Have you heard of Blue Zones? They’re regions of the world where longevity and a high quality of life in old age are the norm. It’s a concept developed by author and world traveler Dan Buettner, and explored in his book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest. During his travels, Buettner became intrigued by places where people lived well into their 90s and even 100s while avoiding many of the diseases that typically befall the elderly.
These communities include the Barbagia region of Sardinia; Ikaria, Greece; the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica; a Seventh Day Adventist community near Loma Linda, California and Okinawa, Japan. You can explore each of these regions on the Blue Zones website.
Partnering with National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging, Buettner brought scientists and demographers to these locations to study them further and recognized nine basic factors that the people in these regions had in common—everything from their physical activity and diet to their social connections and even religion. In his 2009 TED Talk, Buettner remarked that the human lifespan is only about 10% the result of genetics. The other 90% is lifestyle. The goal of the Blue Zones organization is to encourage communities to move toward lifestyle choices that will improve longevity.
Many of the concepts explored by the Blue Zones organization bear relevance for those of us hoping to build Strong Towns and I want to look at a couple of them today. No, I’m not going to tell you what sort of food you should be eating (although I do recommend you check out the Blue Zone info on food if you’re interested) but we are going to talk a little about land use, housing and transportation because it turns out that those can have a big impact on life span and quality of life.
1. Walking as part of life
In an interview with National Geographic, Dan Buettner remarked:
None of the spry 90 and 100 year-olds I met exercise in the way we think of it, like spending half an hour on a treadmill… They live in a place where every trip to the store or to work occasions a walk.
He also confesses that the idea of walking to the store probably sounds hard to most Americans and offers a suggestion:
You can make the decision to move your family from the suburbs to the city, for instance, where that kind of unconscious physical activity can re-enter your life.
It’s fairly obvious that a life which includes regular physical activity would result in better health, but the fact that Blue Zones are actually places where that activity happens naturally, not as the result of going for a jog or taking an aerobics class, is particularly interesting. It’s something we’ve been pushing for at Strong Towns—building communities where the daily tasks of life can be accomplished on foot or by bike. We advocate for this because of the comparatively low financial cost it takes to build and maintain a walkable, bikeable environment over a car-centric environment. But if that financially wise design choice also helps residents live longer, I’m even more in favor of it.
Blue Zone research also suggests that other forms of physical activity as part of daily life such as gardening, kneading bread, and doing household chores (without the help of a machine) can contribute to longer, healthier lives.
2. Family connections
The Blue Zones website explains:
Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).
These revelations about the value of family aren’t particularly shocking, but the conditions that would support strong family connections can be hard to achieve. In a culture that often views the elderly as having little to contribute to society, we sequester seniors away in nursing homes far from our walkable core neighborhoods. If we want to improve longevity, we should be thinking critically about how to create neighborhoods and towns that will allow people of all ages to live near one another.
We covered how to find out about your town's intergenerational housing options and create more housing in this recent article on our site.
In addition to family connections, other social connections are also a major factor illustrated in the Blue Zones of the world. These include strong friend groups, a "tribe" whose values and priorities align with yours (i.e. if all your friends smoke and eat junk food, you probably will too), and a religious community that you regularly participate in.
One of the biggest determinants of longevity that the Blue Zones team discovered seems at first intangible—purpose:
The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
Purpose is certainly not something that can be manufactured, but there are some key design choices that can make our towns places where people find purpose, rather than places where the elderly feel useless and forgotten. The walkability and proximity to family highlighted above are both vital. If a senior citizen can wake up each day and know that he's heading down the block to care for his grandchild, or walking downtown to help his daughter run the family shop, that's an amazing sense of purpose. If a senior has friends living close by with whom she meets regularly to cook meals for people in need, or to work in a community garden, that offers purpose. If, on the other hand, the elderly are confined to senior facilities on the edge of town with nothing around them besides gas stations and big box stores, it's much harder to find a sense of purpose.
I've highlighted three main factors—walkability, family connections and purpose—that merit consideration for those of us aiming to build Strong Towns, but I highly suggest you read about all nine longevity factors here.
My personal reason for being fascinated by the subject of prosperous aging (besides a basic human desire to live a long and happy life) is my grandmother. She's 96, still very mentally sharp, and is evidence of many of the Blue Zone concepts. She has a strong community and many social activities that she does throughout the week which give her purpose and kinship. She also has several long-time friends and she belongs to a church where she regularly attends and volunteers. While she doesn’t live with family, she lives near to family and sees them quite often. (Though I will say, her diet does not follow the Blue Zones food recommendations at all—she basically only eats carbs and meat.)
I hope I can live as joyfully and as long as my grandmother has. Judging by the other women in my family (I have two great grandmothers who both lived well past 90, and my other grandmother is doing well in her 80s), I have that 10% of genetics working in my favor. Now I just need to marshall the other 90% towards building a lifestyle that encourages activity, social connections, healthy eating and purpose.
I know that the environment I live in will go a long way toward supporting (or harming) that goal. The Blue Zones organization understands this. That's why they're working in several regions across the United States to foster “Blue Zone communities” focusing on everything from the built environment to restaurants and grocery stores to municipal ordinances. These include Fort Worth, Texas, Dodge County, Wisconsin and southwest Florida, to name a few.
The Blue Zones website also has a short test you can take to see how your lifestyle stacks up with the nine features compiled by the organization. Take the test and then assess which factors in your built environment might be having an influence on your chances at longevity. The next step? Work to build strong towns where people of all ages can live long and prosperous lives.