Secrets to Preserving Cognitive Health from the Blue Zones

Like many Americans, you’re probably worried about your cognitive health. And, there’s a valid reason to worry. While more than 6 million people in the US have Alzheimer’s today, that number is expected to soar to 13 million by 2050. But, there is good news despite this grim data. Research shows almost half of all cases of Alzheimer’s and other dementias can be prevented or delayed through lifestyle changes.

Fortunately, you can reduce your risk of dementia by emulating the lifestyles of people who live in blue zones. Blue zones are areas throughout the world where, despite living longer, residents have some of the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s disease. For example, in Ikaria, Greece, a small island in the Aegean Sea, one of five blue zones documented by National Geographic researcher and author Dan Buettner, dementia is virtually non-existent.

Other blue zones include Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California. Blue zones got their moniker because researchers circled these areas on a map in a blue marker while studying why their residents lived so long. So, what can you glean from these pockets of longevity and excellent health? Some recommendations you may already know, while others may surprise you.

Alcohol

In all but one of the blue zones, people enjoy a glass or two of alcohol, socially and with dinner daily. In Sardinia, they sip the local Cannonau red wine made of Grenache grapes, rich in resveratrol (a compound found in red wine that may reduce heart disease). So, if you’re going to follow the example of most blue zoners by drinking daily, red wine is a good choice. But moderation is essential.

Diet

People in the blue zones primarily eat a plant-based diet, chockful of whole grains, vegetables, beans, nuts, and fruit. (This is similar to the MIND diet, a way of eating that’s been shown to lower risk of cognitive decline.) When they eat meat, it’s just a few times a month in portions no larger than a deck of cards. Not overeating is also part of it. Okinawans, for example, follow the 80% rule, which means they stop eating when they’re 80% full. And lastly, people in the blue zones eat their smallest meal in late afternoon or early evening, reducing their risk of obesity and its many health risks.

Connection

Social connection and family are vital to life in the blue zones. Staying connected does more than stave off depression and feelings of isolation, both risk factors for dementia, it also keeps your brain sharp. Also, family is a priority in blue zones, with older generations often living with or near their children. Blue zone dwellers generally commit to a life partner, which research shows can add years to your life and reduce risk of Alzheimer’s and other chronic disease.

Movement and exercise

In blue zones, residents weave exercise and movement into the fabric of their daily lives. They walk, garden, farm, and perform other daily physical chores. For example, researchers suspect that strenuous agricultural work done in hilly terrain might explain why Sardinian men live longer. But, you don’t have to work on a farm, climb steep hills, or even join a gym to live longer. Numerous studies show that simply walking regularly can lower your risk of dementia. Sit less, walk more.

Purpose

Not only do people in blue zones have a life purpose, some regions even have a name for it. For example, in Okinawa, it’s called ikagai, which means “why I wake up in the morning,” and in Nicoya, Costa Rica, it’s called plan de vida, or “reason to live.” Having a purpose helps keep older people active and makes them feel needed. That, in turn, helps reduce stress and boosts psychological well-being. Having a purpose, research shows, can reduce your risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, having a purpose can delay cognitive decline in those with Alzheimer’s markers.


Joelle Klein