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The Blue Zone Effect: The Secret to Longevity

Update Date: Apr 06, 2013 03:07 PM EDT

Blue zones across the globe hold the key to longevity with large populations of centenarians.

A recent study on longevity focused on elderly residents from the Greek island of Ikaria, where Greeks tend to live longer, even when compared to people of neighboring islands.

Ikaria is a "blue zone," where people live well past 90 at a significantly higher rate than the rest of the world.  A recent study published in Vascular Medicine focused on Ikarians between the ages of 66 to 91. Researchers found those who drank boiled Greek coffee at least once a day tended to have improved endothelial function, allowing cells to better function and perhaps improve cardiovascular health.

A 2011 study published in Cardiology Research and Practice also suggests that the longevity of the island's residents could be linked to a healthy diet, physical activity and daily midday naps.

Dr. Christina Chrysohoou, a cardiologist at the University of Athens School of Medicine, and six other scientists teamed up to organize an Ikaria Study, surveying 673 Ikarians. The subjects consumed about six times more beans daily compared to Americans, ate fish twice a week and only incorporated meat into their diet five times a month. On average, Ikarians drank two to three cups of coffee a day, consumed high levels of olive oil and had only about a quarter of the amount of refined sugar as Americans.

Dan Buettner, author of "The Blue Zones," who worked with longevity researchers to study elderly Ikaria residents says that part of the Ikarian's secret to a long healthy life is as much about how they drink their coffee as the amount. Buettner says Ikaria residents usually enjoy their coffee in a social setting after a midday nap and rarely rush to finish their coffee, according to an article from ABC News.

"They also have social interaction their whole life. If you're alone it's a known killer," said Buettner. "So drink your coffee with a friend."

Chrysohoou also referenced a University of Athens Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health study of 23,000 Greek adults. The study found a 12 percent reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease for those who napped once in a while and displayed a 37 percent reduction risk for those who napped at least three times a week.

One miraculous story published in New York Times Magazine told of a Greek-American man who moved back to Ikaria after being diagnosed with cancer. Stamatis Moraitis was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1976 when he was in his mid 60s. His doctors estimated that he had nine months to live and instead of staying in the U.S. and seeking treatment, Moraitis returned to Ikaria and occupied his time gardening, drinking wine with friends and enjoying company past midnight. Moraitis' cancer simply disappeared without medical help or treatment and doctors could not even explain how or why. Perhaps the "Blue Zone" of Ikaria even has healing powers too as Moraitis celebrated his 98th birthday this past January.

Ikaria is not the only "Blue Zone." Researchers found several clusters of "Blue Zones" across the globe, including Corsica, Costa Rica, Japan and even Southern California. Buettner says there is no common element in these locations that can provide the key to a long life; in fact each "Blue Zone" varies in diet and lifestyle.

In Okinawa, Japan there are approximately 50 centenarians for every 100,000 residents, compared to only 10 to 20 centenarians for every 100,000 Americans.

Similar to Ikaria, Okinawa residents statistically live longer and healthier lives compared to other Japanese residents. An Okinawa Centenarian Study focusing on 900 centenarians found Okinawa residents have a diet rich in vegetables and soy products. They also practice "hara hachi bu" which means they only eat until they are 80 percent full.

Loma Linda, California, just outside of Los Angeles has a population of 23,600 and proves to be the only "Blue Zone" in the United States. It is home to the largest population of Seventh Day Adventists in America. In 1958, when researchers realized the town had a significantly lower mortality rate than other areas in the county they began to investigate why. According to an article in ABC News, studies show Seventh Day Adventists tend to live four to seven years longer than non-Adventist counterparts, and happen to be some of the healthiest Americans.

"Seventh day Adventists live a healthy life style," said Annie Bennet, a researcher currently studying the health of Seventh Day Adventists nationwide. "They don't drink alcohol. They don't smoke, and to a large extent abstain from eating meat."

The one commonality in all these "Blue Zones" is that they all offer a sense of community and belonging, said Mario Garrett, a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University.

"That's why they're living longer as a cluster," said Garrett. "If there was no social [environment] we would find is [centenarians] scattered across the world."

"In most other societies, we find once you reach a certain age people discount you," said Garrett. "Even in Corsica [where people are not outgoing] they belong to each other. That promotes the longevity."

Buettner said there is not one thing in particular we can do to replicate the health of Blue Zone residents, rather there are a bunch of little things people can do to live a longer and healthier life.  

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