Dan Buettner is an explorer, National Geographic Fellow, New York Times bestselling author, and also the Blue Zones founder.
The Blue Zones concept all started in 2000, following a WHO report showing that people living in Okinawa, Japan live the longest, disease-free lives in comparison to anywhere else globally. His interest in this topic prompted Buettner to travel to Okinawa to discover why and how could this could be so. It also prompted him to find other longevity hotspots or ‘blue zones’ determining common features to discover why people live so much longer in these areas.
Here are the five Blue Zones he documented…
Since the islands at the southern end of Japan were first associated with life longevity, a fascination has ensued in finding the reasons why Okinawans statistically have less cancer, heart disease, and dementia than other regions in the world. And, also why the women here live longer than any other women on the planet.
Aside from the beauty of the islands’ tropical climate, broad beaches, and coral reefs, perhaps their greatest secret is a powerful social network known as ‘moai’ - a lifelong circle of friends that supports people well into their old age. Years of war and hardship have also bestowed the people of Okinawa with strong resilience and sense of purpose in life that the Japanese call ‘ikigai’ – a feeling of being needed, which gives them a reason to wake up each day, even well into their 100s.
Older Okinawans have eaten a plant-based diet for most of their lives. Their meals of stir-fry fresh vegetables, sweet potatoes, and tofu are high in nutrients and low in calories. Goya – a rare variety of bitter melon - is also of much interest with its high antioxidant content and natural compounds that lower blood sugar. Gardening is also a popular pastime in Okinawa, providing a physical, stress-free daily workout as well as a constant source of fresh food.
Getting to Okinawa
Okinawa’s primary Naha airport is located on Okinawa Main Island. A flight from Tokyo to Okinawa takes approximately two and a half hours.
A small cluster of villages on the island of Sardinia makes up the second Blue Zone to be identified by Buettner in 2004; with nearly ten times more centenarians per capita than in the US.
Geographic isolation is thought to play a big part in the longevity of the inhabitants here, in turn creating a community that is also culturally isolated and living a very traditional, healthy lifestyle. Many Sardinians still hunt, fish, and harvest the food they eat. They remain close with friends and family throughout their lives and celebrate their elders for their love, help, and wisdom.
The classic Sardinian diet consists of whole-grain bread, beans, fish, garden vegetables, fruits, and, in some parts of the island, mastic oil. It’s also very normal for islanders to walk at least five miles each day with cardiovascular benefits as well as positive effects on muscular and bone health. Sardinians also drink red wine in moderate and consistent volumes. Their Canonnau variety is made from garnet-red Grenache grapes and contains two or three times the level of artery-cleansing flavonoids as other wines do.
Getting to Sardinia
Flights to Sardinia are available from Italian and European airports. There are three airports on the island – Cagliari, the main airport, sitting on the south of the island; Alghero, in the northwest; and Olbia, in the world-renowned northeastern Costa Smeralda region.
Halfway between Mykonos and Samo in the Aegean Sea, Ikaria is a Greek island, steeped in mythological history. Its name derives from Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who is believed to have flown too close to the sun before falling into the sea near the island.
This tiny island’s long history has been a turbulent one, having been a target for Persian, Roman, and Turkish invaders, however, the result today is a community that is both isolated, and thriving. Today, Ikarians are almost entirely free of dementia and some of the most chronic diseases, with one in three inhabitants making it well into their 90s. Their resilience and lust for life have been cited as big factors in their longevity, as well as strong community ties and an anti-oxidant-rich diet featuring strong red wine, wild goat’s milk, wild greens, and honey.
Its natural beauty is a standout too. Its lush landscapes feature green forests, refreshing streams, and dramatic waterfalls, leading to tranquil beaches, including Nas Beach, Messakti, and Yaliskari. It’s a nature lover’s dream with endless hiking trails and opportunities to see nature at its rawest.
Getting to Ikaria
Flights to Ikaria Island National Airport receive domestic flights from Athens, Lemnos, and Thessaloniki. The flight time from Athens or Thessaloniki is about 1 hour.
Loma Linda, California
Translated from Spanish to ‘Beautiful Hill’, Loma Linda is a city in sunny Southern California. Its flourishing community of just under 10,000 Adventists was founded in the 1840s and since then members of The Seventh-day Adventist church have viewed health as a central part of their faith. They live, on average, as much as a decade longer than the rest of the other US inhabitants.
A vegetarian diet and regular exercise are key to this, plus Adventists don’t smoke or drink alcohol. Most probably another big contributing factor to their long, healthy lives is a weekly break from the rigors of daily life – a 24-hour Sabbath providing time to focus fully on family, faith, camaraderie, and nature. Adventists claim this relieves their stress, strengthens social networks, and provides consistent exercise. They find well-being through sharing and supporting each other, as well as stalling off depression by volunteering and focusing on helping others to find a self of purpose.
Nicoya, Costa Rica
Nicoya, an 80-mile peninsula just south of the Nicaraguan border, is separated from the mainland of Costa Rica by the Gulf of Nicoya and the Tempisque estuary.
Probably the most noted features of Nicoya are the extensive and dramatic coastlines and magnificent beaches. Plus, it is also a hotspot for bird watching and caving – due to its intricate system of limestone caverns.
But aside from the benefits of the sun, sea, and sand, what are the other Nicoyan secrets to a long and healthy life? One of them seems to be their “plan de vida,” - the reason to live. Their positive outlook is strong among their elders and there is a focus on family and a special ability to listen and laugh. Nicoyan centenarians frequently visit with neighbours, and tend to live with families and children or grandchildren who provide support, as well as a sense of purpose later in life.
Interestingly, Nicoyan water also has one of the highest calcium contents - perhaps explaining the lower rates of heart disease, as well as stronger bones and fewer hip fractures. For many years they've also enjoyed a Mesoamerican diet highlighted by the ‘three sisters’ of agriculture: squash, corn, and beans.
Getting to Nicoya
International flights arrive into Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia or the Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose. While domestic flights from Costa Rica itself, fly into Tambor Domestic Aiport or Samara Domestic Airport.
Interested in travelling around the Blue Zones to discover the secrets for yourself? Get in touch with our Untold Story Travel team to start planning your Blue Zone adventures.