Lessons from the Blue Zones Project

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I recently celebrated my grandmother’s 88th birthday with my family.  Granny’s mantra for the weekend was “I never thought I’d live this long.”  She shared about two friends of hers that are 100 and 102.  “Now that’s just plain old,” she said.

In the United States, those ‘old folks’ are members of the fastest growing segment of the American population.  Thanks to advances in modern medicine, Americans are living longer lives.  In 1924, the year when Granny was born, the life expectancy for an American female was 65.1 years.  In 2007, it was 80.8.

One out of every 5,000 Americans will reach 100 years of age, according to National Geographic writer and explorer Dan Buettner.  But in a 2009 TED talk, he shares that there are pockets of the world that have a significantly higher concentration of centurions.  A Danish study of twins suggests that the length of a person’s life is 1/10 determined by genetics — the rest is attributed to lifestyle.  So what is it about the culture and lifestyle of Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Ikaria, Greece that makes living there so conducive to long life?

That’s exactly what the Blue Zones Project aims to find out.  When National Geographic teamed up with Buettner and longevity researchers, they found that cultures that can boast high concentrations of centurions also emphasize:

  • Pleasure in physical activity.  Movement is incorporated into daily routines, with individuals relying less  on energy-saving technology and placing greater emphasis on enjoying nature walks or gardening.
  • Time to downshift, to de-stress, and to unwind.  Slowing down helps to counteract the inflammatory physiological response to stress that builds up over time.
  • A sense of purpose in life.  These communities have extensive vocabularies for life purpose.  Members actively pursue this ‘reason for being’ and support others in doing likewise.
  • A conscious approach to eating. Many diets are plant-heavy and alcohol-light. Overeating is rare.
  • A sense of connection in community.  This may be the result of prioritizing cross-generational care, having consistent faith practices, and being surrounded by people with like-minded approaches to health and quality of life.

What amazes me about this work is how over thousands of years of cultural history, populations in different pockets of the world have adopted similar practices that consistently promote long, happy lives. I wonder how these practices reflect living into calls of life in ministry and discipleship, into the belief that we are made in the image of God.

We may not all want to live until we are 100 years old (Granny reminds me sometimes that she does not!), but we still can appreciate and learn from those that do.

What steps are you taking toward achieving a long and healthy life?

Catherine Wilson

(Image via Flickr user *jos*/via Creative Commons)

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