For most Australians, the thought of living to 100 is idealistic. Something reserved for serial cyclists who dare not touch a can of Pepsi to their keto-exclusive lips. The rest of us merely facetiously muse about receiving a letter from the King: “Ahh, congratulations my good fellow on becoming a centenarian. Jolly good show!”
But for those living in the Blue Zones, our idealism is their reality: an exemplar of healthy living.
What is the concept of Blue Zones? Five regions in the world with the highest number of centenarians, or people who live to the age of 100y, have been classified as Blue Zones.
And in the four-part Netflix series, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, explorer and author Dan Buettner travels to the regions to learn about the lifestyles of the inhabitants.
So, where are the Blue Zones? Okinawa in Japan, Sardinia in Italy, Ikaria in Greece, Nicoya in Costa Rica, and Loma Linda in California.
And what do they all have in common? Plant-based diets, natural movement and strong social connections.
Okinawans maintain a powerful social network called “moai” and have a strong purpose in life called “ikigai”. Sardinians hunt, fish and harvest their food. Ikarians enjoy a relaxed pace of life and clean air which draws them outside into nature. Nicoyans’ plan de vida (or reason to live) is their focus on family. The Adventists of Loma Lida place health high in their faith, adhering to vegetarianism and exercise.
The biggest commonality for the Blue Zone centenarians is their Mediterranean-style diet. Inhabitants of the Blue Zones eat 95 per cent plant based, and they opt for water, coffee and tea over sugary drinks.
Next to food, those in the Blue Zones get plenty of sleep; they engage in hobbies; get involved with their communities; they find their purpose and strive to achieve it; they spend time in nature to reduce stress. This time in nature leads to “loads of incidental movement and activity,” says founder and director of Fitness Energy, Jane Kilkenny.
These communities break bread and drink red wine around a family table, they stay up late to play games and chat with friends. It is this ability to “maintain excellent social and personal connections” which contributes to their health and longevity.
We know that screens are replacing human connection. In April 2023, the Australia Bureau of Statistics revealed that nine in ten children (90 per cent) spend at least one hour a week on screen-based activities, with a rise in children spending more than 20 hours a week on a screen.
“Technology and social media have actually caused a shift in the way the world communicates,” Jane tells us. “I think it is plausible to conclude that these changes have not always provided positive outcomes.”
It’s not all bad news for Australia. We have the third highest life expectancy in the world, behind Monaco and Japan – as per the ABS. We are one of the few countries which experienced an increase in life expectancy during the COVID pandemic. As of November 2022, there were about 4,250 people aged 100 years or older living in Australia. By 2050, the ABS estimates that we will have more than 50,000 reaching a century.
While our proximity to gorgeous beaches and a plethora of fresh produce should make Australia the perfect habitat for centenarians, we sadly take certain things for granted. In fact, our national diet score falls well below a healthy level average, new research from CSIRO shows. Unlike people in the Blue Zones who champion a natural diet, Australia eats far too much processed food.
“I am not convinced that Australia is in such a good position when it comes to quality of life,” says Jane. “We might be living longer, but I think there are many options to improve our quality of life in our senior years.”
What can we learn from the Blue Zone lifestyles?
Some simple tweaks in our diet and lifestyle adapted from how the Blue Zoners live can go a long way. Here are five things you can do:
Eat more plant-based food
“[People in Blue Zones] eat lots of vegetables, beans and also natural sugars from fruits,” says . “Grains are also important, and meat is sporadically consumed, not a staple of the daily diet. There is absolutely minimal processing in their foods.”
Apart from placing more of an emphasis on a natural diet, Australians should consider how much time we are spending indoors.
“We need to really increase our incidental activity levels,” Jane says. “Just because we might go to the gym for an hour a few times a week doesn’t mean the rest of our life can be spent on the couch or at the desk. We need to take every opportunity we can to move more. Movement is medicine.”
Modern society undoubtedly has a sleep crisis, with most of us not getting enough sleep in terms of hours as well as quality of sleep. Restful sleep is essential for health and longevity as that is when the body repairs itself at a cellular level. Switching off devices at least an hour before bedtime, having a consistent sleep routine and ensuring your bedroom is a restful sanctuary are some easy ways to nudge your way to better sleep.
According to Harvard Medical School, a growing body of research suggests having a sense of purpose in life is associated with reduced risk of early death. Whether it’s volunteering, finding a higher purpose in your daily work or contributing to community activities, make an effort to add a bit more meaningfulness into your life.
Foster relationships with family and friends
Perhaps the biggest takeaway, however, is how much the people of the Blue Zones value their relationships. You can eat the freshest plants and swim in the cleanest seas, but there’s no underestimating the physical and emotional benefits of connection.
Health News says research consistently demonstrates that people with strong social connections tend to live longer than those who are socially isolated. Strong connections encourage healthier habits, cognitive stimulation, emotional well-being, a sense of purpose, reduced stress and improved self-esteem. All of which contribute to a long, fruitful life.
As always, love is the answer. So cherish your friends and family and maybe you will be getting a letter from the king, after all.