Wellness in Costa Rica: Our Own Blue Zone

Today I want to tell you about another important topic that makes Costa Rica very special. Let’s start by explaining what the Blue Zones are. From Wikipedia: Blue Zones is a concept used to identify a demographic and/or geographic area of the world where people live measurable longer lives. There are 5 areas in the entire world identified this way and one of them is- guess where? Right here in our own Nicoya Peninsula in the Province of Guanacaste, Costa Rica!

This is the complete list of the Blue Zones of the World in alphabetical order:
1. Icaria, a Greek island
2. Loma Linda, California in the United States
3. Nicoya, a Peninsula located in the Northwest of Costa Rica
4. Okinawa, a Japanese Island
5. Sardinia, in Italy

A very important characteristic of the Blue Zones, in addition to the longevity of its people is the fact that they maintain their mobility, vigor, clarity of mind, general wellness and zest for life to the end of their lives.
The question that comes to mind immediately, of course, is- What makes the difference? The difference is in the LIFE STYLE.

For the 75,000 or so residents of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, life continues much as it has for hundreds of years. They make their living as small farmers, laborers or “sabaneros”- cowboys who work the area’s huge cattle ranches. From the dusty villages where neighbors visit each other on porches or from the rural homes where women still cook on ancient wood-burning stoves, you would never guess that this is the place with the longest life expectancy in the Americas.

Scientists generally agree that less than 25% of how long a person lives is linked to genetics (to what ages their parents and grandparents lived) and the other 75% comes from lifestyle (daily routine over a lifetime)

Costa Ricans stay fit in Nicoya by maintaining moderate but regular activity throughout their lives including to advanced age. This is done by walking places regularly, tending gardens or animals, helping raise the children, continuing with their housework chores such as cooking often without the aid of many of the modern conveniences like electric or gas stoves, vacuum cleaners or dishwashers. I have seen old men chopping wood, mending fences, and clearing brush with machetes. They maintain an active routine that includes plenty sleep (early to bed and early to rise), living a life that has purpose, eating in moderation a diet that includes non-processed food, fresh fruit and vegetables often from their own garden, fish, little meat, moderate alcohol intake (moderate is the key) but also very important is the support of their extended family and the social network of friends and community. They live in communities where family relationships are pivotal and the extended family is simply called the family often with several generations living in the same household. The elderly are respected by both the family and the community at large, cherished for their wisdom and never ridiculed or abused. They are not an imposition in the family but the center of the family. They stay engaged in daily chores until the end and are a central element of family and society. Religion is another key element, it helps ground them and by trusting in a Higher Power, they go through life with considerably less stress than most of us have in our lives. Still another factor is that festivities do not exclude the elderly and they enjoy a dance as much as their great grandchildren do (dances include everyone in the community regardless of how old or how young). This too of course, is a fabulous form to stay fit, much more fun than walking on a treadmill. They ride bicycles as transportation rather than stationary bikes for exercise and do all this in the fresh air rather than in the artificial climate-controlled indoors. The same length of each day of the year and the abundant sunshine in Costa Rica due to proximity to the Equator prevents seasonal affective disease which causes depression. Those are all ingredients of the recipe for wellness in Costa Rica.

The Nicoya Blue Zone has the lowest cancer rate of all Costa Rica which may be attributed to a nutrient rich diet of fresh fruits, beans, fish, rice and corn. There is little or no consumption of processed foods or refined sugar in their diet. Another key aspect of their routine is their physically active lifestyle and their mineral rich water – the water is naturally filtered through limestone adding calcium and magnesium which are sure to be a factor in maintaining strong bones that are less prone to fractures.

Something also very significant about this community is that it has been statistically proven that a man who reaches the age of 60 here is twice as likely as a man in the United States to make it to the age of 90. And 7 times as likely as a Japanese man to become a centenarian according to a study conducted at the UCR, the University of Costa Rica. According to National Geographic, men in Nicoya live to their 100th birthday 4 times as often as men in the United States- even though their medical care costs only about 7% as much.

The body of happy people is flooded with hormones and chemicals associated with happiness and health. Stress releases cortisol which is harmful long term, causing high blood pressure and generally increasing the onset and severity of heart diseases. Life is both about quantity and quality and the long living Nicoyans are still enjoying the richness of life. In Costa Rica this is called “the Pura Vida” or the essence of life.
Living a long and healthy life, except for uncontrollable circumstances such as accidents, is a Life Choice based on a lifestyle conducive to it. It requires consistency and positive enrichment of body and mind as part of our daily routine. The way to do this is to elect to surround yourself with others who share your interest in living a full life that is low in stress, happy and meaningful and includes plenty of sleep and lots of laughter.

Some other relevant statistics to consider are:
-In a study conducted in the United States by the Alzheimer Association published under the title “2012 Alzheimer Disease Facts and Figures”, 45% to 46% of the US population has Alzheimer by the age of 85
-People who are lonely live an average of 8 years less than people who are connected. Everyone needs to have, and feel they have, others who “have their back” and make them feel loved and appreciated.
If you don’t live in one of the Blue Zones you can still improve your life span and quality of life by adopting a lifestyle consistent with that of the Blue Zones. Here are some examples of successfully embracing this lifestyle concept.
-In the town of Albert Lee, Minnesota it raised life expectancy by 3 years and bought health care costs down by 40%
-In the town of Spencer, Iowa, City employees adopted a blue zone lifestyle and diet and within 1 year their health cost dropped by 25%

Adopting a Blue Zone lifestyle for this purpose means adopting their food guidelines, social networks concept and a clear vision of one’s purpose in life. If this won’t fit into your work circumstances, adopt it in your personal life such as in your home life or even in your extracurricular activities or by volunteering.

Important consideration- where you live, statistically speaking, is the biggest non-genetic influence on your health. Remember that a life where you get plenty of sunshine gives you the vitamin D that you need for strong bones and keeps your circadian rhythm tuned to happiness. The year round sunshine is another factor for health in Costa Rica.

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