Researchers discover communities where people live well into their 100s


Published: Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 11:36 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 11:36 a.m.

Imagine a place where there is almost no dementia, and cancer, chronic and cardiovascular diseases are rare; where there is nap-time and tea-time and even wine time; and where your most reliable means of transportation are your own two feet.

That place is Ikaria, a Greek island where people are three times as likely to live to 90 as they are in the U.S. Ikaria is the latest place to be named a "Blue Zone community," a project in which scientists and a National Geographic writer spent two decades identifying places where people were living the longest, and healthiest lives.

"What we recognized is that these people were so different," Amy Tomczyk said. "They are active, vibrant contributors to their community; they have the wisdom of their culture and become more and more valuable as they age."

"We recognized how important that is and we wanted to know what were the components that played into that level of happiness."

The Blue Zones identified five communities: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, Calif.; and Ikaria. Then they identified nine principles, called Power 9, which these communities' oldest inhabitants had in common. These include having a sense of purpose, putting loved ones first, having a good social circle, and a faith-based community, and regularly practicing rituals to destress. Diet and exercise principles include making movement a part of their daily routine, eating a primarily plant-based diet, eating only until they are 80 percent full, and drinking wine.

"These all make sense but there is no empirical evidence that they work — it's mostly observational," said Marco Pahor, the director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida.

Pahor explained that only randomized controlled trials focused on interventional behaviors and outcomes would truly determine the efficacy of these principles. He is currently working on his own study — the Life Study — which primarily assesses whether physical activity programs can improve the longevity of 1,600 older adults. It also will test cognitive function and cardiovascular and pulmonary events.

Pahor also questioned some of the Blue Zones' Power 9, such as the "plant slant" diet and 80 percent rule.

"If you limit your meat intake your skeletal muscles shrink," he said, adding that people lose muscle mass as they age, and that many people who live the longest either maintain their weight or even gain a little as they age.

"But, I cannot argue with drinking two glasses of wine a day," he said.

Blue Zones in the U.S.?

Are the Power 9 transferable to the U.S. and elsewhere?

Pahor doesn't necessarily think so — or at least, he points to notable differences between the original communities and mainstream America, which he called "very compartmentalized." In other words, people of the same age and income level tend to hang out, compared to places such as Pahor's native Italy, where there are stronger intergenerational relationships, something that fosters overall esteem for the elderly.

Pahor also said that in Italy, "moving naturally" — one of the Power 9 — is more of a necessity than a luxury.

"In Italy you need to move to survive," Pahor said. "If you live in Gainesville, you need a car to survive. But people adapt here — they go to the gym, or walk at the mall."

A team of Blue Zones researchers, however, put certain U.S. communities up to the challenge of adopting at least some of the Blue Zones principles. "We don't suggest that they overhaul everything, but try something," Tomczyk said.

The Blue Zones Project scoped out the country, looking for cities that had average levels of the seven most prevalent chronic diseases, according to the CDC. They also wanted towns to be far enough away from a major metropolitan area so that they had their own media, since the Blue Zones researchers had found communication to be an important element of the original Blue Zones communities. They also did not want college towns.

"We felt like it wouldn't necessarily be representative of middle America because of affluence and higher education levels," Tomczyk said.

Albert Lea, Minn., a community 90 miles south of Minneapolis, population 18,000, was the first town to qualify for the Blue Zones challenge. The town specifically improved in four areas: people ate better, became more active, connected with one another more and had a stronger sense of purpose.

Over three years — from 2009 to 2012 — life expectancy increased an average of 3.1 years, people lost a collective 12,000 pounds, and health care costs decreased 40 percent among city employees.

Some people used stand-up desks and treadmill desks, where they could walk (not run) and work at the same time.

"You don't have to embrace all of these. We invite them to try it and consider how it goes," Tomczyk said. "No matter where you are, there's something for everyone."

Now beach cities in California and towns in Iowa have taken up the challenge. Tomczyk said some Florida towns near Orlando were finalists as well.

According to Stephen Golant, a geographer and gerontologist at the University of Florida who specializes in aging Americans, the Blue Zones Project and other initiatives, including the World Health Organization's "age-friendly cities" (including New York and Atlanta), are much needed in the U.S.

"What's important here is the overall orientation of these kinds of efforts," Golant said. "It's sort of a counter-theme to this rugged individualism" in the U.S.

Golant said community-based efforts will become increasingly important as familial bonds weaken.

"Older people, no matter where they live, have to confront certain declines and losses...throughout the world the role of the family is weakening. To substitute for the inability of family members to provide assistance, the idea of that community response is a good thing."

Golant also applauds the Blue Zones' and other programs' focus on quality of life over longevity.

"Longevity is a challenging goal," Golant said. "It's difficult enough to make it easier for older people to live independently, more happily and healthily."

"The goal of these grassroots programs is to improve their quality of life."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119, or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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