Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Costa Rica's Blue Zone and How to Make Your Own

Nicoya Peninsula seen from space (false color)
Nicoya Peninsula seen from space (false color) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Recently, the International Business Times posted an article about the extraordinary lifespan of residents of Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula. The Nicoya is Costa Rica's northern peninsula, a place hosting fabulous white sand beaches and the driest climate in the country. It's home to about 75,000 residents.


According to Dan Buettner, who has studied so-called "blue zones", which are areas where it's common to find people over 100 years of age, "A 60-year-old in Costa Rica has more than a four-fold better chance of making it to 90 than a 60-year-old in America".


Other places that have been dubbed blue zones include Okinawa, Armenia, Sardinia, Loma Linda, CA and a handful of other locales. One could easily draw the conclusion that the remarkable longevity of residents in these areas can be attributed to genetic factors, but Mr. Buettner's research in this area, worldwide, concludes that a population's health is determined almost 90% by lifestyle, and only 10% to genetic factors.


Some of the most important factors leading to a long life are probably familiar to most of us:

  •     A plant-based diet
  •     Exercise
  •     Strong sense of purpose
  •     Strong community ties

These ingredients all apply to the residents of Nicoya where, as in most blue zones, the residents burn about five times the calories in physical activity than the average U.S. resident. Their diet is mostly based on beans, rice, nuts, vegetables and fruits. Families are extended and often comprise whole communities. They have a strong religious faith.

The key here, however, is that these things are a part of daily life, they are not single-purpose "add-ons" to life such as a gym membership (which rarely gets used after about a year). So, to duplicate a blue zone takes a community effort, which Mr. Buettner has also studied in subsequent research with notable success.

Yoga pose by senior

That's not to say that individuals can't effect the necessary changes in their own lives or those of their children, but it's more difficult to do so and to make changes that last. The U.S. is one place that could surely learn something from the blue zone phenomenon evident in the Nicoya Peninsula. The U.S. is dealing with 68% obesity, a declining longevity rate for children and seeing 80% of health care dollars spent treating diabetes, heart disease and cancer, whereas relatively little is spent on prevention of these leading causes of death. Let's hope lessons can be learned and applied from places like Costa Rica so that more people can enjoy a longer and healthier lifespan.

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