There are some places in the world where people live demonstrably longer than anywhere else. Scientists have been investigating why this is the case, trying to determine the role of genetic, biomedical, nutritional and lifestyle factors to understand how we can maintain better health into old age.
The modern scientific discipline investigating longevity is the latest chapter in a story that can be traced back to ancient civilizations, whose magicians and alchemists searched for life-prolonging remedies, the elixir of youth and the secret of immortality itself. Today, armed with scientific data gathered over decades, researchers have been sharing newfound knowledge, formulating hypotheses, and debunking myths and misconceptions to identify exactly how to live a longer, healthier life.
In 1999, when Sardinian physician Gianni Pes first called attention to the exceptional lifespans on his island, many of the professionals who attended his presentation asked for proof. Among them was Belgian demographer Michel Poulain, who decided to go into the field with the Italian. Working together to corroborate the statistics, Poulain used a blue marker to circle areas on a map of Sardinia where life expectancy was longest: the Blue Zone concept was born. Their study allowed them to identify factors thought to contribute to long life, not least because the population was relatively homogenous, with similar genetic characteristics, and many people living their entire lives in the same physical and social environment. OtherBlue Zones were identified: Okinawa in Japan, a Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, and the Greek island of Ikaria, allowing the scientific community to cut through cultural and geographical differences and identify what these populations shared. Their work revealed something of a magic formula for a long and happy life. The majority of Blue Zone populations live at higher altitudes, which leads to nearly daily physical exercise. They tend to be one-step removed from the commercial hustle of modern life, traditional lifestyles persist and people work into old age, relying more on vegetable gardens than supermarkets. They enjoy close family ties and community solidarity.
From 2005, Blue Zones became a popular concept with the public when American writer Dan Buettner published an article on the topic in National Geographic. Amid something of a media frenzy, other scientists focused their attention on other regions and crossreferenced their data with Blue Zones. Over the years, as average life expectancy increased, the size of the elderly population did too, allowing them to refine existing research and draw more precise conclusions. One such demographer was geriatric medicine specialist Jean-Marie Robine. He had monitored Jeanne Calmant, the oldest human on record, corroborating her age as 122 (she died in 1997).
Jean-Marie now identified some nuance within some of Poulain and Pes’s conclusions, without completely disavowing their work. “In all of these Blue Zones, the number of centenarian women is hardly extraordinary,” he says. “What is remarkable is the long life expectancy of the men there. Why? Because these are traditional societies where men are treated like kings. The men tip the scales. We know that women live longer, they’re typically the ones who bring the numbers up and the men bring them down. In these zones, the men are in the fresh air tending the flocks and hunting, and the women do everything else! It allows [men] to take it easy, and explains why their life expectancy rivals the women’s and raises the overall average for the region.”
He also cast doubt on the idea that these populations benefited from living apart from the modern world, because free public education and access to healthcare are, in his view, factors that contribute heavily to long life expectancy. “Since 1946, in France, life expectancy has steadily increased by two months per year thanks to post-war recovery, economic growth, and the development of public education and healthcare systems,” he says. “Since World War II, the number of centenarians has doubled every ten years. Today there are around 30,000 in France.” A revised description of the magic formula for long life expectancy would be a developed country with access (free, ideally) to healthcare and education, located in a sunny but temperate climate suitable for growing varied crops, in a united community. Moving beyond this formula, Silicon Valley start-ups have vowed to crack the code of aging, using biotechnology, cell reprogramming, regenerative medicine and genetic engineering to increase lifespans to ages never before reached. This work is already underway. But until immortality is within reach, maybe it’s enough to wonder at the beauty of the sunrise, enjoy a mountain hike in fresh air, and savor your homegrown produce.
In each of these territories, or at least very close, you’ll find a Relais & Châteaux property benefiting from–and dedicated to preserving–the natural environment that surrounds them, in places where friendly locals co-exist with hotel staff, producers and guests in a genuine spirit of community.
PETRA SEGRETA RESORT & SPA, San Pantaleo, Sardinia, Italy
Sardinia, the island that initiated Gianni Pes’s quest to unravel the mysteries of long life. Nestled in fragrant vegetation on a hillside, Petra Segreta embraces the rustic lifestyle of a nurturing, natural environment. Located off the beaten track, here you can lie low for a calm and peaceful stay.
MYCONIAN COLLECTION, Mykonos, Greece
Mykonos is a neighboring island to Ikaria, one of the places in Europe where people live longest and stay healthy for longer. Discover three properties offering three contrasting styles of living, with beautiful blue panoramas everywhere you look.
THE UZA TERRACE BEACH CLUB VILLAS, Okinawa, Japan
The perfect place to relax and revitalize, to exercise and indulge in self-care, and to enjoy eating local products produced by the island’s unspoiled natural environment.
RANCHO VALENCIA RESORT & SPA, Rancho Santa Fe, California, USA
Welcome to laid-back, California living: people here cultivate a socially and environmentally conscious lifestyle that respects both nature and culture–and the weather is just as sunny as the locals’ disposition.
NAYARA SPRINGS, La Fortuna de San Carlos, Costa Rica
This is the place for reconnecting with lush nature. The verdant environment makes you revitalized, awakens your senses, and makes you feel like you’re in perfect harmony with the world.