Are people more likely to live to be 100 in certain parts of the world?

By: Matt Cunningham

Sardinia, Italy, is one area where people tend to live long, healthy lives. See more healthy aging pictures.
Philip and Karen Smith/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Old age is all the rage these days.

Thanks to a combination of better health care and ever-advancing knowledge of healthy lifestyle habits, men and women in many parts of the world are now living longer than their ancestors -- from even just a few generations back -- would have thought possible. A person who lives into his or her 80s was once thought to be an outlier; now, eight decades of life are within the reach of many, and more and more long-lived people are passing their 100th birthdays. As of 2010, there were roughly 72,000 centenarians in the United States, a significant increase from even 10 years before, when the 1990 Census identified 37,306 in the country [sources: Krach and Velkoff, Sedensky]


The growing likelihood that we can live to extreme old age pushes scientists, sociologists and no small number of entrepreneurs to seek out the secrets behind longevity. From dietary guidelines to health and fitness advice, these age-oriented explorers are slowly uncovering traits that seem to lead to longer-than-normal lifespans. And many are turning their focus to one aspect in particular: the role location may play in extending a person's life.

According to researchers who have studied the topic, there are certain parts of the world where people simply tend to live longer than their peers elsewhere. These areas, ranging from Okinawa, Japan, to Sardinia, Italy, and Loma Linda, Calif., span the globe. And just as their different regions feature unique cultural attributes, the combination of factors that make these areas likely spots to find a centenarian are unique for each [sources: NPR, Blue Zones]. These longevity hotspots are called blue zones, and on the next page, we'll look at some of the factors that may contribute to the high rates of long life in those regions.





Blue Zones

Each blue zone is unique. In Loma Linda, Calif., there exists a large, tight-knit community of Seventh-day Adventists. This religious group follows a faith that promotes a vegetarian lifestyle and a weekly day of spiritual reflection, which translates into a day of rest that few other Americans get in their busy lives. Researchers have found that Loma Linda residents who follow these habits may add 10 to 11 years to their lives [source: Langreth].

In Sardinia, Italy, as with other blue zones in the Mediterranean, residents often consume a diet high in nuts, seafood and healthy fats from plant sources, such as olives. This, combined with a culture in which older residents are highly respected and frequently consulted for advice, promotes both the physical and mental health critical to healthy old age [source: Blue Zones].


But can simply living in one of these blue zones extend your life? It appears it's not that simple.

There are people who die before their time in Okinawa and Sardinia, and there are some in Loma Linda who suffer from heart disease or cancer. The blend of factors in a person living a long, healthy life goes far beyond just location.

That's not to say that the identified blue zones aren't good places to live. Often, they feature low levels of environmental toxins, such as smog and airborne particulate matter, and they tend to feature regional quirks, such as the Sardinians' vertical houses -- in which many small floors are connected by stairs -- that promote activity as part of daily tasks. Likewise, the most easily obtained foods in these regions tend to be healthy choices (think healthy cold-water seafood off the coast of Japan) [source: Okinawa Centenarian Study].

It's a choice to make the most of these regional benefits. If a person chooses to eat unhealthy food despite having healthy options nearby, he or she may be missing out on a life-extending benefit. In the same vein, if a person doesn't become engaged with friends and family, the most supportive culture in the world won't help improve his or her mental and emotional health [source: New England Centenarian Study].

That's actually good news for the vast majority of people who can't simply move to a blue zone. We can improve our daily living habits in ways that reflect these long-lived cultures, and while we might not obtain every last benefit they gain from living healthy lives in very healthy locations, the years we add to our lives can be just as sweet.

For more information on living to old age, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Blue Zones Web site. (May 11, 2011)
  • Boston University School of Medicine. "The New England Centenarian Study." July 3, 2010. (May 10, 2011)
  • Krach, Constance A. and Victoria A. Velkoff. "Centenarians in the United States." U.S. Census Bureau. July 1999. (May 8, 2011)
  • Langreth, Robert. "How To Live To 100." Forbes. April 7, 2009. (May 10, 2011)
  • Murphy, Zoe. "The mystery of Japan's missing centenarians." BBC News. Sept. 20, 2010. (May 9, 2011)
  • National Centenarian Awareness Project Web site. February 2011. (May 10, 2011)
  • NPR. "Can 'Blue Zones' Help Turn Back the Biological Clock?" June 8, 2008. (May 11, 2011)
  • Office for National Statistics. "Number of centenarians grows." Sept. 30, 2010. (May 11, 2011)
  • Okinawa Centenarian study. "Okinawa's Centenarians." (May 9, 2011)
  • Park, Alice. "How to Live 100 Years." TIME. Feb. 11, 2010. (May 8, 2011),28804,1963392_1963365_1963378,00.html
  • The Popular Science Monthly. "Secrets of the Centenarians." October 1894. (May 11, 2011)
  • Sedensky, Matt. "Number Of Centenarians Is Booming In U.S." The Huffington Post. April 26, 2011. (May 11, 2011)