Blue zones: The myth of the paradise that makes people live to 100


Blue zones: The myth of the paradise that makes people live to 100

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

It would be charming if there really were “blue zone” Edens of supercentenarians, living off tubers, wholegrains, and fermented foods in bonded kinship. Huge numbers clearly wish to believe in this dream world, so evocative of the chiliastic eschatology of the early church.

Yet these pockets of extreme longevity seem to occur in areas with “greater poverty, higher illiteracy, higher crime rates, and worse population health” than the norm, according to Oxford scientist Saul Newman. Data from the United Nations even suggests that Cambodia was a blue zone of sorts during the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.

Sardinia is one of the world’s blue zones.Credit: Getty Images

These hotspots can be chiefly explained by welfare fraud, identity theft, name-saking and criminal abuse of the pension system, or by genuine confusion over dates or lack of birth certificates. Some are banal in any case.

“Whenever you get an investigation of the pensions system, the rate of centenarians suddenly collapses. That is what happened in Greece after the financial crisis,” said Dr Newman, now at Oxford University’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science.

The Greek labour ministry concluded that 200,000 pensions were being paid to fraudulent claimants. Most of the country’s 9,000 centenarians were dead.

The same happened in Japan in 2010 after the mummified corpse of Tokyo’s “oldest” man was discovered. His family had been drawing the pension from his bank account for 32 years. The inquiry discovered that 238,000 people listed as aged 100 or more were unaccounted for. Some had died in the Second World War.

Many readers will have seen the Secrets of the Blue Zones on Netflix, or will be aware of the cottage industry that has emerged around this global cult – a mix of soft science and comical anthropology, strangely enduring against much evidence.

The theme was picked up this week by Britain’s excellent ZOE podcast, an offshoot of the world’s biggest citizen science health project. It is a no-nonsense broadcast on nutrition and the microbiome, linked to King’s College London, Stanford, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

I expected a forensic cross-examination but on this occasion ZOE was forgiving, so let me relay the dissenting view.

Dr Newman discovered that the longest live clusters in the UK up to 2008 were in Stepney and the Isle of Dogs. Tower Hamlets racked up 15 supercentenarians aged 105, compared to three for Scotland and Northern Ireland combined over the same period.

This is remarkable, given that Tower Hamlets was also the poorest and most deprived of London’s 32 boroughs, with the highest child poverty rate in London alongside the worst level of income deprivation among older people and the lowest percentage of people aged over 90 in the country. Mirabile dictu.

Tower Hamlets has since plunged towards the bottom of the centenarian league. Perhaps that is because welfare fraud in the borough started to attract attention, leading to a government probe. There were similar longevity anomalies in the poorest parts of Manchester, Tyneside and Liverpool.

The Netflix series was narrated by Dan Buettner, a centenarian enthusiast, and the creator of Blue Zones LLC, now owned by Adventist Health.

The New York Times reports that the enterprise has issued blue zone certificates to 80 towns and localities in the US for $US3 million ($4.5 million) to $US40 million each.

Buettner picked hotspots in five places: Sardinia, Okinawa, the Greek island of Ikaria, Loma Linda in California, and Nicoya, a poor province of Costa Rica.

Having spent four years as a journalist in Central America, I had great trouble believing the Costa Rican segment. The original promoter of the Nicoya blue zone, demographer Luis Rosero-Bixby, now says “new public administrative records”, in contrast to earlier data, show that mortality rates are in fact higher than average, and therefore that the zone no longer qualifies.

‘Whenever you get an investigation of the pensions system, the rate of centenarians suddenly collapses. That is what happened in Greece after the financial crisis.’

Oxford scientist Saul Newman

Buettner’s prescriptions – eat lots of healthy plant foods, keep moving about, and be nice to each other – are benign, but hardly revealing.

Let us start with Okinawa, Japan’s poorest region, purportedly home to legions of centenarians living on seaweed and the purple sweet potato, a superfood rich in anthocyanins and phenols that came from South America via the Spanish.

Some 90 per cent of the pre-war birth certificates in Okinawa were obliterated during the bombing and occupation in 1945. Records were reconstructed by the US authorities, speaking almost no Japanese, using ‘Koseki’ handwritten documents from family members.

Like Tower Hamlets, Okinawa is a portrait of deprivation, with the highest poverty and jobless rates, and the worst average body mass index among Japanese prefectures.

Masazo Nonaka of Japan eats cake on April 10, 2018, after the Guinness World Records recognised him as the world’s oldest living man at the age of 112 years and 259 days.

Masazo Nonaka of Japan eats cake on April 10, 2018, after the Guinness World Records recognised him as the world’s oldest living man at the age of 112 years and 259 days.Credit: Kyodo News via AP

One study found that the inhabitants consumed less sweet potatoes than the rest of the country, less fruit and seafood, and more processed food. Japan has kept nutritional data as far back as the 1970s. It shows that Okinawa had the worst obesity problem even then.

The Sardinian blue zone is in Ogliastra, descendants of a bronze age matriarchy kept sustained on pasta fagioli, mastic oil, goat’s milk, and jugs of Cannonau di Sardegna.

It allegedly had the highest rate of survival to ages 100, 105, and 110 among Italy’s 114 regions, yet it also had the highest murder rate, the highest jobless rate, and the lowest survival rate beyond 55. The original blue zone “Akea” study suggested that the locals may have benefited from inbreeding. You can’t make it up.

Blue Zones said it followed strict criteria. “A team of researchers, demographers, and scientists visited each region to validate age. We checked birth certificates and cross-referenced with church baptism records or other available local records,” it said.

The striking feature of centenarian scholarship is the reluctance to accept evidence that rebuts the hypothesis. Former smoker Adele Dunlap, who “ate anything she wanted”, was validated as America’s oldest woman despite stating repeatedly that she was a decade younger. When asked how it felt to be 113, she answered emphatically: “I’m 104.”

Dr Newman’s paper sits on the bioRxiv open-access roster of preprints, visited 200,000 times, never systematically challenged, and yet unable to reach the publication stage of peer review. “The resistance was massive. I got emails of support but nobody wanted to put their head above the parapet,” he said.

All academic debate is contentious. Elbows are sharp. It is hard for outsiders to judge the arguments. But this episode reminds me of much that goes on economics – and some say climate science –where a professional priesthood closes ranks to suppress dissent.

The matter needs a proper airing. We know what leads to long life: affluence, good education, good health care, and a low GINI coefficient; add unsaturated lipids such as olive oil, along with fresh greens, fibre, and Omega 3; go easy on red meat and fast-release carbs. Telegraph readers know the drill. The blue zones add little, and take away much.

Buettner told the ZOE programme that no superfood or pill will deliver extreme old age. That is true. But nor is there a miracle superzone that will do so either.

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