The Pillars to Become a Centenarian, Learning from People Living in the Blue Zones

There are a few areas in the world where people live to be 100 and older. The best part is that they get to that age healthy, with good mobility, strength, and a good mind. In those areas of the world called Blue Zones, there is little diabetes and almost no dementia. 

Some longevity experts have studied why they make it to be so much older than the rest of the world. The blue zones are spread all around the globe, from Japan to Costa Rica, and their longevity does not seem to be related to geographical location or wealth. 

Scientists found that people in these areas eat whole foods, with little to no processed food consumption, they remain very active until they die, with some working in the hundreds, and almost all have a sense of community where family and friends surround them. 

Most of the groups have some kind of faith system or religion. 

In this blog, I will talk about the importance of eating whole foods, staying active, and why surrounding yourself with loved ones is so important. 

The importance of whole foods for your health

When I travel to South or Central America everything tastes better, and the food smells better too. Why is that? Imagine if you had a garden where you were able to grow and enjoy fresh foods and seasonal vegetables. All over the world, people have these gardens, eating mostly organic foods, without pesticides or fertilizers. When we have a diet mostly based on whole foods, our bodies receive an adequate amount of fiber, minerals, and vitamins among other essential macro and micronutrients. We can metabolize those foods better without gastrointestinal problems or insulin spikes. 

When we eat a large bowl of stirred broccoli with zucchini or coleslaw, we may take up to 30 minutes to finish such a portion. Why is that important? A large plate of vegetables and fruits may contain only a small portion of the calories in a plate compared to a meal based on animal products or processed foods. However, it takes us three times as long to eat the vegetables (they are more difficult to chew). 

There are also very little to no saturated fats present in such meals. Plates filled with fruits and vegetables have a large amount of fiber, which will help you digest, balance cholesterol, and limit sugar absorption. Some of these vegetables are rich in complex carbohydrates, which will lower your chances of becoming diabetic.

Now compare that to a diet high in simple carbohydrates and refined sugars; these diets will spike our sugar, putting us at risk of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Examples of these foods are cookies, white bread, white rice, and burgers among others. 

When we eat complex carbs like those in Japanese sweet potatoes, for example, our stomach will take longer to break down the molecules in the food. Therefore, the sugar (carbohydrate) content will be released slowly, not allowing for sugar spikes; also, the amount of insulin released will be lesser than a meal high in simple carbs, like white bread. 

People in blue zones were found to consume large quantities of complex carbs and foods high in antioxidants, which are great at combating free radicals in our bodies. 

Also, Japan and Greece drink high amounts of herbal teas and homemade wines.

How physical activity can carry you to old age with grace

Physical activity is necessary in order to survive, especially as older adults. If you have a garden, you must go down to the floor and up multiple times while working on it. You do low-intensity exercises by planting, cleaning, and collecting the fruits and vegetables. You also coordinate small but precise movements required for the task at hand: growing your own vegetables. 

The same idea lies behind playing a sport. When we play sports, we have to keep our balance, coordinate movement, and think! If we want to win, we need to strategize, which requires skills at many levels.

Sports also force us to create short and long-lasting friendships with new people. 

One of the most serious complications of old age is a fracture. Most people over 65 never recover. If we can stay strong through old age, our chances of having a fracture drop drastically, and we live longer.

Community supports resilience and improves our long-term health

There are so many activities that lead people to interact with one another. But for some reason, faith and religion bring people together, providing a sense of belonging. Frequent social interactions decrease the chance of anxiety and depression. The sense of belonging gives humans a purpose in life. Cooking, planning and enjoying events together, and looking forward to spending time with loved ones, keep the mind young, and makes older adults feel useful. 

When people plan a party or an evening with family and friends, they spend hours buying or picking up what they are going to cook, they have to spend hours preparing the food, and then they get to dance and laugh with those they love most. They spend hours of pure joy. 

Many of the blue zones that have been discovered tressure the elderly. They learn and grow from their wisdom and life experiences. Whole families adapt to be able to take care of the elderly, and they make sure that they are never alone and that they feel useful. Social structures like this allow older people to feel needed, wanted, and with purpose. At the same time, older adults help with house chores, and they take care of the young when they can. We have evidence that when a person is sent to a nursing home, up to six years are taken from their life, but these people also suffer higher rates of depression and dementia. 

It seems that the secret to a healthy and long life is to remain active, live a life surrounded by people one loves, and eat mainly whole foods. 

My grandmother died at age 105. When I left Cuba, she was 95. She still took care of her house. She cleaned, cooked, and did the laundry by hand. Whenever she made sweets, she ensured that all her grandkids got a piece of whatever she made. I remember her house was always filled with family and neighbors. She loved to eat pork, but her diet was mostly made of black beans and rice, corn, fruits, vegetables, and other legumes. Although she was not a very active person, I am sure the chores around the house kept her heart rate up. 

In my practice, I emphasize to patients the importance of staying active, having a group of friends whom they see often, and doing social activities they enjoy. We over-emphasize the importance of having a diet rich in whole foods and eliminating processed foods and refined carbohydrates as much as possible. However, it is easier said than done. Changing old habits is very difficult for most people, and breaking cultural traditions is even harder. In a society where sugary foods and high-calorie drinks are so accessible, we must do our best to make the right food choices. That’s why it is okay to fail and try again. It is also okay to make small progress. The point is to eat healthier most of the time, not all the time. It is also imperative that we do our best to engage in regular physical activities so we can stay strong and continue to be independent into our older years. We must create habits that allow us to remain as sharp as possible and cultivate a happy soul. What good is it to make it to 100 if we cannot get out and enjoy the world?

The future of blue zones

As you read this, blue zones are disappearing, mostly because of industrialization and modernism. People in those areas have started to eat more of the wrong foods, and they are using machinery to do chores once done by hand ( therefore diminishing physical activity) while more families are placing their loved ones in nursing homes, inhibiting them from meaningful social interactions. 

My advice to you is to stay as active as possible, develop a routine where you see your loved ones at least weekly, and eat as many foods that come from the earth as you can. If you do that, maybe then you also get to live to be 100.

Written bY Dr. Luis Perez
References: Dan Buettner; The Blue Zones Secrets for Living Longer: Lessons From the Healthiest Places on Earth Hardcover. August 29, 2023.