What Blue Zones Can Tell Us About Healthy Aging

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“Only about five percent of what we experience as adults in terms of life expectancy and health is monogenic,” according to Kenneth R. Pelletier, PhD, MD. “The other 95 percent is dependent on what we do and do not do day in and day out and how it affects our gene expression.”

There is a plethora of internal and external factors that influence whether a genetic predisposition gets expressed or suppressed, said Dr. Pelletier, who is Clinical Professor of Medicine, Family and Community Medicine, and Psychiatry at the University of California School of Medicine, San Fransisco (UCSF). Research indicates that simple lifestyle decisions have significant impacts on longevity—no biohacking required. 

This idea is demonstrated in what scientists call “Blue Zones,” or sites around the work with people who regularly live to 100 years or older. Dan Buettner first introduced Blue Zones in his 2008 book Blue Zones, which identified communities who live significantly longer on average in places like Okinawa, Japan, Sardinia, Italy, and Loma Linda, California. 

Dr. Pelletier and his colleagues at UCSF studied these blue zones to identify the shared characteristics and gain insights into the epigenetics of longevity. Ahead of his presentation at the Integrative Healthcare Symposium, Dr. Pelletier appeared on the Integrative Practitioner Podcast and discussed his research at UCSF on what he calls the "divine dozen" and how they can be translated into lifestyle interventions for daily life.

Blue Zone Characteristics

Upon studying Blue Zones, Dr. Pelletier and his colleagues discovered several commonalities among the communities and their lifestyles. Among the most prominent factors were:

  • Modified Mediterranean Diet: Residents of Blue Zones primarily consume a pescatarian or vegetarian diet, avoiding red meat not for philosophical reasons but because they can't afford it or it isn't a part of their culture. In doing so, they avoid antibiotics and certain nutrients in commercially reared red meat.
  • Limited and Social Smoking: Smoking, often in the form of puffing on small, rolled cigars without deep inhalation, is prevalent. This practice is less harmful due to the absence of fertilizers and pesticides in the tobacco and is more of a social activity rather than habitual smoking.
  • Regular Physical Activity: People in Blue Zones engage in moderate levels of physical activity naturally integrated into their daily lives, such as farming, which involves lifting, bending, walking, stooping, and stretching, without the need for structured exercise routines or equipment.
  • Sound, Clean, and Organic Environment: Blue zone environments have little to no toxins or pollution.
  • Strong Psychosocial Bonds: There is a strong sense of community and support in Blue Zones. People care for each other, offering help with illness, food, and physical activities, emphasizing the importance of a collective approach to raising individuals, including the elderly.
  • Sexual Activity and Physical Touch: Residents maintain an active sexual life well into their later years and engage in frequent physical touch, such as hugging and caressing, which is known to have beneficial effects on physical health, including lowering blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Acceptance of Mortality: People in Blue Zones do not fear death and focus on living an optimal life rather than aiming for a particular age. They often experience a "squaring of the curve," meaning they enjoy good health until shortly before their peaceful passing, usually without prolonged periods of morbidity.
  • Moderate and Social Alcohol Consumption: Alcohol, mainly wine and beer, is consumed more frequently than what is considered moderate in other cultures, but it is done so throughout the day in a social context, reducing instances of alcoholism and excessive intoxication.
  • Effective Primary Care and Use of Indigenous Medicine: Residents have access to good primary healthcare, which often includes traditional and indigenous practices like herbal medicine, chiropractic, massage, and Ayurvedic treatments, sparing them from an overreliance on modern medical technology.
  • Genetic Predisposition to Longevity: While there is a genetic component to the longevity observed in Blue Zones, lifestyle choices are crucial in realizing this potential. "The gene loads the gun, and the lifestyle pulls the trigger," Pelletier said.
  • Sense of Purpose and Belief in a Purposeful Universe: Individuals possess a strong sense of purpose and often hold beliefs in a universe with a meaningful order. This outlook contributes to a life worth living for oneself, family, and community, reinforcing the value of each individual.
  • Old Age is Respected: The head of the family has the final say on major decisions, making them important members of society.

Lifestyle Interventions for Healthy Aging

While many of the divine dozen aren’t immediately applicable to life outside the Blue Zones, some can be easily incorporated into daily life. Dr. Pelletier’s research indicates that factors like stress, a lack of intimacy, and loneliness can be highly detrimental to one's health. 

Aside from the obvious lifestyle changes like eating a modified Mediterranean diet, exercising more, and drinking less alcohol, Dr. Pelletier explained that things like embracing physical touch, finding a sense of purpose, and adopting stress management techniques promote longevity. In addition, he said periodic fasting, practicing altruism, and getting comfortable with the idea of death can have significant impacts on life expectancy.

“Helping others, engaging in social causes, taking better care of children, animals, and our environment, we can do all these things,” said Dr. Pelletier. “They're not extraordinary measures, and yet, the cumulative impact is profound regarding longevity and healthy aging." 

To listen to Dr. Pelletier podcast interview, click here.