Blue Zones

There are a handful of secret spots around the globe, places where for one reason or another people just tend to live a little bit longer. Could Savannah be the next Blue Zone?

There are no shortage of clickbait promises floating around the internet, there to elicit an eye roll from the savvy and clicks from the clueless. “This one simple trick will cure belly fat.” “How drinking apple cider vinegar will lower your insurance rates.” “Do this one thing and you’ll never have to brush your teeth again.” 

But then there’s a YouTube video that promises watching it will tell you “How to live to be 100+,” and for once something on the internet delivers what it promises. Across an 18-minute TED Talk led by Dan Buettner, this video outlines the science behind longevity hot spots he calls “Blue Zones,” areas he studied due to the high concentration of centenarians. 

This isn’t some online snake-oil pitch. This isn’t some miracle diet that melts away “moobs” and tones your glutes. This is a scientific study, built around Buettner’s credibility as a National Geographic fellow, into the intricacies of why we age and what we can do to slow it down. And across this presentation, Buettner highlights four spots on the earth that hold keys to longevity. Sardinia, Italy, where a diet rich in plants feeds a tight-knit population. Nicoya, Costa Rica, where a positive outlook on life called “plan de vida” enriches the spirit. Loma Linda, California, where healthy living and moderation are central tenants of a faith-based lifestyle. Okinawa, where tight social groups called “moai” and a sense of purpose or “ikigai” nurture the soul.

Building upon the success of that TED Talk, brothers Dan and Tony Buettner have made it their mission to take that Blue Zone model and apply it to cities across the country. And if Dr. Luke Curtsinger has his way, you can soon add Savannah, Georgia, to that fabled list of longevity hot spots.

“The Buettner brothers looked at what they had studied and asked, ‘Can we transform those principles and apply them to American cities?’ And they have done that in several places.”

Curtsinger points to Blue Zone success stories in Iowa, where a statewide effort to adopt Blue Zone principles has led to plummeting risk factors for disease and city streets reimagined as fully walkable “complete streets.” Or Albert Lea, Minnesota, where health care claims have dropped 49 percent while the average life expectancy has inched up by three years. From California to Florida, these Blue Zone cities are adopting what are called “The Power Nine,” a set of lifestyle habits shared across those original hot spots that directly contribute to a healthier lifestyle.

But could a Blue Zone lifestyle flourish in Savannah? Could a plant-based diet work in the city that put Paula Deen on the map? Could a city defined by its endless parking woes adapt to become more walkable? Dr. Curtsinger thinks so. Moreover, he sees the dire need for Savannah to change its ways before it’s too late.

“You look at the well-being index, you see Naples rated No. 1 in 2015,” said Curtsinger, pointing to the success of this Blue Zone city. “Savannah ranked 161 out of 190 cities. So we have room to improve.”

That improvement will come at a dramatic shift in Savannah culture, however. A shift that Curtsinger admits may meet resistance. “When you say you’re going to take away the fried chicken, people get fighting mad,” he said. Fortunately, he was joking. “You would not really attack Southern cuisine, but you would change it. There are parts of it that are already changing, in terms of celebrating fruits and vegetables and encouraging community gardens and farmers’ markets.”

The Power 9, According to bluezones.com

1. Move Naturally
The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house- and yardwork.

2. 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.

3. Down Shift
Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.

4. 80% Rule
“Hara hachi bu”—the Okinawan, 2,500-year-old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20 percent gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.

5. Plant Slant
Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are three to four ounces, about the size of deck or cards.

6. Wine @ 5
People in all Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive nondrinkers. The trick is to drink one to two glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all weekend and have 14 drinks on Saturday.

7. Belong
All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add four to 14 years of life expectancy.

8. Loved Ones First
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 three 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).

9. Right Tribe
The world’s longest lived people chose—or were born into—social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created “moais”—groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness and even loneliness are contagious. So, the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.

There’s also the sharp divides that still separate Savannahians across racial and socioeconomic lines, and the issues those can cause to anyone looking to democratize the simple act of taking a walk outside. “Healthy Savannah has been trying to make a linear trail for years, but citizens near that walking trail have blocked it,” he said. “Making the city more walkable is an absolute asset, but some don’t see that way. Residents oppose walking trails because ‘those people’ would be coming into our neighborhood.”
Still, Curtsinger has faith in Savannah. Faith that her people can come together in the spirit of improving their own lives. Faith that the benefits of a longer lifespan will soon outweigh the benefits of greasy Southern food and fear of your neighbors. And he’s hoping you’ll share that faith.

“I’m just a little guy trying to do big things,” he said.

To learn more about the Blue Zone initiative and the cities it has helped transform, visit bluezones.com.

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