Every so often, people will start to get excited about a small town where people routinely live to be 100. That town might be on the Japanese island of Okinawa, or the mountains of Sicily, or in a desert town 60 miles east of Los Angeles. These, and other places, have come to be called “Blue Zones,” a term first coined in a 2005 National Geographic feature about longevity.
It’s tempting to look for magical explanations for these long-lived communities: Maybe it’s the water, climate, or particular vitamins! Or maybe the locals have access to freezing chambers that some claim delay aging!
As in most things, the answer is both more simple and more difficult.
What these places have in common is, in fact, a kind of simplicity. These blue zones are not wealthy enclaves. They’re not the spots close to world-class medical centers. Instead, these are places where a combination of necessity and culture have kept life focused on the essentials: exercise, whole foods, strong human bonds. People in these places may not have a car or only have limited access to one, so they move more. They tend to eat less meat; local produce is cheaper. They live in communities with strong social ties. Meaningful relationships absolutely contribute to well-being.
Alas, in a modern, prosperous country, these conditions may be hard to recreate. Cars, fast food, digital distractions, the demands of work—all these push us away from healthy habits.
But as I tell the families I work with, it IS possible to create your own blue zone. Of course, there are plenty of consultants who will charge you for menus and exercise plans. I cared for one family that spent $5,000 for testing and another $5,000 for doctor visits and more than 30 different daily supplements. But none of that improved the dementia of the 64-year-old woman who became one of my patients.
The key to the simple life is, actually, simple:
- Cut back on sugar. That means drastically limiting processed foods. Sugar lurks in all sorts of processed products: prepared tomato sauce, crackers, even pickles!
- Limit how much meat you eat. A regular serving should be no larger than a deck of cards. You don’t need meat at every meal!
- Move your body! Just 30 minutes a day can make a huge difference. If you’ve been a couch potato for decades, make sure to check with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.
- Take time for relationships. Our bonds with people not only feed our souls, but they help our bodies. So check in with friends and family. Join a club. Get involved in a local organization or religious congregation. Volunteer.
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Elizabeth (Dr Liz) has over twenty years of experience in providing medical care to the elders. She is board-certified in Internal Medicine, Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care Medicine. Dr Landsverk founded ElderConsult Geriatric Medicine, a house calls practice, to address the challenging medical and behavioral issues often facing older patients and their families.