The Palimpsest of Sawbones Surio

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones

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To me, there’s only ONE Matrix film. The rest, according to me is:
———— *self-immolates in rant-induced blood-boil*

Blue Zones – What is it?

“The Blue Zones – Lessons for Living Longer from the people who’ve lived the longest” is a book by National Geographic writer Dan Buettner.

“Blue zones” are areas in the world with very high percentage of long-lived people (including very high numbers of centenarians.) These communities include Okinawa, Japan; the Barbagia region of Sardinia, Italy; the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica; and the Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California. With the help of a team of scientist, Buettner tries to find what the elderly in these communities have in common. And the team try determine what lessons can be learned from the centenarians that might help us live healthier lives.

Some of the things the centenarians in all locations had in common are show in the Venn Diagram below:
Venn Diagram of longevity clues from Okinawa, Sardinia, and Loma Linda. Source:

To summarise the Venn diagram into words:

  • Family – Family takes precedence on all occasions.
  • No Smoking – Centenarians do not typically smoke.
  • Plant-based diet – The majority have a predominantly plant-based diet.
  • Constant moderate physical activity – Moderate physical activity is an inseparable part of life.
  • Social engagement – People of all ages are socially active and integrated into their communities.
  • Legumes – Legumes are commonly consumed.

So, what’s this post about?

Blue Zones made me consolidate my own thoughts about food and diet. I decided to share it here for the benefit of others too. So, maybe not mathematically, but it is indeed a proven equation for longevity, as far as I am concerned. Read with me, and see if you’re convinced as well.

For starters, whenever “diet” is discussed “between cultures” I always remember this remark from Cipher in the restaurant, from the Matrix [26]

"You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss."

One *main* reason for people (from the West) to be inherently suspicious of a fully plant-based diet is due to the Cipher-like reasoning of “mind over matter”. For most of the Europoid civilisations, meat was in the food chain for so long it is part of the collective conscious in terms of what constitutes “food”. I can claim to understand this fully, for I embody the opposite side of the spectrum, namely a “conditioned vegetarian” myself, like the vast majority of Indians were in the past. But no thanks to a concerted propaganda about the “beaut of meat”, this attitude has changed in India since liberalisation in the last decade or so. Normally, the rejection of plant-based diets in the West takes several forms (subtle, overt, intellectual…..) as a manifestation of the above psyche.

So, from my ‘notion of reality’ the Blue zone is not only the correct way (because of ahimsa towards perceived sentient beings), but is fully applicable to anyone’s life (Yes, I know the opposite point of view becomes applicable for people like me).

Let’s specifically look at those bullet points mentioned in blue zones, in isolation. I will hopefully try to address this other favourite Western cadence of “What is size of the dataset of that experiment?” while addressing all of this. But most of the points are interlinked with one other, so some overlap is unavoidable.

  1. Family – Family is put ahead of other concerns.
    I am going to refrain from saying anything on this, because YMMV and discussions on this will sidetrack from the diet aspect of it.
    One small point though, author John Robbins (more on this story, later…) goes after his own “blue zones” in his latest book: Healthy at 100: The Scientifically Proven Secrets of the World’s Healthiest and Longest-Lived Peoples says:

    From Abkhasia in the Caucasus south of Russia, where age is beauty, and Vilcabamba in the Andes of South America, where laughter is the greatest medicine, to Hunza in Central Asia, where dance is ageless, and finally the southern Japanese islands of Okinawa, the modern Shangri-la, where people regularly live beyond a century, Robbins examines how the unique lifestyles of these peoples can influence and improve our own.

    Bringing the traditions of these ancient and vibrantly healthy cultures together with the latest breakthroughs in medical science, Robbins reveals that, remarkably, they both point in the same direction. The result is an inspirational synthesis of years of research into healthy aging in which Robbins has isolated the characteristics that will enable us to live long and–most important–joyous lives. With an emphasis on simple, wholesome, but satisfying fare, and the addition of a manageable daily exercise routine, many people can experience great improvement in the quality of their lives now and for many years to come. But perhaps more surprising is Robbins’ discovery that it is not diet and exercise alone that helps people to live well past one hundred. The quality of personal relationships is enormously important. With startling medical evidence about the effects of our interactions with others, Robbins asserts that loneliness has more impact on lifespan than such known vices as smoking. There is clearly a strong beneficial power to love and connection.

  2. No Smoking – Centenarians do not typically smoke.
    According to this metastudy:

    Data for 76172 men and women were available.
    The metastudy reported mortality ratios, where lower numbers indicated fewer deaths, for fish eaters to be 0.82, vegetarians to be 0.84, occasional meat eaters to be 0.84. Regular meat eaters and vegans shared the highest mortality ratio of 1.00. The study reported the numbers of deaths in each category, and expected error ranges for each ratio, and adjustments made to the data. However, the “lower mortality was due largely to the relatively low prevalence of smoking in these [vegetarian] cohorts”.

    In “Mortality in British vegetarians” (with citation) a similar conclusion is drawn: “British vegetarians have low mortality compared with the general population. Their death rates are similar to those of comparable non-vegetarians, suggesting that much of this benefit may be attributed to non-dietary lifestyle factors such as a low prevalence of smoking and a generally high socio-economic status…..

  3. Plant-based diet – The majority of food consumed is derived from plants.
    From the above metastudy:
    “Out of the major causes of death studied, only one difference in mortality rate was attributed to the difference in diet, as the conclusion states: “vegetarians had a 24% lower mortality from ischaemic heart disease than non-vegetarians, but no associations of a vegetarian diet with other major causes of death were established.”

    First study:
    Dean Ornish has done a very exhaustive and thorough study and developed this result:

    Ornish is widely known for his lifestyle-driven approach to the control of coronary artery disease (CAD). Dr. Ornish and colleagues showed that a lifestyle regimen featuring Yoga, meditation, a low-fat vegetarian diet, smoking cessation, and regular exercise could not only stop the progression of CAD, but could actually reverse it. He has acknowledged his debt to Swami Satchidananda for helping him develop this holistic perspective on preventive health.

    This result was demonstrated in a randomized controlled trial known as the Lifestyle Heart Trial, with data published in the Lancet in 1990, which recruited test subjects with pre-existing coronary artery disease. Not only did patients assigned to the above regimen fare better with respect to cardiac events than those who followed standard medical advice, their coronary atherosclerosis was somewhat reversed, as evidenced by decreased stenosis (narrowing) of the coronary arteries after one year of treatment. Most patients in the control group, by contrast, had narrower coronary arteries at the end of the trial than the start. Other doctors claim similar results with similar methods, for example: Caldwell Esselstyn, and K. Lance Gould.

    This discovery was notable because it had seemed physiologically implausible, and it suggested cheaper and safer therapies against cardiovascular disease than invasive procedures such as coronary artery bypass surgery.

    Second one:
    This one’s an author who is well known for his books on plant-based diet (Opinions and medical evidence are frequently presented together, so people try to discredit him). As one critical reviewer in Amazon puts it:

    Had the Editor done a better job at removing the author’s ego from the fascinating insights Robbins manages to provide here and there, the book could easily have scored 5/5. Perhaps the writer’s personality overwhelmed the editor? Never have I read a book about nutrition that is filled with such subjectivity and oftentimes simplistic statements. I kept reading, as unexpectedly Robbins would offer up another scientific gem. Thorough editing would have greatly enhanced the quality of the advice in this book.

    That’s the gripe many have with him most of the time.

    Side note: His corpus was wiped out because his financial advisor invested in the hottest fund of the time, “Bernie Madhoff fund” without informing him… 😐

    Michael Pollan doesn’t need much of an intro. Indeed, why is he relevant here? It’s due to his “mantra”. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
    The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
    Read some of the reviews: People switched to vegetarianism based on his compelling scientific reasons.
    In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

    This book’s generated some controversy (at least on the net).

    The book examines the relationship between the consumption of animal products and illnesses such as cancers of the breast, prostate, and large bowel, diabetes, coronary heart disease, obesity, autoimmune disease, osteoporosis, degenerative brain disease, and macular degeneration.

    One reviewer said: “The bottom line of this thoroughly-documented study is essentially that animal protein is not good for us—even milk, ‘the perfect food.’ My students (and I!) may not relish the change to a vegetarian diet, but it is difficult to refute the mass of evidence in The China Study.”

  4. Constant moderate physical activity – Moderate physical activity is an inseparable part of life.
    My own grandparents’ generation (most of my life was spent in large subsidised Government provided housing societies where everyone used to know everyone else – no exaggeration there!) were healthy all into their deaths with only the cataract surgical procedure being their only operation performed on them. I noticed they were all regular walkers, and like my own grandfather, many did actively practise callisthenics and Yoga and breathing // exercises well into their 70s! We would be ROFL watching the “Geriatrixes” do the exercises slowly to their own beat, but now I know better!
  5. Social engagement – People of all ages are socially active and integrated into their communities.
    The opposite of “engagement”, namely “disengagement” or in this context, “Loneliness” is a well-researched and understood phenomena and acknowledged to be a major modern cause of illnesses and mortality.
    This study

    Two University of Chicago psychologists, Louise Hawkley and John Cacioppo, have been trying to disentangle social isolation, loneliness, and the physical deterioration and diseases of aging, right down to the cellular level.
    As with blood pressure, this physiological toll likely becomes more apparent with aging. Since the body’s stress hormones are intricately involved in fighting inflammation and infection, it appears that loneliness contributes to the wear and tear of aging through this pathway as well.

    I couldn’t find the dataset there, but I suspect it is large-ish, since researchers in the Western world are aware that “strength lies in numbers” `:-)` for academic acceptance.

  6. Legumes – Legumes are commonly consumed.
    Small article with a varied demographic group (elderly people from Japan, Sweden, Greece and Australia.) on Legumes and longevity:

    Famously: Bill Clinton commented on questions about the circulating rumours surrounding his dramatic weight loss and change in eating habits.

    “The short answer is I went on essentially a plant-based diet. I live on beans, legumes, vegetables, fruit… dairy”

    The former President credits both Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and his son, Dr. Thomas Campbell, authors of The China Study, as well as Drs. Caldwell Esselstyn and Dean Ornish for their pioneering work in the field of plant-based nutrition. Please note, he was a self-confessed junk-food addict.

    Also, the health benefits of legumes soaked overnight is well understood by researchers worldwide. 🙂

Those that take exception to the dataset side of things, may be pleased to note that the consensus of ALL the studies conducted above in each of this aspect, when put together, is ENORMOUS and overwhelmingly supports the blue zone theory.

In the light of all this information, I hope you are now ready to consider some of the aspects mentioned within the blue-zones lifestyle in your own personal life? Let us know in the comments :-)!

Written by Surio

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  1. […] you had read my detailed review of Blue Zones, you will have noticed that jobs-or-no-jobs, being part of a close-knit family unit clearly helps […]

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