Though the factors that impact human lifespan are infinitely complex, a handful of regions around the world are defying global odds. People are regularly living into their 100s. They are physically fit and surrounded by loved ones with the lowest rates of dementia. They live long, happy lives with the tools to manage stress and trauma. These are the blue zones.

A Danish twin study determined that environmental factors are up to 80 percent more influential on a person’s lifespan than their genetics, and these environments can teach us a lot about how to care for the world as a whole. The term “Blue Zones” was first coined in 2004 by Dan Buettner, a journalist and National Geographic Explorer and Fellow, who set out with his team to explore and identify regions in the world with the highest life expectancies. Since then, they have identified five such zones: Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Nicoya, Costa Rica

These are the world’s hot spots for the most documented centenarians, but what’s particularly remarkable is that the people in these zones are not just living to 100. They are thriving in their 100s. They are physically fit and mentally sharp with the lowest rates of dementia. They walk, garden, swim, knead bread and play music. They are connected with their communities and families. And though these regions all have vastly different cultures, the commonalities they share may hold the solutions to a host of interconnected social and environmental problems. 

But much to capitalism’s contempt, the secret to this longevity is nothing that can be bought, sold or neatly packaged. Quite the opposite: People in blue zones want for less and don’t buy in excess. They live in walkable communities. Their diets are largely free of animal products, agrichemicals and processed foods.

Simply put, it should come as no surprise that what is beneficial for our health and happiness is also beneficial for the planet. 

Active lifestyles 

People in blue zones live active lifestyles, but not necessarily because they seek them out. They generally rely less on energy-intensive modern conveniences, so physical activity is naturally built into their everyday lives. People walk more and drive less. They tend to their own gardens. Not only are people living healthier lives, but their outputs are inherently lower.


There is no singular food, vitamin or antioxidant that holds the secret to longevity or sustainability. But looking at blue zone diets overall, some themes start to arise. They are majority plant-based, bean-heavy, organically grown, and largely produced locally. This is especially true for the islands like Ikaria, Okinawa and Sardinia where local food systems are vital to the overall ecosystem. These local, plant-heavy diets have significantly lower carbon footprints than those of the average American diet, and they also tend to be less wasteful. Okinawans even have a specific word reminding them to stop eating when they are 80 percent full, preventing over-consumption.


A purpose-driven life was a common thread through all five blue zones. People in blue zones understand why they wake up in the morning, be it their work, religious devotion, or family connection. What this means for the planet is that rampant capitalism and over-consumption are not inescapable mainstays in blue zone cultures. Simply put, they want for less, side stepping problems like fast fashion and fostering environmental stewardship. 

Community support 

Stress and trauma are inevitable to the human experience, but what blue zones have that many Western cultures lack are everyday tools for managing them. Blue zone cultures value connection incredibly highly and prioritise time with friends and family. When people have strong community support, they share resources and work together toward a collective good. 

There is an inherent catch-22: Blue zones produce happy, healthy centenarians not because individual people make choices to eat plant-based meals or exercise more, but because their environments and cultures naturally foster healthy living. So how can we replicate these lessons throughout the world? How can we incorporate these values into our own lives and communities? 

Here’s the good news: Blue zones can be created, both in broader ways and personal ones. Singapore, for example, has extended its average lifespan by 20 years in a matter of decades by investing in public transportation, funding government-sponsored exercise classes, and putting restrictions on unhealthy food. 

But even without government intervention, there are actions you can take in your own life to foster a blue zone lifestyle. Walking more, eating more plants, reflecting, and building strong community are small steps that can add years to your life and benefit the planet. If you’re feeling an especially bad case of climate doom, actively seek out purpose-driven communities with shared values that you can work alongside toward solutions. 

None of this is to say there is a “correct” way to live, or that adopting these practices will guarantee a long and happy life. But by taking some of these lessons and incorporating them into our own lives and societies, we can improve our quality of life and increase our chances of living to see a more sustainable future. 

Be curious!

Image by Sarah Mutter via Unsplash