By Peyton Stuart
“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” - Ludwig Wittgenstein
For millennium, explorers and philosophers have scoured the Earth following myths of mystical remedies for longevity and eternal life. Today, however, we understand that these are all stories of lore and that, in fact, no human can live forever. Rather, many of us are focused on how we can maximize our own lives and experience as much as possible in the time we have. Globally, advancements in technology and medicine have drastically extended life expectancy over the past few decades. According to Our World in Data, in the 50 years between 1969 and 2019, global life expectancy grew from 56.3 years to 72.6 years (Roser, Ortiz-Ospina, & Ritchie, 2019). Although there are still large gaps between developed and developing countries, as well as a discrepancy between males and females, trends show that life expectancy will continue to rise across the world.
In 2019, Japan boasted the highest life expectancy at 84.6 years, 12 above the global average (Roser et. al, 2019). While this is certainly astounding, there are certain communities where members consistently, and seemingly effortlessly, live to their mid-late 90s and even into their hundreds (Hackl, 2020). There are five of these regions, known as Blue Zones, worldwide: Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, Loma Linda, California, Ikaria, Greece, and Nicoya, Costa Rica. Each of these communities contain high density populations of centenarians and astonishingly low rates of chronic disease (Giancoli, 2018). From an outsider’s perspective, many wonder how members living in Blue Zones achieve such longevity. Between each community, with slight differences, there are certain tenets that every Blue Zone upholds. Some of these principles include moving naturally daily, focusing on your purpose, cutting down on red meat, embracing spirituality, and keeping your friends and family close (Buettner, n.d.). Although each Blue Zone is quite different, it certainly seems feasible to adopt some of their practices into each of our own lives to potentially extend our longevity.
What makes each Blue Zone so unique is their geographic location which ultimately affects lifestyle and diet. For Nicoya, Costa Rica, this means a lot of sun and a lot of Gallo Pinto (a classic Costa Rican dish made with rice and beans). According to the Blue Zone website, Nicoyans integrate the following into their daily lives:
- Having a Plan de Vida i.e. finding your purpose
- Drinking hard water (plenty of calcium)
- Focusing on family
- Eating a light dinner/ keep a consistent diet
- Maintaining social networks
- Keeping hard at work
- Enjoying the Sun
- Embracing a common history (Blue Zones, 2019)
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Blaire Modic, an International Educator working at the University of Pittsburgh with experience in Costa Rica, specifically in Nicoya and the Blue Zone there. Having visited the Blue Zone several times, Modic had much to share about Nicoya’s longevity secrets. For many Americans, these 8 points of living seem difficult to weave together into our lives. Modic noted, however, that part of the beauty of Blue Zones is that all of these principles work in harmony together. For Nicoya, close-knit communities of people with small farms and gardens lead to daily, active movement outside, sustainable diets, and healthy relationships between family, friends, and neighbors. Compared to the busy American lifestyle of constant mobility and having to balance a social life, work, and health, Nicoyans live a life where all of these act together, complementing each other rather than forcing trade-offs. Modic remarked that Blue Zones are “a lifestyle topic that benefit people” (B. Modic, personal communication, March 31, 2021). After all, reducing stress, pursuing what makes you happy, keeping your loved ones close, eating healthy, and even indulging in daily, moderate drinking (yes, this is another lifestyle practice of Blue Zone members worldwide) does not sound like a bad lifestyle at all. Nonetheless, through discussion, Modic and I came to the agreement that the benefits of Blue Zones can be seen as an interesting cultural investigation.
Although not entirely backed by science, it seems apparent that many of the principles lead to overall higher qualities of life and healthier lifestyles in general. Modic and I turned our discussion to how students could apply these tenets to improve their mental and physical health, all while trying to balance academics. Modic expressed that, although life in Oakland, Pittsburgh as a student and life in Nicoya, Costa Rica as a farmer are quite different, the adoption of some of these practices certainly seem feasible.
The first category to look at is nutrition and diet. For college students, it can be difficult to integrate the kind of diet eaten in Blue Zones: relatively plant-based, more fish than red meat, a lot of beans, rice, and fruits, and cutting out dairy and processed foods. For the typical college student, this is a rather unconventional diet. Lack of cooking skills and limited dining options contribute to making this transition rather hard. Nonetheless, although an immediate change may be difficult, small changes can be made over time. Obviously, sustainable eating and a focus on fruits and vegetables are important. It ultimately comes down to being conscientious about what you eat. One easy thing to practice is to drink more water and to follow the 80% rule (only consuming food until you are 80% full rather than completely) (Giancoli, 2018). These two alone do not require huge changes in diet and can be a great first step towards more sustainable eating habits.
Secondly, adopting Nicoyan longevity practices can help alleviate some of the stress associated with academics and being a college student. As no surprise to anybody, classes and involvement can quickly begin to weigh down on a student’s mental health. Mid semester lulls can easily send students into a spiral of depression where the work begins to pile up. What Blue Zones, specifically in Nicoya, can teach us is that keeping your friends and family close is super important. Taking a step back and using your system of loved ones to support you is critical for success. As important as you may think some test is, your relationships with those you love beats it tenfold. For members of Blue Zones, this feeling of community is what provides them with inspiration and hope for their future. Although life as a college student is certainly stressful and there seem to be endless barriers of assignments and commitments, they are not impossible to overcome. What helps is remembering that you have people, this network of those who are willing to help you, even at your lowest points, something we all may forget from time to time.
Finally, the most appealing part of the Nicoyan lifestyle is the Plan de Vida - the purpose of life and pursuing your happiness. For students, college is a great time to develop your identity and explore your interests. Finding what makes you happy is vital for success. A positive mindset, backed by an optimistic point of view, can boost productivity and lead to a higher quality of life.
Peyton Stuart (he/him/his) is a Junior at the University of Pittsburgh. Originally from York, Pennsylvania, Peyton is majoring in the Natural Sciences, as well as minoring in Hispanic Language and Culture and Secondary Education. He is also pursuing a Latin American Studies Certificate. He loves travelling, learning more about the world, and researching special needs. In his free time, Peyton enjoys eating good food, drinking good wine, thinking about the Universe, and listening to Kanye West.
Blue Zones. (2019, August 29). Nicoya, Costa Rica. https://www.bluezones.com/exploration/nicoya-costa-rica/
Buettner, D. (n.d.). Power 9®. Blue Zones. https://www.bluezones.com/2016/11/power-9/
Giancoli, A. N. (2018, August 1). Live Longer Eating the Blue Zones Way: This healthful diet pattern has been linked with a reduced disease risk and longer lifespan. - Free Online Library. Environmental Nutrition. https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Live+Longer+Eating+the+Blue+Zones+Way%3a+.... . .-a0547902607
Hackl, C. (2020, August 13). What Costa Rica’s Blue Zone Can Teach Us About The Future Of Well-Being And Longevity. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathyhackl/2020/08/12/what-costa-ricas-blue...
Roser, M., Ortiz-Ospina, E., & Ritchie, H. (2019, October). Life Expectancy. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy#life-expectancy-has-improved-...