Want to live a longer, healthier life? Take tips from the Blue Zones

As Blue Zones in England and Wales – places with the greatest number of people living beyond 100 – are revealed, what can we learn from the world’s longevity hotspots?

Think of places where people live a long, vibrant life and you’d probably imagine a Greek island where afternoon naps, plenty of sunshine and a Mediterranean diet are on the menu.

So it might surprise you to learn that England and Wales now have four areas where more people than average are aged over 100, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). East Devon, Waverley New Forest and Arun have been declared Blue Zones, with more than 52 centenarians per 100,000 people. By comparison, there are six London boroughs that have fewer than 10 centenarians per 100,000 people.

Do Bournemouth and Bognor Regis serve up some secret longevity sauce? Or is it just that seaside towns are popular retirement destinations and so will have an older population?

Leslie Kenny, co-founder of the Oxford Longevity Project, told Saga Exceptional: “In a lot of these areas, people might have greater disposable income and we do know this correlates with a better lifespan. They have access to better medical resources, they have less stress and anxiety around having their basic needs met and they can buy better quality food.”

People having a laughCredit: Shutterstock / Rawpixel.com

Which is more important for longevity: genetics or behaviour?

People often look to Blue Zones further afield, such as Okinawa in Japan, the mountains of Sardinia and the Greek island of Ikaria for tips on how to live longer, and Kenny says there are plenty of healthy habits people can adopt from these communities.

“It’s so important for us to look for role models, like that When Harry Met Sally moment: ‘I’ll have what she’s having.’ We all need to be looking around and identifying those places where people live longer, and seeing what we can take from that,” she says.

While a Mediterranean diet and lifestyle and regular exercise are often wheeled out as the keys to longevity, genetics does play a part, too. But Kenny believes there are many small tweaks you can make to your lifestyle that will benefit you.

“There are genes that can confer longevity benefits, but apart from that, by far the biggest drivers of healthspan and healthy longevity are epigenetics (your behaviour and environment). Genes are the sheet music, but how you want to sing and play it is entirely up to you – and that’s where the environmental and lifestyle factors come in. For me, a long, healthy life comes down to some very basic tenets: sleep, movement, diet and social networks.”

One thing that the locations named by the ONS have in common with other Blue Zones is that they have plenty of natural beauty to tempt people outside into the fresh air.

“We know that vitamin D is correlated with better health and immunity, and you get that when the sun hits your skin,” says Kenny. “If you live near the coast, you’re more likely to want to get out more and the simple act of moving is helpful.”


“Sipping wine and watching the world go by”

At 93, Joyce Larkin, who lives in Folkestone, knows the benefits of the scenery and social life a seaside town can bring. She still drives, and loves getting out to meet friends.

She told Saga Exceptional: “I love a glass of wine every evening as much as I love sitting on my balcony, watching the world go by. You can see the ships from where I live and it’s wonderful to see the ever-changing scenery. And of course I have some amazing friends here in Folkestone, and we love to have lunch in the pubs around here – there are loads. And you can’t go for lunch without having a glass of wine, can you?”

Five ways to live a long, healthy life

Make small gains

“There’s no one pill that can make you live longer,” says Kenny. “Make marginal gains here and there – whatever you can do that can improve your health adds up to your unique lifespan. So, for example, if you’re drinking two glasses of wine a night but you don’t want to give it up, cut down to one.”

Get a good night’s sleep

The more you can prevent inflammaging (inflammation that can cause many conditions associated with old age), the better. “If you deprive yourself of sleep, that can cause inflammation. Living in sync with the seasons is better because you’ll be going to bed a little earlier and eating when the sun is shining. Generally, make sure you get plenty of sleep and go to bed and wake up at around the same time every day,” says Kenny.

Move more

Movement, particularly outdoors, has many benefits. “When you go into a forest, we know from a Japanese study that the trees release molecules that calm us down,” says Kenny. “So forest bathing is calming to our nervous system for a reason. It’s good for your mental health and getting outside gives you a greater chance of meeting your neighbours, which gives you that beneficial social connection.”

Eat well

Okinawa in Japan is one of the Blue Zones where a good diet is often cited as a reason for the population living longer, but that might not be true for much longer – and there’s a lesson to be learnt there. “That great longevity that people talk about isn’t enjoyed by the younger people in Okinawa because they’re adopting a Western diet, with fast food and ice cream. They’ve also adopted gaming, which is a very sedentary activity,” says Kenny.

“But I was happy to see last time I went to Okinawa that the elders are still in great shape. They don’t eat a lot of processed foods or sugar, which cause your glucose to spike and lead to inflammation.

“Traditionally, the Okinawans don’t eat much meat, except pork as a condiment, but they do eat a lot of plant-based foods, including purple sweet potato, seaweed and fermented tofu. Studies show that the greater the diversity of the plants we eat, the healthier our gut biomes become. And we can also change the makeup of our gut biome in as little as one week.

“A good tip is to add spices and herbs. For instance, now that the days are getting chillier, adding some warming cinnamon to our tea, baking recipes and other dishes, which is comforting but also helps mitigate against some of the inflammation from the sugar.

Adding some parsley over your lunch or dinner, or stirring it into your mash can be beneficial too. It has antidepressant, anti-inflammatory and brain- and bone-protective effects, according to a study.”

Find a reason to get up in the morning

The Japanese concept of “ikigai” means having a sense of purpose and finding meaning in life. “It’s what gets you up in the morning. If you feel like you have so much more to do, you’ll find a way to do it,” says Kenny.

“Find your connection: it can be nature, when you watch the natural rhythm of the seasons as you tend your garden, planting your bulbs and watching them coming up in spring. Obviously, connecting through your family, for example, if you look after your grandchildren, is so important.

In Okinawa, Japan, you’re assigned to little groups when you’re a child and the idea is you stay together for your whole lifetime. But you can create those support groups at any time in your life, whether that’s ballroom dancing, a choir or friends meeting up at the garden centre, to give you a social connection.”

This feature was updated to reflect the fact that the ONS census covered England and Wales, not the UK, as originally stated.

Hannah Verdier

Written by Hannah Verdier


Hannah Verdier writes about fitness, health, relationships, podcasts, TV and the joy of reinventing yourself at 50 and beyond. She’s a graduate of teenage music bible Smash Hits and has a side hustle as a fitness trainer who shows people who hated PE at school how to love exercise.

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