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Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones (2023)

Do you want to live to a ripe old age? Many of us would answer yes, but only if we knew that old age did not mean the end of our physical and emotional health, and mental acuity. Well, buckle up for a pathway to a healthy 100 years that has been and is still being practiced in sites around the world known as Blue Zones. Blue Zones is the term coined by researcher, documentarian, and cycling enthusiast Dan Buettner to describe regions in which people are routinely living to 100 while still leading “vibrant, active, and happy lives”. Strikingly absent from these populations are the diseases and ailments which are currently plaguing many people in nations like Canada and the USA – mainly cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, and many other ailments often linked to inflammation. These disastrous health outcomes are reflected in the declining life expectancy for Americans which has dropped for the first time in a century. While the current life expectancy in Canada (2021) is a bit better at 84.67 for women and 80.62 for men, there is still much room for improvement since our seniors are often suffering from ill health in old age due to diseases like hypertension (83.4%), osteoarthritis (54.0%), ischemic heart disease (IHD) [42.0%], osteoporosis (36.9%), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) [27.3%].  But before we pile on the USA, shockingly 2/3 of the global population will die prematurely due to many of these illnesses.

So why haven’t we mastered the art of healthy living and healthy aging? Sadly, many of us have been taught – erroneously – that the best road to healthy longevity involves dieting (think yo-yo), a gym membership, and a cupboard full of supplements. However, Buettner’s years of face-to-face study and interaction with these populations has revealed otherwise. In his four-part Netflix series, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones (2023), Buettner explores the histories, food cultures, lifestyles, customs, and habits of these amazing centenarians in the hopes that all of us can learn from, and yes, replicate their practices right where we live.

While many people associate a plant-based diet, alcohol avoidance, and cutting down on certain grains and meat with healthy eating, although the five Blue Zones that Buettner introduces in the series share some commonalities, they are by no means exact replicas of each other. So, what links Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa Japan, Ikaria, Greece, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, and Loma Linda, California, USA? Well, you might call it culture, cultures of gathering, celebration, intention, movement, family, and nature. For instance, in all the Blue Zones, especially the non-US ones, exercise and healthy movement are a part of everyday life – think gardening, horseback riding, and kneading bread as opposed to going to the gym. These populations also practice sacred daily rituals in faith-based communities to reduce stress and harmful inflammation. They live active lives with a purpose; knowing why they are getting out of bed in the morning. And yes, they eat healthy, nourishing food that includes whole grains, greens, tubers, nuts, and happily, wine.

In Ikaria, the wine making tradition has produced significant health benefits. Wine makers in the region have been using the same grapes and the same process for centuries to make a chemical-free libation that contains significant amounts of potassium, iron, and other minerals and, when paired with a Mediterranean diet, increases the absorption of antioxidants. For people in Blue Zones, eating is a pleasurable experience that involves the congregation of family and friends, conversation, and laughter. It is not the mindless consumption of too many Canadian and American drive-through and microwave meals hastily eaten in front of the TV. Napping, happy hour, and unwinding are also essential. These communities enjoy life together, forming healthy, active, supportive tribes.

So, what should you be doing now? Eat real food including the healthy, natural ingredients mentioned above. While we know this is challenging for the overscheduled adult, try to cook your food as opposed to choosing what Dr. Mark Hyman calls prepackaged “food like substances” or the over salted, over caffeinated, and over sugared fast-food, drive-through options. Get out and get moving, if possible, with a friend or two or more. Hike, walk, dance, garden, play a sport, just move your body. Build circles of like-minded people who will reinforce and support you in your healthy habits and lifestyle choices. Give yourself permission to slow down and decompress. Yes, meditate and take naps. Take the time to survey your life and dismantle, discard, or rebuild dreams and goals that suit where you are now and where you want to be. Buettner’s compelling documentary series demonstrates that these are the essential steps to living life with a purpose and maintaining excellent health as we age. And isn’t that what we’re all striving for?