The secret of a long life is hidden in five different regions around the world: the islands of Okinawa, Japan, which houses the longest-lived women on the planet, Sardinia, located in Italy, where there are the largest number of men over 100 years of age; Loma Linda, California, USA, Ikaria in Greece and Nicoya in Costa Rica. All these places constitute the so-called “Blue Zones.”
What characteristics do these territories and their centenarian inhabitants have in common? For Dr. Nibaldo Inestrosa, director of the Center for Aging and Regeneration (CARE Chile UC),“These places provide more longevity than any anti-aging pill or therapy that could be applied, because those who inhabit [these areas] have some common characteristics, such as constant and outdoor physical activity, consuming a plant-based diet, and resting the hours the body needs. The aging process involves complex physiological changes that international scientific groups do not fully understand. However, it is possible to use as an example of life the people from these areas, with the aim of having a better quality of life in the last years of our lives”.
Inestrosa explains that the global aging is increasing, “especially in Latin America where there is an important increase.” In 2000, 17% of the population was a senior citizen, and in 2050 this age group will constitute 28.7% of the total population. “However, more and more people reaching older age does not necessarily mean that populations are healthier,” said the National Science Award Recipient at the Icare Breakfast Forum: “Living to 100.”
As people live longer, there will be an increase in cognitive deficit cases worldwide, which in general correspond to more than 80% to Alzheimer’s diagnoses, a disease that affects memory, orientation, understanding, language, learning, and decision making.
The concept of “Blue Zones”
The term was popularized by the North American National Geographic journalist, Dan Buettner, who with the goal of identifying the secrets of a good longevity, for years investigated the customs of the inhabitants of the five zones. The results of his studies were published in his book, Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.
After years of research, he came to the conclusion that life expectancy is above the world average in these regions, as is the case in Okinawa.
Okinawa and Sardinia, an example of centenarians
Okinawa is an island in Japan with the highest proportion of centenarians in the world, 200 per million, which represents 4 to 5 times more than in the rest of that nation. Together with being the territory with the longest-lived women on the planet, its inhabitants suffer 5 times less lung and colon cancer, and 6 times less cardiovascular diseases in relation to Americans.
“In general, their existence is quiet, they walk a lot, they consume fruits and vegetables, also grains, and lots of fish. They eat in small portions until they are 80% full. They also do a lot of outdoor exercises. Additionally, when older adults in the area are asked what is the secret of their good health, they respond that they mainly have a reason to wake up each morning,” emphasizes the Director of CARE Chile UC.
For their part, on the Italian island of Sardinia, men have a survival higher than that of the women. Among the keys to this lifestyle is the consumption of a Mediterranean diet, which includes cereals, fruits, vegetables and grains, a small amount of red meat, abundant fish, olive oil, and the “consumption of one glass of red wine in the morning, which is considered healthy due to the high concentration of polyphenols it contains.”
Moreover, they engage in daily physical activity, have strong relationships with family and friends, stay away from technology and stress, take naps, and live with less hurry.
Greece, the United States, and Colombia: the other centenarians.
In Loma Linda, California, there is a group of Seventh-day Adventists, who eat lots of vegetables, have good family relationships, and dedicate a day to rest. “The inhabitants of this region live a decade more than the rest of the Americans,” adds Inestrosa.
A paradisiacal region of Costa Rica, known as the Nicoya Peninsula, is considered the largest “Blue Zone” because the largest number of people over 100 years old live there. Like in the other territories, its inhabitants eat many fruits and cereals rich in antioxidants.
Thirteen kilometers off the coast of Turkey is the island of Icaria, located in the Aegean Sea, which has one of the lowest middle-age death rates in the world and the lowest rates of dementia worldwide.
A Blue Zone in Chile?
Regarding the possibility of replicating the blue zone way of life, in Chile and elsewhere on the planet, the UC academic is emphatic in pointing out that “here the important thing is to take all that knowledge and apply it, to be able to educate and convince the population of that we must follow that path. Our country requires a change of mentality and that can be done through education over time.”
To reach a hundred years in a healthy way, Dr. Inestrosa stresses that it is essential to eat well, have little stress, improve social relationships, take strolls or walks outdoors and try to have daily moments to disconnect from the screens and obligations. “Each of us can make our environment a small, healthy oasis in the middle of a big city, a small Blue Zone,” adds Nibaldo Inestrosa.
“The planet is getting old”
During the twentieth century, there was a continuous and explosive demographic growth, “caused by economic development, unprecedented in the last 50 years, coupled with improvements in public health, which led to a decline in mortality rates. In 1910 life expectancy was 51 years, in the 1960s it reached 70 and in 2010 it reached 79 years,” explained Dr. Inestrosa.
According to data provided by the Latin American Center for Business Development (CELADE), in Chile, the elderly reached 7.5%. In 2005 that figure increased to 11.5%, “and if we make a projection, we can say that in 2020 we will be at 17.3%. Moreover, by 2050 that age group will reach 28.2%,” said Dr. Nibaldo Inestrosa.
We need to guarantee a better quality of life for people with neurodegenerative and chronic diseases. In this context, the Center for Aging and Regeneration (CARE UC) is not only dedicated to the investigation of the biological mechanisms involved in cognitive alterations, but they also perform studies on diseases such as muscular dystrophy, analysis of the genes that regulate the neural tube closure process, arterial hypertension, among others, maintaining a direction towards the search for therapeutic alternatives.
As people live longer, there will be a significant increase in dementia and cognitive deficit worldwide. In general, more than 80% of these cases correspond to Alzheimer’s disease, which affects memory, orientation, comprehension, language, learning, and decision making. “It is estimated that about 45% of people over 85 years of age suffer from cognitive impairment.”
According to the World Health Organization, 26 million people in the world currently suffer from dementia. “By 2020 about 25% of the world’s population will be over 65 years old, which will directly impact the incidence of this disease,” explains Dr. Inestrosa.
Currently, about two-thirds of the population over 60 lives in developing countries, reaching a projection of about 80% by 2050. For its part, the older group is predominantly female. (By: María Mercedes Barraza C. Agency: Inés Llambías Communications).