What are Blue Zones? It's a question that inhabitants of Guanacaste are happy to be asking themselves, since it's a true pride for the province's population to be home to one of the five such zones that exist worldwide. It includes the five cantons of the Nicoya Peninsula: Hojancha, Nandayure, Carrillo, Santa Cruz and Nicoya.
In terms of a definition, these zones are geographical areas with a high concentration of long-lived populations, who frequently reach ninety or one hundred years of age. There are 5 Blue Zones around the world, one of which is located on the Nicoya Peninsula; the others on the list are Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in the United States, and Icaria, in Greece.
There are common factors that exist in these populations, such as good physical and mental health, a healthy traditional diet, respect for the family, deep faith, constant mobility, and a purpose in life.
While a Blue Zone indicates a hotspot of healthy longevity, it also presents a challenge of how to extend these benefits throughout the population outside of these redoubts. Enjoying good health conditions shouldn't depend on economic or technological factors, but rather on protective factors that are evident and proven in the region. They include good physical and mental health, upholding a traditional diet, a deep faith and spirituality, support and respect to family networks that go across generations, where grandchildren spend time with their grandparents and share in their knowledge, physical activity and constant mobility, and a purpose in life associated with spirituality.
These factors are present, to some degree, in the other four Blue Zones in the world, according to world experts who participated in the World Meeting in Nicoya in mid-November.
As indicated by the World Health Organization, "active or positive aging is the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age".
Beyond this context, however, the health authorities are taking measures to help Costa Ricans reach over 80 years of age in good health. The information and example set by the inhabitants of the Blue Zone of Nicoya are highly valuable, and some of the life habits can be emulated, planting a blue seed throughout the country.
The concept of Blue Zones came from a series of demographic and statistical projects led by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, but they were made famous worldwide by the research work of journalist Dan Buettner, along with a team from National Geographic and the publication of his book, The Blue Zones.
In one of Buettner's most recent visits to Costa Rica, he defined Blue Zones as "a kind of lifestyle and environment that creates longevity. They are places where people get around by walking more than by car, they eat more plants than meat, and a diet that includes beans or grains such as corn, where the family is their number one purpose. They have groups of friend with whom they share healthy habits."
The Blue Zone of the Nicoya Peninsula stands out for the beauty of its landscapes, its tourist attractions, and its conservation areas, but above all, for the stories told by the long-lived inhabitants of the region, who have exceeded the life expectancy in Costa Rica and continue to be lucid and active, and who enjoy long, healthy lives.
Currently, three emblematic examples of this Blue Zone include the centenarians José Bonifacio "Pachito" Villegas, from Pochote de Quebrada Honda, Nicoya, who rides a horse every day at age 100, Trinidad Espinoza, who recounts anecdotes from Costa Rica in the 1930s continuously while she feeds her chickens, and Dámaso Mendoza, age 102, who, on receiving a visitor, always talks about her years as a dancer and how she enjoys the company of the five generations of her family in Santa Ana de Belén, Carillo. They are joined by 42 other centenarians in the Nicoya Peninsula, located in the 5 blue cantons: Nicoya, Santa Cruz, Hojancha, Nandayure and Carrillo (according to data from Jorge Vindas, a field researcher for the Nicoya Peninsula Blue Zone Association).
According to the most recent data from the Ministry of Health, this region will be painted blue for many years to come, as over 900 people over 90 have been recorded, along with over 5,000 inhabitants over 75, the majority of whom enjoy good health in their old age.
Ministry of Health data indicate that life expectancy is nearly 80 years, which is the highest in Central America, according to the World Bank.
This information is complemented by studies carried out by Costa Rican demographer Dr. Luis Rosero Bixby, which show that the mortality of inhabitants of the Nicoya Peninsula aged 90 is 10% lower than for Costa Ricans of the same age elsewhere in the country. "The five cantons of the peninsula continue to appear with greater longevity and we've confirmed this everywhere we've investigated. Not only do they live longer, their metabolism is better, the levels of cognitive impairment are lower, and they function at a higher level. I feel lucky to have found this information, though the credit doesn't belong to me, but rather to the older residents. This trend has been here for many years, but I was the one to notice this special feature in the data," said Bixby, a pioneer in longevity research.
The centenarians of the Nicoya Peninsula have also captured the interest of the Institute of Social Studies in Population (Instituto de Estudios Sociales en Población, IDESPO) of the National University (Universidad Nacional) of Costa Rica, which is carrying out a study on the subject this year. In parallel, the ICT has drawn attention to the concept of the Blue Zone as part of its wellness tourism strategy as a distinctive feature in promoting the destination, while the Ministry of Culture and Youth has identified the long-lived inhabitants as bearers of a tradition which they can contribute to recovering for future generations.
These Blue Zones have a direct link to the promotion of tourism in the country, since it fits in well wellness tourism. This goes along with the decision to widen the country's tourism offerings and venture into industries with high potential, such as wellness tourism. This is why the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT, Instituto Costarricense de Turismo) launched the Wellness Pura Vida country strategy, which seeks to position Costa Rica as a wellness destination with a difference, which offers unique, transforming experiences. Having a Blue Zone helps strengthen the country's constant striving for quality of life, both for Costa Ricans and for tourists.
"Year after year, our surveys indicate that it’s the Costa Ricans themselves that set our destination apart, and it's certainly always a marvelous experience to spend time with the older generation. The Nicoya Peninsula Blue Zone, in addition to aligning with our Wellness Pura Vida strategy, are important as a driver of wellness tourism throughout the country, highlighting the importance of creating authentic travel experiences. These centenarians help teach us the value of those important little things," said Mauricio Ventura, Minister of Tourism, with pride.
In mid-November 2017, the first World Meeting of Blue Zones was held. For the first time ever, the world's most prominent researchers shared their knowledge and most recent research on the topic of Blue Zones. The distinguished list included pioneering researchers on this subject: Michel Poulain of Belgium, Dr. Gianni Mario Pes and Paolo Francalacci from Sardinia, Italy, Christina Chrysochoou from Icaria, Greece, Makoto Suzuki from Okinawa, Japan, Gina Siapco from Loma Linda, USA, and Diego Bernardini from Argentina.
The international attendees also included Dan Buettner, a reporter and researcher for National Geographic, who has been responsible for popularizing the concept of Blue Zones through the publication of various articles and best-selling books that explore the direct connection between this issue and diet, spirituality, purpose in life and physical exercise, with happiness as a cross-cutting element.
Results were also shared from the research carried out by the demographer Luis Rosero and Dr. Elizabeth Lopez, both from Costa Rica, who made significant contributions on the subject of healthy longevity. The occasion was also used to release the most recent study on longevity by the Institute of Social Studies in Population (Instituto de Estudios Sociales en Población, IDESPO) at the National University of Costa Rica.
All of the international experts agreed that the factors that make healthy longevity possible must be communicated worldwide, in order to reflect on the implications of Blue Zones, unique geographical areas with a high concentration of inhabitants who live to ninety or one hundred years of age, whose aging process is positive, and most importantly, deliberate and active.
Arising from this need, one of the results of the meeting was the establishment of an International Network on Healthy Aging, which will be led from Costa Rica in order to "build knowledge collaboratively", said Montero. Certain common characteristics were also established in order to determine whether additional Blue Zones could be added in the near future.
Reporter Dan Buettner closed by saying "it is a great honor to see the results of the idea of researching the issue of longevity that emerged fifteen years ago is coming to fruition in the meeting of the major scientific researchers on the subject of Blue Zones." He added that "we must somehow emulate, duplicate or copy the lifestyle of centenarians, and their way of living, but above all, their environment, diet, activity; above all, the connections they make, human connections, not technological ones."
For Belgian researcher Michel Poulain, one of the most important message of the World Meeting of Blue Zones is to tell the world that "Costa Rica has a treasure of longevity in the Nicoya Peninsula, that comes from the past generations, which has been built year by year. This treasure includes the atmosphere around you." He finished, stating emphatically "please keep it and put the new generation on the same line in the treasure of this Blue Zone."
In parallel, and with the purpose of generating public policies, a Framework Cooperation Agreement in order to establish, promote and support the Blue Zone in the Nicoya Peninsula. The sustainable and equitable promotion of the long-living population of seniors and the establishment of a cultural agenda aimed at strengthening sustainable, rural, community tourism stood out among the commitments made. These commitments also included mechanisms to develop best practices in health promotion in the "five blue cantons" of the Peninsula, strengthening support networks, and incentivizing the recuperation of life lessons and traditions.
The agreement was signed by the Vice President of Costa Rica, Ana Helena Chacón, as well as ministries and institutions of the government and the mayors of the cantons of Nicoya Peninsula: Nandayure, Hojancha, Carrillo, Santa Cruz and Nicoya. "This meeting commits us to preserve this Blue Zone, but most importantly, it should have a multiplier effect and serve as an example for the other cantons of the country" said Ana Monge, Commissioner of the Presidential Social Council of the Government of Costa Rica.
The World Meeting of Blue Zones laid the groundwork, in a spirit of sí se puede (yes we can), envisioning a blue Costa Rica, following the example of healthy habits set by more than 900 inhabitants aged 90 or older, and the centenarians of Nicoya Peninsula. They have been able to exceed their life expectancy and serve as an example for the entire world. Without a doubt, this is a challenge for the next generations, in the context of the world's age pyramid turning upside down, with ever more senior citizens.