Analysis: Those in Blue Zones were shown to have the highest concentration of centenarians (people living to be 100 years old) compared to anywhere else on earth with environment and lifestyle factors playing a big role.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore issues surrounding well-being and mental health. With time on our hands in lockdown, people were reassessing their lives and – in echoes of Oscar Wilde - assessing the value rather than price of things.

In the long-term, wellbeing and happiness could be measured in terms of longevity and life's fulfilment. So can we learn anything from those that have lived – I mean really lived, say beyond 100?

As far back as 2005, writer and explorer Dan Buettner and his team working for National Geographic published the results of their unique quest to discover the secrets of longevity from across the world.

Their efforts were rewarded when they uncovered five locations, or Blue Zones, which were shown to have the highest concentration of centenarians (people living to be 100 years old) compared to anywhere else on earth.

The locations were as follows: Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece) and the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California (USA). People living in these locations were not only living longer lives, but also healthier and more fulfilling lives, filled with purpose and reduced rates of illness and morbidity.

You might be thinking that to live to 100 years old takes superior genetics? Not so, because the Danish Twin study determined that genetics accounts for only 20% of longevity factors, while the remaining 80% is related to environment and lifestyle factors.

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From RTÉ Radio One's Today with Claire Byrne, Professor Cliona O'Farrelly, Chair of Comparative Immunology, Trinity College talks about exercise to benefit our immune system.

So, what do the people living in the five Blue Zones identified by Buettner’s team have in common that could be contributing to longevity? Well, the Blue Zone common traits can be summarized into nine principles:

1. Movement: You won’t find the Blue Zone centenarians at the gym or training for marathons, instead their lifestyles allow for low-intensity frequent natural movement. Natural movement can include gardening, walking to the shops, kneading bread, and manual housework without electronic assistance. This natural movement keeps Blue Zone centenarians active and limber.

2. Purpose: Do you know what your 'raison d'être’ or ‘reason for being’ is? The Okinawans in Japan call it ‘Ikigai’ while the Nicoyans in Costa Rica call it ‘Plan de vida’. To not know your purpose has been associated with a low sense of well-being, dissatisfaction, hopelessness, and self-perception of ill health.

Those without a sense of Ikigai have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality. Examples of Ikigai may be a parent providing for their children, a doctor whose purpose is to heal their patients or a sportsperson training to become the best in their field.

3. Reset: Most of us are aware of the negative impact stress can have on our health and life overall. The people of the Blue Zones are not exempt from this - however their lifestyles have inbuilt strategies to counteract the impact of stress.

The Okinawans will dedicate a few minutes each day to remember their ancestors, the Seventh-day Adventists of Loma Linda will pray, the Ikarians will take a nap, while the Sardinians will have a drink (in moderation of course!).

4. 80% full: ‘Hara hachi bu’- the Okinawan phrase meaning to eat until your belly is 80% full. The people of the Blue Zones will often eat their largest meal by late afternoon and will not be found picking at food or snacks late in the evening. This habit naturally helps prevent excess weight gain and its related physical, mental and medical complications.

5. Plants: The diet in the Blue Zones is predominantly plant based, filled with vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, wholegrains, and fermented foods - but that isn’t to say that the people of the Blue Zones do not consume some meat. Meat is reserved for special occasions, eaten only four to five times a month. Normally no more than 60g of meat is eaten, a portion roughly the size of the palm of a hand in one sitting.

6. Wine: Good news - alcohol is consumed! However, the Blue Zones centenarians consume alcohol in moderation, usually having a glass of wine with a meal. The Sardinians drink their local Cannonau wine, boasting high content of antioxidants and polyphenols, with some research showing decreases in inflammation. On the other hand, the Seventh-day Adventists of Loma Linda are the Blue Zone exception since they abstain from alcohol. The jury is still out on this one.

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From RTÉ Radio One's The Ray D'Arcy Show Neven Maguire chats to Ray about healthy eating.

7. Belong: Centenarians are often part of a faith-based community. The denomination of faith is not important but attending faith-based services four times a month is estimated to add four years to your life expectancy.

8. Social circles: Our social network is incredibly important to longevity. The Okinawans used the term ‘Moais’ to describe the tribe of people that will support you throughout your life, for both the prosperous and the less favourable times in a person’s life. Your social group can have important influences over a person’s diet, exercise routine and other health behaviour habits, which will influence longevity.

9. Loved ones: To the people of the Blue Zones, family is everything. Family members live locally to each other. Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and even great-great-grandparents play active roles in the family dynamic. Significant time is invested with their children and aging relatives rarely go into nursing homes. This family aspect is a hallmark of the Blue Zones.

So how can we use this knowledge to our advantage? You could begin by finding out an estimate of your predicted life expectancy and discover the weak spots in your lifestyle that can be changed or supported to extend your longevity and happiness.

Make it fun, start with one change at a time, get your family and friends involved, explore and reflect upon your life's purpose, experiment with new ingredients, feel the excitement of trying new foods and different types of movement. Importantly find changes that work for you and your life, after all reducing stress is a key component to living the Blue Zone life.

Estimates show Ireland is ranked 18th in the world in terms of life expectancy, with Japan taking the top spot. In 2016, Ireland’s most recent census showed 456 centenarians living in Ireland, accounting for 0.01% of the total population, compared to Japan's 0.06%.

By implementing the above nine Blue Zone principles it could help to increase our country’s longevity, but more importantly help people to live fuller lives, filled with laughter, purpose, satisfaction and reduced health concerns.

If you are choosing to incorporate any of these aspects into your life, the important thing to remember is consistency.

The centenarians of the Blue Zones have had these nine principles as part of their entire lives. While there is no way to guarantee living to 100 years old, I’m sure most of us can agree we can learn from these wise communities on how to live more memorable and rewarding lives.

As the saying goes – is fearr an tsláinte ná na táinte, your health is your wealth!


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ