Monday Medical: Lessons in living from the Blue Zones
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Research on “Blue Zones,” or areas with high populations of people who live long lives, shows longevity isn’t just about what you eat — it’s about your entire lifestyle.
“Our diet is vitally important for our health, but diet alone is not going to ensure longevity,” said Dr. Brian Harrington, a family medicine physician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “Our activities, behaviors, attitudes, moods, stress, our environment — all of these things play into the physiology of our bodies.”
The concept of blue zones started when researchers found areas with high concentrations of centenarians and circled them on a map with a blue pen. Later, author Dan Buettner built on that work, identifying longevity hotspots — which he dubbed “blue zones” — around the world, such as Okinawa, Japan, and Sardinia, Italy, and pinpointing what they have in common.
Below, Harrington outlines several blue-zone practices that support longevity.
Connect with others
In blue zones, community is a priority. “You have a 100-year-old still having tea in the afternoon with neighbors,” said Harrington. “We have a lot of data that shows the benefit of social connectedness.”
For instance, studies show that the simple act of hugging someone can increase hormones, such as oxytocin, that impact happiness and well-being.
“Love really does change your biology,” Harrington said. “There is empirical evidence that correlates to this.”
Most any group can provide the benefits of community, including a family, a spiritual group, or a team at work. In blue zone communities, there is often interconnectedness among generations.
The right kind of social connectedness matters. Many blue zone communities don’t watch much — or any — television.
“It’s not always that the thing you do is bad for you — it’s that you’re not doing other things,” Harrington said. “If kids are on a screen, that means they’re not out riding bikes or playing with friends.”
Have a purpose
“These people do things that interest them, or that they find worthwhile,” Harrington said. “You need to wake up each morning with a purpose.”
Ideally, that purpose involves helping others. “When you’re helping other people, you’re actually helping yourself socially, biologically and spiritually,” Harrington said.
For instance, studies on resiliency show that people who are most likely to survive trauma often have a history themselves of helping other people.
People in blue zones stay active. Much of this movement is outdoors and is considered “mindless exercise” that is a part of daily life. For instance, people walk to work, spend time gardening or bike to the store.
“These people don’t stop moving. They’re 96 years old and they’re walking a mile a day,” Harrington said. “Research shows that regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do to prevent dementia.”
For people in blue zones, a spiritual practice is an important part of life. That faith can give people a sense of purpose, foster gratitude, provide community and help people slow down through prayer, meditation or other mindfulness practices.
“There’s research that shows if you and I spend 15 minutes each morning in prayer or meditation, our blood pressure is lower,” Harrington said. “It affects your metabolism and physiology throughout the rest of day.”
The perfect recipe
“I tell patients in my clinic every day that I’ve looked throughout my career for a recipe for living long and well. To me, this is the best description of such a recipe,” Harrington said. “It includes diet, yes, but it also includes how you live. One of the things I love is that there are no pills or potions — no shortcuts. And, it correlates with other empirical evidence we have in medicine about how to be healthy.”
If making changes to support longevity feels overwhelming, Harrington recommends starting small.
“Pick some low-hanging fruit,” Harrington said. “Start off with one or two things you can actually change. It will add up over time. For any of these, if you’re not doing them and start doing them, you will reap benefits.”
Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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