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Akea Blue Zones: The explanation for regional longevity may not be what we had guessed.
Jacob Schor ND, FABNO
July 27, 2011
Ikea, the Swedish furniture retailer is about to open a store in Denver. The excitement has been building for months. This morning’s Denver Post reports that over a 100 people are already camped out in the parking lot hoping to be among the first to shop there tomorrow morning. The Ikea catalog that arrived in last week’s mail has made excellent bedtime reading; the characters in my dreams now speak Swedish and I dream of eating something called lingonberry jam.
All this Ikea excitement made me pause last week and look twice at the website of a multi-level-marketed company named Akea. Subconsciously I was probably hoping to find they sold lingonberries.
The company name derives from a study published in the September 2004 issue of Experimental Gerontology titled, “Identification of a geographic area characterized by extreme longevity in the Italian island of Sardinia: the AKEA study.”
Sardinia has been identified as a “Blue Zone.” This term Blue Zone comes from writer Dan Buettner, a kind of larger than life adventurer and self-promoter. Buettner described his interest in Blue Zones in a cover story he wrote for National Geographic Magazine's November 2005 edition, "Secrets of Longevity". By the time he wrote a book, was interviewed on National Public Radio and hit the lecture circuit promoting his ideas, the term blue zone had gained widespread acceptance as the name for areas of the world in which people tended to live the longest. The areas Buettner identified were Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Loma Linda (California), Nicoya (Costa Rica), and Ikaria (Greece). After interviewing lots of very old people in these various areas, listing out things they did in their lives, habits, foods eaten and so on and then drawing those circle diagrams looking for overlap, Buettner ended up with a list of common traits. Nine specific traits in fact.
You’ve no doubt run into this information either in one of Buettner’s original articles or some rewrite by another author. An interesting article about Buettner was published in the in the February 3, 2010 issue of City Pages and lists these traits in some detail.
By the way, Buettner and National Geographic have a second book out, this one looking at the places in the world where people are happiest. (think Denmark, Singapore and Mexico).
Buettner’s may be the first book that uses the name ‘blue zone’ but it certainly isn’t the first time we’ve been inspired to emulate the habits of others thinking that by doing so we will live longer. Recall the excitement a decade or two back about the Hunza people and the dried apricots and apricot kernals they ate. Or go way back to Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov (1845-1916), who was the first to promote sour milk fermented by lactobacilli, because sheep herders in the Caucasus Mountains ate it and lived to ripe old ages.
But back to the AKEA Study. Michel Poulaina et al understood that an unusually high percentage of people born in Sardinia between 1880 and 1900 became centenarians, yielding a high ‘extreme longevity index’ (ELI). A ‘Blue Zone’ was identified in the central-eastern part of the island and covers all the mountainous areas of central Sardinia where estimated life expectancy is longer than in the rest of the island.
The researchers report that they were unable to identify a specific mechanism to explain why people living in this area lived so long but they did note “that most of the ‘longevity hot spots’ identified in various regions of the world over the years have been located in mountainous geographical areas …”
The researchers suggest an, “…interesting hypothesis … that the high rate of inbreeding determined by frequent marriages between consanguineous individuals and low immigration rates have progressively decreased the variability of the genetic pool and facilitated the emergence of genetic characteristics that protect individuals from diseases that are major causes of mortality particularly in older individuals.”
In other words, the secret to long life in these ‘Blue Zones’ may not be specific foods, good living or any of the traits Buettner and others would have us aspire to, but instead inbreeding.
[Thus we can transpose the old joke to Sardinia: “Why are family reunions in Sardinia so much fun?” “Great place to meet women/men”]
The ‘Blue Zones’ are for the most part geographically isolated. The only exception is the Loma Linda group, which, though isolated in some ways from surrounding communities by religious belief, is unlikely to have selected for longevity genetics over the short period of their ‘cultural isolation.’ The diet data from Loma Linda may be more applicable as a result.
The term ‘Blue Zone’ may someday be used to describe area of high consanguinity, that is frequent inbreeding, rather than lifestyle traits that we would wish to emulate. As the Akea Study is the first to suggest this, perhaps Akea might not be the best name to choose for one’s company.
Buettner, Dan. The Secrets of Longevity. National Geographic. November 2005 http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0511/feature1/assignment1.html
Buettner, Dan (April, 2008). The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest. National Geographic Books. ISBN 1426202741.
National Public Radio 2008: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91285403
Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way by Dan Buettner
Poulain M, Pes GM, Grasland C, Carru C, Ferrucci L, Baggio G, Franceschi C, Deiana L. Identification of a geographic area characterized by extreme longevity in the Sardinia island: the AKEA study. Exp Gerontol. 2004 Sep;39(9):1423-9.[link]
High prevalence and low female/male ratio for validated centenarians are observed in Sardinia and these findings appear to be thus far unique to this island. Moreover a specific region on the island is characterized by exceptional male longevity. We calculated the extreme longevity index (ELI), defined as the percentage of persons born in Sardinia between 1880 and 1900, who became centenarians. A gaussian smoothing method was used in order to identify the so-called 'Blue Zone', where longevity is concentrated in the central-eastern part of the island and covers all the mountainous areas of central Sardinia. The estimated life expectancy in the 'Blue Zone' is longer than in the remaining territory of the island especially for men and the male to female ratio among centenarians born in this area is 1.35 compared to 2.43 in the rest of Sardinia. The specific mechanism by which persons living in this territory were more likely to reach extreme longevity remains unknown but it is interesting to note that most of the 'longevity hot spots' identified in various regions of the world over the years have been located in mountainous geographical areas even if none of these longevity regions have been fully validated. An alternative and interesting hypothesis is that the high rate of inbreeding determined by frequent marriages between consanguineous individuals and low immigration rates have progressively decreased the variability of the genetic pool and facilitated the emergence of genetic characteristics that protect individuals from diseases that are major causes of mortality particularly in older individuals. Given the exceptionally high prevalence of male centenarians in the 'Blue Zone', it is reasonable to assume that either the environmental characteristics or the genetic factors, or both, exert their favorable effect more strongly in men than in women. Thus, the mechanism involved may be modulated by the hormonal milieu, or may be associated with genes located in the sex chromosomes.
Copyright 2004 Elsevier Inc.