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The five healthiest places in the world

What’s the secret to immortal life? Who knows? But there are secrets to living longer than most, as National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner is aware. Having travelled the world to study communities with measurably more centenarians than anywhere else on earth, he’s identified what the top five ‘Blue Zones’ have in common – and what they can teach us. Hannah Ralph investigates


Photograph: Adobe Stock

Ikaria, Greece

The New York Times called it ‘The Island Where People Forget to Die’. For, with abundant wine, dazzling seascapes, wandering kitties and close-knit communities, why would you ever choose to leave? On the small Greek island of Ikaria, not only does the population live longer than almost anywhere else on earth, but, extraordinarily, it avoids dementia almost completely. How? It’s part nourishment (frequent herbal teas and a particularly green version of the Mediterranean diet), part exercise (almost every trip out of an Ikarian household involves a bit of a climb) and social contact: if you don’t turn up at the local village festival, rest assured a neighbour will turn up to yank you out of the door.    

What we can learn: Like the Sardinians, Ikarian folk aren’t slaves to schedules – in fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a local with a watch or an alarm clock at all. And yes, naps are a sacred practice.

Take off to Greece

Photographs (also opening image): Adobe Stock

Sardinia, Italy

To say that Italy has had a rough ride with Covid-19 would be an understatement. There is, however, one little island that has ridden out the pandemic with minimal disruption – and it just so happens to be the next Blue Zone on Buettner’s list. Sardinia, averaging 43 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents (compared to the national average of more than 250), is a haven for centenarians, with a rocky landscape that helps imbue mega-mountain-goat energy in its older generations. What makes Sardinia particularly special is the longevity of the men, who globally usually fall far behind women where lifespan is concerned.

What we can learn: Sardinians will ditch their jobs at midday for a long, hearty lunch with family and, often, they won’t return. Career stress? Not a thing. These folk wake up thinking about their nearest and dearest, not how to get ahead at work.

Take off to Italy

Photograph: Unsplash

Okinawa, Japan

Perhaps not a very surprising entry, since Japan has the highest life expectancy of any country on Earth, but if the Japanese people are drinking from some elusive fountain of youth, where, exactly, is the source? The Okinawa Islands, rising from the water in a bumpy trail toward Taiwan, have long been dubbed the ‘Hawaii of Japan’ thanks to a uniquely glorious microclimate, but this isn’t its only nickname. Okinawa is known locally as ‘Island of the Immortals’, since it produces more centenarians than any other region of Japan. This is attributed largely to diet (rich in tofu and seaweed) and ikigai – a spiritual driving force that can manifest as anything from dedication to a certain art form to the care of one’s grandchildren.

What we can learn: Okinawans don’t toss aside their elderly. Over-80s pageants and social clubs known as moai provide a sense of community for the island’s older population.

Take off to Japan

Photograph: Getty Images

Nicoya, Costa Rica

West of Costa Rican capital San José and just south of the Nicaraguan border, boho peninsula Nicoya is the home of jungle birds, surf towns, rugged shorelines, and three-and-a-half times more centenarians than the global average. Health-wise, Nicoya has a lot going for it: the water here has the highest calcium content in all of Costa Rica, and then there’s the small matter of all that vitamin D from the non-stop sun. Away from the glittering beaches, it’s cowboy country, with Nicoyans well into their 100s still riding horseback around fruit-tree-filled farmland. And, similar to ikigai, citizens live by a plan de vida, or ‘life plan’, to help give them purpose into their golden years.  

What we can learn: People in Blue Zones tend to stop eating before they’re completely full and eat their smallest meal in the early evening: this is the same for Nicoyans, whose light suppers centre on rice, beans and corn.

Take off to Costa Rica

Photograph: Alamy

Loma Linda, California

Far from your average all-American town, this southern Californian community correlates its stellar heath stats to having the world’s highest concentration of Seventh-day Adventists – a denomination of Christianity that encourages veganism, shuns smoking and advocates daily fresh air. To the Adventists, physical health is a reflection of spiritual health. It’s why, each week, the townspeople take a 24-hour Sabbath to focus on rest, recuperation, God and family. Then there’s the emphasis on community likemindedness and volunteering – another tenet of longer living that gives citizens a sturdier support bubble later on in life.

What we can learn: While Okinawans indulge in awamori (sake’s boozier sister) and the Mediterranean Blue Zones like their reds, Loma Linda is not big on alcohol. We’ll leave you to make your mind up about who’s doing that right…

Take off to California