Coast of Sardinia, Italy, one of the world's few blue zones.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

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What's a blue zone, and am I living in one?

The so-called "Fountain of Youth" is one of history's long sought-after mysteries: a legendary bubbling spring that restores a person's youth if he drinks its water. Spanish conqueror Juan Ponce de Leon, who sailed with Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493, is most famous for his search for the fountain. In his expedition, he would search the coasts of Florida and be the first European to discover the Gulf Coast. Unfortunately, he would die in Havana, Cuba before ever finding the mythical source of everlasting youth.

While most of us don't believe there's an actual fountain that spouts magic, life-giving water, the idea of the Fountain of Youth says a lot about our desire to cheat death and live as long as possible on Earth. Despite all of the hardships and minor annoyances, humans seem to enjoy life, and living a long, productive and healthy one is important and meaningful to many.

Some medicines, aptly nicknamed F­ountain of Youth drugs, are making big waves in the pharmaceutical industry, as the company GlaxoSmithKline purchased anti-aging drug developer Sirtris for $720 million in June 2008 [source: Wired]. The multi-million dollar acquisition of Sirtris shows just how much GlaxoSmithKline, a giant in the pharmaceutical industry, believes in the potential of Fountain of Youth drugs.

Although these drugs may not provide immortality, scientists hope to offer longer life spans for people in the near future.

But some are worried about possible side effects that might come with taking a pill that slows the aging process, and others wonder if the drugs will even work at all. One way to combat old age, they argue, is to study blue zones -- places on Earth where people live longer and healthier lives on average.

Where are these blue zones, and what are their inhabitants doing to gain a better chance of reaching 90, or even well past the age of 100? Is it medicine, genetics or lifestyle that determines blue zone life expectancy? And is it possible to create your own blue zone, a self-made Fountain of Youth? To learn how people living in blue zones become centenarians, read on.

 

A fish farm in Sardinia, Italy, where diners enjoy a midday meal on a Sunday, has been in the same location since the fifteenth century.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

Blue Zone Longevity

There are four acknowledged blue zones around the world, and at first glance each one appears vastly different from the next. They are:

  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Sardinia, Italy
  • Loma Linda, Calif.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

Although all are located in far-off corners of the world, members in each location's population have a higher chance of reaching a healthy age 90 than anywhere else on Earth. They also have higher percentages of centenarians, or people who've reached the age of 100.

Experts visiting these areas have studied and interviewed the citizens of blue zones, and what they've found is that people living inside them don't take pills, vitamins or supplements to increase their life span. In fact, Dan Buettner, a writer for National Geographic, gathered together nine commonly known tips that are a part of every blue zone culture in his book "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest." They are:

  • Move naturally
  • Cut calories
  • Avoid meat and processed foods
  • Drink alcohol, especially red wine, in moderation
  • Maintain a positive outlook on life
  • Reduce stress
  • Belong to a community
  • Keep family first
  • Surround yourself with people who have similar blue zone values

Sheepherders in Sardinia, for instance, spend much of their time walking, and inhabitants often drink red wines rich in polyphenols, antioxidants that help slow the aging process. Okinawa's residents drink mugwort sake, remain active and honor the elderly. In fact, most extended families live together or close by. Costa Ricans on the Nicoya Peninsula make a living as farmers and also drink lots of red wine. In Loma Linda, Calif., the only blue zone in the United States, there's a large population of Seventh-day Adventists who have developed a close community and keep strict diets, even though they live right outside the densely populated, smoggy city of Los Angeles.

Local women distribute tiste, a drink made from rice and cocoa, in Nicoya, Costa Rica.

Teresita Chavarria/AFP/Getty Images

Do you have to move to a blue zone to take advantage of long life? Most experts would tell you absolutely not. Blue zone inhabitants act as examples for others to live by, so it's entirely possible to create your own blue zone within the boundaries of your own home or community. As an example, walking to a train station instead of suffering the stress of a morning commute to work will keep you active and moving. Also, maintaining contact with friends, family and your community will create an emotional network of bonds which can reduce stress and improve your outlook on life.

Michael Cera, far left, as George Michael Bluth on the comedy "Arrested Development" would adhere to the eighth blue zone lesson: Family first, not breakfast.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Scientists also theorize that less than 25 percent of how long we live is determined by our genes; the remaining 75 percent or so depends on lifestyle choices [source: ABC News]. So although you might have a better chance of reaching 90 if your grandparents did, the main factor in the equation is how you choose to live your life.

To learn more about aging and the body, see the next page.

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Sources:

  • Buettner, Dan. "Report from the 'Blue Zone': Why Do People Live Long in Costa Rica?" ABC News. Feb. 2, 2007. (June 25, 2008) http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/LivingLonger/story?id=2843049&page=1
  • Buettner, Dan. "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest." Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008.