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  • Writer's pictureNick Allen

Lessons from the Blue Zones: Nicoya, Costa Rica

Blue Zones are communities where people tend to live exceptionally long, healthy lives. Five regions across four continents have been given this distinction, but this post will focus exclusively on one: Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. How does this population, with an average income that would be below the poverty line in the U.S., have a life expectancy far exceeding that of the wealthiest nations?


It’s important to remember that genetics are a key component of the longevity equation. The Nicoyans are no exception — they are thought to have long telomeres among other inherited advantages. That being said, genetics are only a small part of this story. Here are five things that we might want to imitate if we want to live long, happy, healthy lives like the people of Nicoya, Costa Rica.


1. Nutrition — composition and timing


The centenarians studied in the Nicoya region generally stuck to a traditional diet of rice, beans, and squash. This isn’t exactly what I picture when I think of the world’s healthiest diet. In fact, rice is something I aim to limit in my own diet. Nevertheless, this Costa Rican community is a great example of there being multiple ways to get to an optimal outcome. In their case, they are eating almost entirely whole, unprocessed foods. Wild rice is far superior to the highly refined white rice sold in grocery stores. Additionally, quantity is immensely important. Nicoyans are eating enough rice and beans to power them through the day, but not much more than that. Timing is another consideration. This population was found to eat a light, early dinner, and refrain from consumption afterwards. This not only helps prevent overeating, it can also contribute to better sleep.


2. Prioritizing public health


We often speak about the reactive healthcare system we have in the United States, meaning that we put money in treatments instead of prevention. Costa Rica is a great example of the success that can come from inverting our thinking. Physician and author Atul Gawande wrote an article detailing how Costa Rica’s emphasis on public health has allowed their population to live longer than Americans while simultaneously spending less on health care. The country’s focus on community-oriented primary care, complete with home visits and support from professionals in every domain, ensures that people stay free from disease as long as possible.


3. Family first


Time and time again, social support pops up in the literature as a contributor to longevity. In the Nicoya Peninsula, extended families often live under the same roof. While grandchildren can benefit from the wisdom of their elders, the gift they give in return is even greater. Isolation and depression run rampant through the U.S. elderly population, but the Nicoyans age surrounded by youth.


4. Activity throughout the day


You probably guessed that physical activity would be on the list, but it has a different definition in Nicoya, Costa Rica. Whereas we often think about bouts of exercise, the people of this peninsula simply have active lives. Their work is physically demanding, they walk everywhere they go, and they find joy in managing their land. I’ve always thought that the way we approach physical activity in the United States is wrong. Someone can meet a guideline for 30 minutes/day of exercise, but if they proceed to be sedentary for the remainder of their day the long-term outcome is likely to be poor. While targeted exercise is certainly useful, finding a way to remain active throughout the day may lead to better outcomes. The people of Nicoya are a great case study of this phenomenon.


5. Plan de vida


This Spanish phrase refers to the Nicoyans’ “reason to live.” Researchers in the region have noted that people feel strongly about their purpose in life. They are motivated by the belief that they have a role in the well-being of their family and the greater community. This sense of being valued by your community is something that can motivate positive behaviors, and beyond that can put the mind at ease. Whereas many of us are constantly stressed and rushing from one thing to the next, the Nicoyans’ ability to slow down and simply enjoy time with the people around them could be one of the main reasons they live disease-free for decades longer.


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