We each have a finite life span, something most of us think little of day to day. With this in mind it is easy to have an interest in longevity and extending this precious life. Of course, this is more than just about the length of life, but rather the quality of the life we lead and how we maintain our vitality as well as mental agility, physical strength and emotional health into our old age. The question is how best to do this? And where to look for answers?
As it happens, last weekend I attended a presentation given by a US dietician at a neurocognition conference where she looked at the world’s Blue Zones (regions in the world where people live much longer than average) with the aim of learning from them about longevity.
What are Blue Zones?
This a term first coined by Dan Buettner within a National Geographic story in 2005. Five regions were identified as Blue Zones, Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece) and the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California, these places have the highest concentration of people living into and beyond the age of 100 years. Do not picture these centenarians packed into nursing homes unable to care for themselves, but rather visualise a place with a high concentration of fit and vital people in their 70s, 80s and 90s still enjoying life.
Longevity lessons from the Mediterranean
So, let’s take two of these areas Sardinia and Icaria, and look to understand what the people who live here are putting on their plates and what is their connection with food that helps them live longer than average. We already know the traditional Mediterranean diet is associated with reduced cardiovascular risk factors, improved cognitive health and associated with healthy ageing, but what additional secrets do Sardinia and Icaria hold? Here are the key aspects of their diets:-
- A diet rich in vegetables, herbs and wild greens – eating a wide variety of in-season vegetables such as onions, cabbage, lettuce, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, cooked tomatoes and a wide variety of wild greens often collected by hand and eaten as salad (think fennel, dandelion, chicory and wild rocket). Using plenty of herbs such as rosemary, oregano, sage and mint as well as using these for “mountain teas”.
- In-season fruits such as apricots, peaches and citrus.
- Animal / seafoods – goat, sheep and game caught locally and fish such as sardines and salted cod.
- Cultured goat and sheep dairy – goat and sheep dairy contains easier to digest milk proteins in comparison to cow dairy, and the cultured nature of the dairy means that they are rich in lactobacillus benefiting gut health.
- Legumes – fibre packed beans such as broad beans, chickpeas, black eyed peas and split yellow peas
- Almonds and sunflower seeds
- Sourdough bread – specific to Sardinia
- Olives and olive oil
- Alcohol – 1-2 glasses/day enjoyed as an aperitif or with food
- Honey – local, unprocessed, raw honey
The understanding is that many of these foods contain beneficial plant actives such as quercetin (fennel, chives, onions, garlic, capers, olives, tomato), genistein (broad beans), resveratrol (red wine), sulforaphane (wild greens, asparagus, rocket), capsaicin (chilli peppers) and caffeic acid (fennel, olive oil, herbs such as oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme) that reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which underpin many chronic diseases.
The importance of human connectivity
Common lifestyle traits within these Blue Zones beyond the diet included:-
- A sense of purpose
- Connectivity – a sense of community and togetherness as well as respect for their elders and having the same friends for a lifetime. Research tells us that loneliness causes an up-regulation of proinflammatory genes and that good marital relationships positively affect our health
- Restoration through spirituality – taking time to ‘down-shift daily’ think siestas or aperitif time, which is essentially a transition from the work day to personal time
- Movement – move naturally as part of daily life
- Time spent outdoors in nature – foraging and harvesting food, walking and swimming in nature
I know that there are lessons I can take from these Blue Zones into my own life, whether it be dialling up the variety and amount of greens I consume, spending more time in nature and making more time to connect (in the real sense of the world) with my community and loved ones. Also, Sardinia and Ikaria have been added onto my holiday destination wish list – discovering fresh local and traditional foods is for me one of the joys of life.