Back in my Alameda 7 post, I made reference to “The Blue Zones,” which is a demographic study of areas of the world where people live measurably longer periods of time.The Blue Zones idea and suggested conclusions (more on that in a moment) were vaulted into the consciousness of health-minded folks largely due to Dr. Oz and an entire episode on Oprah outlining the 4 Blue Zones that had been discovered at that time (there are now 5).
I’ll give a brief rundown of the gist, outline these zones, list the found similarities in how these groups live, and offer some criticism as to the conclusions drawn.
The main thrust of the Blue Zones starts with a study, known as the Danish Twin Study. This study followed 2872 Danish Twins born between 1870 and 1900. After all of these pairs had died, statistical analysis was performed and determined that ~25% of the variance in longevity can be attributed to genetic factors. Later studies give a slightly larger range, from a high of one-third to a low of 15%. So if we’re pessimistic, only one-third of our longevity is related to genetic factors, thus the remaining 70% is due to lifestyle. This was the thrust of the Alameda 7 study: follow some simple habits and you’ll gain quality years of life.
The book is based on the work of Michel Poulain, who identified a mountainous region of Sardinia where men lived longer than women, but both live longer than the rest of Sardinia. Fun fact: it’s a “Blue Zone” because that’s the color they used to identify the region. Really, take a look:
After the statistical analysis was found to be accurate, that there was in fact a positive longevity outcome, the search for more of these places around the world began. Many Don Quixote-types claim that their area of the world has a positive outcome on longevity. My wife even spent a year in one of these places: Vilcabamba, Ecuador. In her own words, “The guy who probably convinced the gringos that you lived forever there was my host father. He was a fantastic story teller.” I mean it’s a gorgeous place, but no longevity advantage has been found:
The Five Blue Zones
So after digging and intense statistic analysis, these 5 zones have been confirmed:
From these 5 spots, the authors attempted to “tease out” a de facto longevity formula, which is this:
Now I won’t spend time unpacking those, but I would suggest that they’re directionally accurate and very similar to what was found in the Alameda 7 study. If you were able to follow the above list regularly, then you’d likely be in a good place to maximize your longevity free of chronic diseases.
I have some problems with the conclusions derived from the Blue Zones. Not enough to throw it out (it’s really a great piece of work) but to bring attention to things that I feel are worth reducing the importance of when compared to the authors of the book:
- The book goes on about all of the exercise of a decent intensity that these people are doing, but then concludes that if you “move naturally” you don’t need to exercise. They’re not talking Movnat-style exercise, but maintaining a high level of physical activity through gardening, walking, or “inconveniencing yourself.” This is great stuff, mind you, but the audience of the books needs to be considered. I learned in graduate school how if a researcher is not on top of a person, they’d count walking to the mailbox as “10 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity.” For Americans, I feel there needs to be some sort of intervention of activity to demonstrate meaning of “moderate physical activity” while also addressing the musculoskeletal imbalances these people have. It’s not like I’m talking out of my ass here: I’ve made a career of this because it’s so common. Eventually, when you’re in better shape, you want to move more, like you can’t sit still. This isn’t accounted for: the conclusion ignores the cause of why these people move so much, which is that they’re already healthy and fit. It’s the same reason all the fat people on the “Biggest Loser” are forced to move a ton. Correlation and causation are flipped.
- It’s also noted that all of these groups are isolated, which means that there is a significant “Founder Effect” to consider. That is when a population splinters off from a larger population, thus reducing genetic variation. While the Blue Zones demonstrate a founder effect that selects for a genetic maximization of these good habits (e.g. phenotypic expression), other founder effects lead to things like the incredibly high rate of deafness on Martha’s Vineyard, leading to things Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language. Remember that while genes play a relatively small part of longevity, these populations may have the most important reduced genetic variation to maximize the longevity effects of their lifestyles.
- It’s hard to prove a negative. In the New York Times article about the Ikarian blue zone, Gary Taubes asks this question: “Are they doing something positive, or is it the absence of something negative?” So while they are eating more vegetables than your average American, they’re also eating very little white flour and sugar compared to your average American. If it’s not there, you can’t see its effect. What is being contributed to veggies might actually be the lack of sugar and flour. It’s especially hard to compare the lifestyle effect; again these are isolated populations. Would the lifestyle-credited longevity benefits remain if sugar and flour were added?
I like this book. I have a dog-eared copy that I’m sure I’ll have to replace at some point because I read it so much. I’m on board with the lifestyle habits that maximize longevity but I like to remind people that, due to a variety of factors, these habits may simply be what maximizes longevity in these populations due to their genetic makeup. Take these habits on and you’ll significantly improve the quality of your life, just don’t expect to live to 110 because some of those in the Blue Zones have.
Skyler Tanner is an Efficient Exercise Master Trainer and holds his MS in Exercise Science. He enjoys teaching others about the power of proper exercise and how it positively affects functional mobility and the biomarkers of aging.