IMAGINE a place where people have managed to postpone the ageing process and the modern diseases that plague the 'golden years' of westerners. A place where there are more centenarians than anywhere else in the world. Sound like a fantasy? Well, turns out, these places do exist.
A blue zone is a region of the world where people commonly live active lives past the age of 100 years. Five areas where small populations are living notably longer than average have been identified: the Barbagia region of Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and the island of Icaria in Greece.
Scientists have studied blue zoners and their research shows strong similarities in how they lead their lives. As a nutritionist, this subject fascinates me, so I've put together a guide to living longer from the people who've lived the longest.
Although blue-zone diets vary based on the traditional cuisine of the region, some similarities exist. They tend to be plant based with little red meat but plenty of vegetable proteins such as beans and nuts. Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. The humble bean helps to lower weight and cholesterol, and reduces a person's risk of developing type-2 diabetes, colon cancer and heart disease.
Similarly, snacking on nuts, about a handful a day, has been associated with an extra two to three years of life expectancy. Other common staples include whole grains such as brown rice, 10 portions of fruit and vegetables per day as well as plenty of seafood.
THE 80PC RULE
On the island of Okinawa in Japan, where people live longer than anywhere else in the world, they say "Hara hachi bu" before meals to remind themselves to stop eating when their stomach is 80pc full. This could make the difference between losing weight and gaining it and being overweight is a high risk factor for all the major diseases.
It's also important to sit down at the table to enjoy the meal in a relaxed fashion instead of eating on the run. Consider replacing large dinner dishes with smaller plates -- people in the blue zones make their last meal of the day the lightest one.
>USE IT OR LOSE IT
In order to live long and healthy you have to earn it. A daily routine of regular exercise is common across all blue zones. However they don't incorporate exercise into their lives with treadmills and stair masters -- the exercise comes for free, built naturally into their daily lives. In blue zones people walk everywhere and generally use their bodies to perform their daily activities. You may argue that your office job does not allow for that but we can all incorporate more movement into our lives by taking the stairs instead of the lift, doing house or garden work or getting off the bus a stop early.
DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF
Those who are living a life full of stress, anger, and resentment tend to have high levels of the stress hormone cortisol circulating in their system. This can lead to chronic inflammation in the body which is associated with every major age-related disease.
Even the blue zoners experience stress, but they all have simple strategies for counteracting it. For example, the Okinawans meditate daily, the Ikarians take siestas and the Sardinians drink a glass of wine each day.
Find a stress-reduction strategy that works for you, such as meditation, yoga or deep breathing, and make it part of your routine.
KNOW YOUR PURPOSE
By figuring out what gets you out of bed in the morning you can achieve one of the most important keys to longevity. Research suggests that having a sense of purpose adds up to seven years of extra life expectancy. The Okinawans call it "ikigai" and the Nicoyans call it "plan de vida".
Having goals for each day leads to longer, healthier lives for both men and women. Figure out what you're good at, and ways to put your skills into action.
Optimism and the ability to cope were the most important factors for ageing, according to research by the University of California. So, the prescription for longevity involves having more fun. So playing games or sports with others, dancing, singing, having sex, laughing out loud and even drinking wine in moderation is all recommended by the blue-zone lifestyle.
The vast majority of centenarians in the blue zone belong to some type of faith-based community. Research shows that attending a faith-based service once a week creates a sense of belonging that can add between four to 14 years of life expectancy.
>PRODUCT OF YOUR ENVIRONMENT
Studies show that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. Weeding out negative people and surrounding yourself with positive people can add years to your life.
Those who live the longest also put their loved ones and family first and invest time and energy in their relationships. Mealtimes are an important event in everyday life of blue zoners and are seen as a way of maintaining strong connections to family.
>DNA IS NOT YOUR DESTINY
Only about 25pc of how long we live is genetically determined. The dominant factor is lifestyle. In other words, it's not the cards we get but how we play them that determines the final outcome.
Even if you don't reside in a blue zone, it's never too late to start living as though you do. The individuals who are reaching 90 or even 100 years old in the blue zones are often able to live active, medication-free, healthy lives to the very end. It's an inspiring revelation, and it gives hope to all of us that we too can live healthy in addition to living long.
Elsa Jones is a nutritional therapist and presenter of How Healthy Are You? on TV3. Elsa also offers one-to-one consultations www.elsajonesnutrition.ie