they were significantly older than they actually were. Why? Well, record-keeping habits have only improved in recent times, and let’s be real, it’s hard enough to keep track of your own age once you stop hitting pivotal milestones in your youth that allow you to vote (18) or drink (21). 

Other myth-busting patterns in "Blue Zones” that suggest their lifestyles aren’t as ideal as they may seem include low literacy and high crime rates. None of this discounts the fact that regular exercise, cleaner environments, ocean air, and nutrient-dense diets are all proven to better your chances of living long, but it does suggest that the "Blue Zone" phenomenon could be a bit blown out of proportion.

“Remarkable age attainment is predicted by indicators of error and fraud,” concluded the researchers. “As a result, these findings raise serious questions about the validity of an extensive body of research based on the remarkable reported ages of populations and individuals.”

Let’s also not forget the fact that low protein, low animal-based diets can actually worsen your health outcomes. Reducing your meat intake and leaning into vegetarian or vegan dietary patterns may not promote longevity. Sure, you may lose weight by going full veg, but you could also run the risk of developing nutritional deficiencies like vitamin B12, D, and calcium. Your muscles may begin to atrophy, you may throw your hormones out of whack, and you could end up affecting your present and future fertility.

One other red flag I see with "Blue Zones” is how trademarked and commercialized the concept is. Pop onto the official website, and you see a little copyright mark next to the header name “Blue Zones,” as well as a trademark symbol after their banner slogan, “We Empower Everyone, Everywhere To Live Better, Longer.” Indeed, there’s a whole Blue Zones, LLC! What this reeks of is a marketing strategy to sell impressionable consumers the alleged good life.

As it turns out, some people who live in the so-called "Blue Zones” complain that the concept has exacerbated potentially scammy business opportunities within their communities. Private companies have come into regions like the Nicoya Peninsula and allegedly exploited the "Blue Zone" image to boost sales, all under the guise of improving the quality of life for people living there. Can an ethnic identity really be a longevity product for sale?

That’s not to say that the lifestyle habits they tout aren’t admirable ones; in fact, I’d argue that a good portion of the doctrine they preach is positive. But, Buettner’s glossy Netflix series wasn’t his first foray into mass marketization of his longevity blueprints. He has written many books: The Blue Zones, The Blue Zones Solution, The Blue Zones Challenge, The Blue Zones American Kitchen, Blue Zones Secrets, Thrive, and Blue Zones of Happiness. 

Buettner’s findings on "Blue Zones” are received by the public as though they have scientific backing, but none of his work was subjected to peer review or scrutiny through scientific journals. When one University of Illinois, Chicago sociology professor, S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., reviewed Buettner’s National Geographic proposal, he rejected the idea as the ages of the alleged centenarians were not going to be verified.

Instead, he created a commercial enterprise. You can get an entire cooking course bundle, hire speakers from the official “Blue Zones” Speakers Bureau, and even have a fully “activated” community. Indeed, “Blue Zones” experts can be hired to do a “readiness assessment” where they “educate and mobilize local leaders and residents, evaluate the community’s current state of well-being, identify the highest priority strengths, challenges, and opportunities, and produce and present a plan for community transformation.”

“Blues Zones” Policy Implemented in America

Buettner’s "Blue Zone" fascination even led to a nationwide project to shape policy, local business, schools, and more through the Blue Zones Project. This community-led well-being improvement initiative is led by Sharecare, a digital health company. They tout real benefits (up to 7 years added to your life expectancy) from walking groups, better social cohesion, and wholesome dietary choices, but people who live in these project areas have pointed out how it could very well just be “a brand designed to generate revenue.”

Some cities have allegedly shown “stunning” results where adult smoking decreased, bike paths were implemented, and health care costs saw major savings. But, other cities, like Brevard, North Carolina, haven’t seen quite such dramatic gains. Geraldine Dinkins, a Brevard City Council member at the time, said that her residents “already appreciate the outdoors, eat their veggies, and have the time to seek communal experiences,” and that the Blue Zones Projects reports “shined up to portray all kinds of positive yet surprisingly vague metrics.”

Fort Worth, Texas, took part in the Blue Zone Project for two years and still saw an increase in reported BMIs. Cedar Rapids and Marion, Iowa were demonstration sites as well for the Blue Zone Project, but once that initial demo period ended, the towns had to pay to continue using the “Blue Zone” brand and accessing their network. 

Then Cedar Rapids Assistant City Manager Sandi Fowler shared that her town contributed $25,000 to the project, but the fee to renew was confidential. We may never know what that fee was, since it was considered proprietary information, but we at least know it was too much of a financial burden to continue!

Albert Lea, Minnesota, served as the original Blue Zone Project community demonstration and adopted several recommendations for 10 months, such as building more sidewalks, shoveling snow instead of using snowblowers, and encouraging more walking. Once this 10-month period ended, the project evaluated outcomes using their online “True Vitality Test.” Allegedly, residents had added 3.1 years on average to their life expectancy. You can access this test too. It’s anything but scientific.

One gerontology demographer named Robert D. Young has gone on the record about his skepticism for the “Blue Zone” trend, saying that “a lot of the Blue Zones stuff is marketing material that is not solid either.” What’s more, one of the original “Blue Zone” researchers said that Buettner “made a lot of money on something that I produced 20 years ago.”

Closing Thoughts

Look, it’s not a scam to eat well, move regularly, and have deeper involvement within your community, but it is a bit suspicious to market longevity as a product for sale. Buettner makes a convincing case with his writing and now his documentary series, but he’s not a demographer nor a gerontologist. I’m sure there are ample centenarians he could interview from non-"Blue Zone" regions who challenge many, if not all, of the nine basic points identified.

There are correlations here, but there certainly isn’t causation. “Blue Zone” markets itself as a cure-all lifestyle for longevity, but it’s really no different from a trendy diet like keto. The difference between these two is that one is outwardly marketed as a diet while the other is masked as something else entirely. No, there’s nothing wrong at all with eating more veggies, developing a sense of purpose, and moving your body daily, but the “Blue Zone” brand is mostly just a money-making machine.

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