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What are Blue Zone Areas?

Dr. Joanne Paul- MBBS (UWI), FRCPCH (UK), FRCP (Edin)

Reputedly there are 5 blue zone areas in the world. Blue zones are areas where persons live longest and healthiest. It is a non-scientific term given to areas that are home to the world oldest people. Okinawa in Japan is known as number one healthiest place in the world. Others include Sardinia in Italy, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Ikaria in Greece, and Loma Linda in California. In all five places the common denominator with regards to their diet is that it is mostly plant based with whole grains, beans, greens, nuts and sweet potatoes or potatoes (provisions), the most important one being beans. They do not eat much meat, dairy, processed foods, sugary foods, or sugary drinks. They eat some fish, drink a lot of water and tea as the focus, with wine and alcohol in moderation.

 

It is not only about what they eat but how they eat. It typically takes 20 minutes after the start of eating for your hormones to let your brain know that you are full. Often, we eat fast, overeat, then feel overfull afterwards, when the brain realises the stomach is now too full. The blue zone mentality is to eat slowly so there is less chance of overeating before the signal to the brain to stop eating when the stomach says full. Another aspect is the 80% rule. One should stop eating not when one feels full but when they feel 80% full. It generally prevents overeating and reduces caloric intake. The persons who live in Okinawa call it ‘hara hachi bu’ when you follow the 80% rule and stop when you are at 80%.

 

Diet though is only part of the picture. There is also a lot of walking and exercise, especially when exercise is built into daily life. Persons in the blue zone live in areas where they have to walk every day as a normal part of their daily routine. They also have daytime short naps and try to have good amounts of sleep on a daily basis.

 

There is also a strong sense of community, social activity, and purpose. They invest in family, keeping their minds engaged and are driven by life meaning and purpose. More importantly, they are not lonely. They live in areas where they form tight social connections with each other. The grandparents live with the families and young and old are together.

Trinidad and Tobago of course is not one of the blue zone areas. Probably in my mother’s generation, when she was a teenager, more than 60 years ago, there may have been more of that mentality in the less urban areas where there were more tight knit communities with daily walking and a more plant based basic diet. Over the years, our diet has become more meat based, we are served larger portions of meals, we also eat the said larger portions and ‘itis’ is part of our daily lives as we overeat and feel over full and sleepy afterwards. We drive or travel on public transport if we have to go anywhere near or far. We hardly walk as part of daily activity. Young and old are often not together and our older persons are sometimes living by themselves or in aged homes. Families are living apart from the grandparents and visit them once weekly or so, to pass through. Persons are lonely especially our elderly population

 

Add now the covid pandemic which has added an extra dimension. Although there are obvious direct pandemic effects for example the health care system, children and online school, the entertainment industry, the carnival industry and the hospitality industry, there are silent shadow pandemics which are in the background. A huge one is the mental health pandemic but another significant one which has been fairly unseen, is the pandemic of the elderly, who were isolated before, but with the pandemic, their fears increased, their feeling of uncertainty was overwhelming, their social network reduced to less than 25%, their sense of purpose stripped, and their loneliness exponentially increased

 

This is the same group who were most vulnerable with covid 19 and had to isolate as much as possible. TTARP and other elderly based groups were on pause. There was no travel and the usual small groups of old friends meeting up was discouraged. The hours and days blurred. The loneliness and lack of family and social interaction reversed cognition and suddenly names and numbers were difficult to pull from memory, suddenly stories were repeated and there was a general feeling of being confused and unsure but even worse yet, unsure of how to stop the slide.

 

As mentioned above, a plant-based diet, exercise as a daily routine, life purpose, good quality sleep, family tightness with young and old together, social connections and not being lonely are some of the tips to living a longer and healthier life. Coming out of this covid pandemic, maybe one new thing to start is to have a blue zone in your own home. As you do that, let’s look into the shadows and see the elderly population who have been also severely affected. They were once the main generation. Post pandemic, let’s not have them be the missing generation.

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