We all want it. Like a hidden secret only reserved for the rich and famous, what is the key to a long and healthy life? Ask those that live to 100 and it tends to be plenty of naps, a lack of boyfriends or a complex diet of superfoods that leave the pallet cringing. But what if it was far more simple than that?
Enter the Blue Zones - the global pockets of people where they are ten times more likely to hit the magic 100 than someone who has lived their entire life in the United States. First introduced by adventurer and journalist Dan Buettner, these people appear to hold the secret to health and longevity. The secret? A simple combination of diet and lifestyle factors that have major health benefits for all of us.
It’s not surprising the larger portion of these people’s diets is vegetables, and in particular pulses, (beans, lentils and soy). The anti-ageing effect plants exert on our bodies are mainly attributed to their superior ability to deliver fibre and antioxidants to our systems, compared to other food groups.
Plant based diets also reduce your risk of heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes. As well as this, they have also been shown to assist with healthy weight control by reducing the risk of overeating. How fantastic is that? However, adults need around 30g of fibre per day, but most of us come up short - eating only around 18g.
This doesn’t mean you need to drop all meat from your diet. Blue zone inhabitants do consume pork - which is indulged in around once week. By embracing a vegetable based diet, you are massively reducing your fat intake from red meats and also limiting your damage to the environment.
Antioxidants provide protection from oxidative damage, thereby slowing the ageing process. Diets lacking in antioxidants have been shown to increase attrition on telomere length, whereas the following nutrients have been shown to “apply the brakes” and increase longevity:
The Okinawans practice a mantra, “hara hachi bu”, before meals which reminds them to stop eating when they are 80% full. Studies show that eating less reduces the body’s oxidative burden and damage to DNA. This has an extremely positive impact on health and keeps the body in a biologically younger state.
It is also a sensible weight control strategy. Obesity has been shown to accelerate the loss of telomeres, resulting in a loss of 8.8 years of life - an effect described as “worse than smoking”.
Exercise helps to reduce body fat and speed elimination of waste from the body. This reduces the overall burden of oxidative stress. It is also believed that exercise increases the expression of telomere stabilising proteins, effectively producing an anti-ageing benefit.
Blue zoners don’t go to great lengths to work out. Instead the environments they live in encourage them to move naturally. So consider, do you really need that gym membership or would you be better off attending a dance/ martial arts/ yoga class that you really enjoy each week. Can you get up and talk to a colleague rather than emailing them? Can you take the stairs? Success lies in finding ways to effortlessly incorporate more movement into your daily routine.
Stress leads to the release of glucocorticoid hormones by the adrenal glands. It is believed that high levels of these hormones over time effectively shorten lifespan. One study showed that women exposed to stress in their daily life had increased oxidative stress and shorter telomere length than the control group, who didn’t.
The difference in telomere length between the two groups was equivalent to 10 years of life. This suggests that stress predisposes us to early onset age-related health problems.
The world’s longest-lived people have routines to help them offset the stress. This ranges from having a spiritual practice to taking a nap. Emerging research suggests that meditation may exhibit a stress-buffering effect and slow the ageing process. Vedic meditation has a large body of evidence-based support and is a simple meditation technique which may be worth experimenting with.