How to Live to...120
Women's Health Australia|June 2020
Jennifer Aniston, J.Lo and Jane Fonda have nailed the art of defying time, but us mere mortals don’t have their kind of dough (or specialists). Instead, take a lesson in longevity from the “blue zones”, hot spots that are home to the planet’s longest-living populations.
Roisin Dervish-O'Kane
An apricot-tinged sky merges into turquoise waters crashing against the craggy coastline and the breeze carries an aromatic cocktail of wood smoke, peonies and cypress trees. The soundscape could be from a soothe-yourself-to-sleep Spotify playlist, if it wasn’t for the squawking chickens and donkey honks. For Thea Parikos, hotel and restaurant owner, these sights and sounds are the backdrop to her evening stroll around Nas, a coastal area of Ikaria, the island she calls home. This particular Greek idyll’s rep may not rival that of all-night-long Mykonos, nor does it have the colour palette that makes Santorini an Instagrammer’s dream. What it does possess is far more coveted: the elixir of youth.

Ikaria is a “blue zone” – one of five global destinations with a disproportionate concentration of centenarians – that is proving significant to scientists trying to figure out whether living a long, healthy life can be reduced to a lifestyle equation. Joining Ikaria in triple-digit significance are the Okinawa region of Japan, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Southern California’s Loma Linda and Sardinia, Italy.

The term “blue zone” was coined in 2004 by scientist Gianni Pes in his research on the aforementioned Italian island, published in Experimental Gerontology. In the years since, academics have analysed the dietary patterns, relational dynamics and social habits of these populations in an attempt to tease out a formula for growing old, if not as gracefully as Jen Aniston and J.Lo, then healthily. “The inhabitants of these places are not only living an extra, say, 12 years,” says Dan Buettner, a journalist who’s dedicated his career to studying longevity and authored The Blue Zones book series. “Biologically speaking, they’re a decade younger every step of the way.”

The generation game

Despite what the beauty industry would have you believe, the real pursuit of eternal youth has been happening in labs. Scientific advances have delivered big breakthroughs in our understanding of the physiology of longevity. Both telomeres (the ends of chromosomes in DNA that have been likened to the fuse on a bomb – the longer they are, the better) and the APOE signal (a type of lipoprotein linked to Alzheimer’s and heart disease) were discovered in the ’90s, and Y2K ushered in the Human Genome Project. In the years since, researchers have been looking across the genome for individual variants that affect lifespan, leading to news reports about the so-called longevity gene – but the headlines are a little premature. “While your genes do affect how long – and how well – you live, only about a seventh of your lifespan is decided by genetics,” explains Dr Peter Joshi, a human-lifespan researcher at the University of Edinburgh. “Lifestyle and environment play a bigger role.”

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