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Blue Zones Teach Us How To Protect Our Chromosomes

The world’s longest-living people show us how to maintain the telomeres that protect our DNA

In recent years, much research has been conducted on length of life, especially on those cultures that not only live longer on average than other peoples, but thrive; having less physical and mental deterioration as they age. Many of these people live in areas dubbedblue zones.”

It’s often suggested that improvements in farming, habitation, cooking, sanitation, improved nutrition, etc., have increased human longevity. However, these factors are widespread, yet longevity on a grand scale eludes most cultures.

Interestingly, in 1842, M.A. Quetelet reported that the average life span was between 32 and 33 years in Belgium, France, and England; yet he also recorded the presence of 16 centenarians in January 1831 in Belgium. The oldest among them was 111 years old.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, life expectancy currently ranges from 54 in Afghanistan to nearly 90 in Monaco with the United States ranking 46th at just under 81 years. Centenarians, on the other hand, live for 100 to 110 years and supercentenarians for 111 to 122.3 years.

Some examples of areas where living to be 100 is commonplace are Loma Linda, in California; Nicoya Peninsula, in Costa Rica; the island of Sardinia, in Italy; the island of Ikaria, in Greece; and Okinawa, Japan. These areas became known as blue zones after a groundbreaking study into the world’s longest-lived peoples. Demographic work by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, and later Dan Buettner, looked at the commonalities of people living in these areas that may explain their longevity.

Lifestyles Of The Long-Lived

* They have naturally active lifestyles based on walking, gardening, etc.

* Food is their medicine and rarely do they take supplements.

* They have a sense of community and purpose.

* They are social, spending a lot of time with family and friends who live close by.

* They stop eating when they are 80 percent full, eat less, and don’t count calories.

* The majority of their diet is plant based. Meat is only eaten several times a month and in * small portions (3 to 4 oz.). Fish is eaten a bit more frequently and is wild-caught.

* They drink alcohol in moderation during meals with friends and family.

* They commit to a life partner and their families come first.

* They surround themselves with people who support positive behaviors.

* They belong to a religious community and regularly attend services.

The basic dietary blue zone fundamentals are simple. The majority of their foods are plant based (95 percent), with the remaining 5 percent consisting of animal products, including dairy.

In blue zones, people generally don’t watch much TV, go on diets, or work out at gyms. Instead, they socialize with family and friends at least eight hours a day, get their exercise through routinely active lifestyles, and have largely escaped the hyper-busy hustle and processed foods of modern lifestyles.

Superfoods Of Centenarians

People living in blue zones eat a largely plant-based diet with plenty of whole grains. Common foods include:

  • Beans (all varieties) are eaten daily (1/2 cup).

  • Fruits (Avocados, Bananas, Bitter melons, Papayas, Plantains, Tomatoes, etc.)

  • Vegetables (Kombu, Wakame, Sweet potatoes, Squash, Yams, etc.)

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Shiitake mushrooms

  • 100 percent whole wheat bread

  • Olive oil

  • Oats

  • Lean protein

Telomeres And Blue Zones

Beyond their shared lifestyle patterns, researchers believe they may share longer than average telomeres.

Telomeres are the caps at the end of each chromosome strand that protect your DNA from unraveling or fraying. You can think of them as the aglets at the end of shoelaces.

Chromosomes are double-stranded, thread-like structures at the end of DNA strands that contain all of your genetic information.

You’re constantly gaining and losing cells. Telomeres protect your chromosomes during cell division. But they are known to shorten with age and each subsequent cell division. This is termed theend replication problem.”

Several studies have connected longer telomere length to blue zone lifestyles or populations. In a paper submitted to The Population Association of America 2011 Annual Meeting by researchers at the University of California, and Universidad de Costa Rica, researchers shared a discovery many had already suspected about people living in Nicoya, Costa Rica.

“After controlling for age, telomere length in Nicoya is significantly greater than in other areas, equivalent to more than a 20-year advantage in cellular aging in Nicoya, providing further support to the argument that Nicoya is indeed an exceptional longevity area, and offering hints of a biological pathway to which this longevity may be related.”

A review of 17 previous studies was published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2016. It found that telomere length was associated with many of the dietary habits common among blue zone populations.

“Our systematic review supports the health benefits of adherence to the Mediterranean diet on TL [telomere length]. Except for the fruits and vegetables, which showed positive association with TL, results were inconsistent for other dietary factors. Also, certain food categories including processed meat, cereals and sugar-sweetened beverages may be associated with shorter TLs,” wrote the researchers.

Earlier research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010 had already linked diet to telomere length. A study published in the same journal in 2011 didn’t find a strong correlation between diet and telomere length, except in the case of eating processed meats, which was linked to shorter telomeres. People in blue zones eat relatively less meat and very little to no processed meat.

A more recent study published in Nutrients in 2021 took a closer look at Costa Ricans and found noteworthy associations between eating rice and beans, as well as eating grains, and longer telomeres.

“Our results suggest that dietary factors, in particular a traditional food pattern, are associated with telomere length and may contribute to the extended longevity of elderly Costa Ricans.”

That study looked at 909 participants over 60 from the Costa Rican Longevity and Healthy Aging Study.

In general, longer telomeres are associated with health and longevity. But there’s a balance that must be met—an optimal telomere length—too short or too long can also have negative health consequences.

Eventually, telomeres are too short to protect your chromosomes. At that point, the cell either stops dividing, grows weaker, or dies through apoptosis, or programmed cell death.

People with shorter telomeres compared with their age group have a higher risk for chronic disease or early death from heart disease, muscular dystrophy, diabetes, lung disease, and more.

Paradoxically, people with extremely long telomeres are at greater risk of cancer. Extremely long telomeres can protect cancer cells making them immortal. Longer telomeres are typically related to overexposure to non-natural elements such as chemicals, GMOs, pollution, heavy metals, and synthetics. Thus, it’s important to avoid or reduce contaminants as much as possible.

An amazing aspect of telomeres is that their length can change. They can regenerate and grow back naturally, essentially slowing down the aging process. Recently, researchers discovered that an RNA molecule called telomeric repeat-containing RNA, better known as TERRA, helps to ensure the repair of extremely short (or damaged) telomeres.

How To Regrow Telomeres Naturally

Within limits, each of us can initiate steps to change our telomere length for better health:

Get Active

Studies show that the more physically active you are the longer your telomeres. One study found that marathon runners and triathletes in their 50s had the chromosomes and telomeres of 20-year-olds. These athletes ran about 50 miles a week for about 35 years. However, you don’t necessarily have to run marathons to lengthen telomeres. Even just 10 to 15 minutes of exercise a day has an effect on telomere length.

Of course, you needn’t participate in regimented exercise. One of the lessons of blue zones is that a richly active lifestyle provides these same effects.

Eat Well

An interesting study of 400 women found that those placed on a plant-based diet for three months had 29 percent longer telomeres than the control group during the same period. That would align well with the lessons from blue zones.

Humans have an enzyme called telomerase in the body that builds and maintains telomeres by adding bases to their ends. As cells divide, however, telomerase is depleted causing telomeres to shorten as with age. However, a study funded by the U.S. Department of Defense found that three months of a whole foods plant-based diet, along with exercise and stress management, can significantly boost telomerase activity.

Reduce Stress

Stress shortens telomeres and speeds up the aging process as few things can. One study compared the telomere lengths of mothers of chronically ill children to those of mothers of healthy children. Looking at telomere length, the high-stressed mothers aged about 10 years faster than the low-stress mothers. The same effect was found in those suffering from severe work exhaustion. Even perceived stress can shorten your telomeres.

One way to reduce stress is through meditation. As little as three minutes can benefit telomere length positively.

People in blue zones regularly participate in religious community and have largely escaped the stress of modern living, in part by avoiding the triggering effects of mass media. They also routinely spend time with friends, one of the most de-stressing activities a person can do.

Cut Calories

It’s well known that as we age, we don’t need as many calories as when we were younger in order to maintain a healthy weight. A 2017 study using data from the Health and Retirement Study found that people 50 and older who were normal weight (and had never smoked and drank alcohol in moderation) lived on average seven years longer. People in blue zones rarely overeat and instead often eat until they are 80 percent full.

Avoid Telomere Trimmers

It has been demonstrated that eating too many animal products can shorten telomeres through increased oxidative stress, inflammation, and cholesterol, especially when the meat is processed.


In addition to the foods we eat, lifestyle factors, physiological stress, and exposure to carcinogens have a strong influence on telomere length and thus longevity.

Therefore, if we want to live longer and thrive as we age, the secret doesn’t lie with the government, medical doctors, or pharmaceutical companies; it may very well be in living a lifestyle that has a profound and healthy effect on the length of our telomeres.

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