They say everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. So while you’re not dying, where do you want to spend your time? Visions of warm, sandy beaches or mountain vistas come to mind—or maybe a dense cityscape fires your quest for art and culture. Everybody has their own concept of the perfect place to play out the drama of their days. But wherever you are, you are still living inside your head, so everything you perceive is filtered through that sieve. It takes an outsider, or someone with an objective bent, to analyze who is really doing better in this locale or that. And just as the world is a list of top ten everythings, a list of best places for happy longevity has emerged, with a roster that, encouragingly, is expanding. Such places have a new name now, thanks to researcher Dan Buettner: the Blue Zones, and they’re not just places with gorgeous scenery and mild weather. Turns out, a lot of it is indeed in your head.
Buettner and a team of scientists did analysis on mortality, health statistics, economics, perceptions of happiness, and a number of other life quality metrics to determine what places in the world offered the best chance for a long and fulfilling life. As the Blue Zone concept has gone on, more and more places are being added to the list, but the original five locations noted for extended life, good health, and happiness were Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Nicoya, Costa Rica. What did these places have going for them? OK, most of them are fairly scenic, but not necessarily world class. Something else is going on here, which is borne out by other locales that have joined the list. The decent weather and pleasant surroundings really only set a stage for the enhanced satisfaction that has to be drawn from other factors. What many of the elderly, satisfied inhabitants of these places had in common were a handful of qualities, arrived at in a multitude of ways. Diet was key, given its effect on health. The various geographic locations presented a broad variety of food choices, but the basic principle was an emphasis on a plant-based diet. Meat was a only a small part of the plate for those racking up the greatest number of years. Depending upon the location, various kinds of beans, grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables were the mainstays of these folks. In Nicoya, for instance, the troika of squash, beans, and corn in the daily menu is a Costa Rican way of life.
Another theme that ran through the lives of the long-lived was regular exercise. Expensive gym memberships and Olympic-intensity workouts, however, were not required. Many of the elders consulted got only moderate exercise—they grew gardens as on Okinawa, or were herders as on Sardinia, or had other physical work that helped them get enough movement to enhance their health and long life. Some were simply in the habit of doing yard work, or walking a few miles to visit friends, especially in the more rural communities like those on Ikaria. Those in more urban settings took part in some kind of sport, or light hiking and walking. Even the simple act of getting up and down off the floor multiple times a day did wonders for lower body strength and balance among Okinawan elders, who are more likely to sit on a tatami mat than a Lazy Boy. The kind of activity amongst these groups didn’t seem to make as much difference as the simple fact of doing something physical every day, and repeatedly, throughout the day.
Those walks to the neighbor’s house involved another of the keys to reaching an advanced age: personal connections. In all the societies found to support a long life, there were strong ties between friends and family. Cultures in some countries are very family-focused, and these people have a leg up on places like modern America, where there are more single-occupant households than ever before. But even single living doesn’t preclude spending significant periods of time with loved ones and comrades who enhance one’s sense of well-being. The feeling of security brought by knowing that a circle of friends and relatives has your back in tough times relieves stress. And the diminution of stress was another notable feature of the long-lived. Stress comes from everywhere, but being in a free country, which all of the original five Blue Zone are, lifts the tension brought on by unstable or repressive governments. Stress from economic insecurity was also lightened by both free market opportunities to create personal wealth, and more socially-supportive governments which guaranteed their citizens a decent economic life no matter the unfortunate turns an individual citizen might suffer. It did not seem that these people needed to be promised a princely life, but simply the opportunity to live with respect, plentiful food, adequate housing, and health. Worries over such things underlie chronic stress.
Though it came in innumerable forms, some sort of religious or spiritual practice, belief, or conviction gave a boost to the goal of accumulating years. Organized religion, besides the comfort of believing in a higher protector, also usually brings the opportunity for social bonds with your fellow adherents. Churches, such as those of the strongly Seventh-day Adventist population of Loma Linda, sponsor meetings and activities far in excess of a once-a-week morning service, and the more interpersonal connections the better if you seek to grow old. Less structured systems of belief or purpose also lent peace of mind, lowering stress and establishing a person’s sense of belonging in the world. Apparently, if old age is your goal, you gotta believe in something, even if it’s no more than your own custom creedo. At a minimum, just joining a club or an activity group, or volunteering for an organization whose goals you support created a similar sense of belonging and brought its attendant benefits.
While the US only had one representative in the initial five top locations, the Blue Zone movement has since spread its message of tips for a long and happy life around the nation and actually created new pockets of mindful wellness. Buettner’s search for the secrets of longevity led him to tabulate the 25 top US cities for such factors as good diet, economic stability, social connections, stable health and vacation time—over a dozen aspects in all. Out of that study came, not surprisingly, several cities in sunny California and Florida, but also many others scattered from Portland, Maine and Manchester, New Hampshire to Minneapolis, Austin, and Anchorage. The solid attributes found in these places translate into more years for those who embrace what their community has to offer. But don’t despair if you live in North Podunk, South Dakota, or can’t manage to move to one of the highly rated cities, a number of which do rank at a higher cost of living. It’s true that a lot of what creates a Blue Zone is indeed external: government, culture, religion, weather, economic system, etc. The good news, though, is that by incorporating the personal principles of the elders into your own life—better diet, more exercise and social connections, volunteering, stress avoidance—you can increase your chance for a long life no matter where you happen to live. Who knows? Experiencing ten decades could be within your reach.
The #1 and #4 Happiest Places in the US are Boulder and Fort Collins, both in Colorado. Get the big picture of that positive, longevity-inducing state on this beautiful satellite map, available from Maps.com.
caption: Ikaria, Greece, has a beautiful coastline, but the rugged interior is where the long-lived elders live, and walk to keep in shape.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Harl5497 (CC by 4.0)
caption: Separated from the San Bernardino Mountains by the much larger city of San Bernardino seen in the distance, Loma Linda is a small city with strong societal connections and a healthy collection of older residents, often Adventist vegetarians.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Persian Poet Gal (Public domain)
caption: Like Ikaria, the island of Sardinia has a mountainous and rural interior, and those who live there benefit from outdoor activity.
source: Max Pixel: Unknown (Public domain)
caption: Okinawa Island has much rural space, with heavily populated areas at its southern end. It is home to many who have reached their nineties and over one hundred, especially among its female population.
source: Max Pixel: Unknown (Public domain)
caption: The super-seniors living on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula most likely grew up with an attitude of pura vida, the national philosophy of an easygoing, simple, and engaged life.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Milei.vincel, Hungary (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)