Examining Blue Zones: What Can We Learn from This Form of Health Media?

flattened map of the continents on earth, shown in blue with blue waves above and below

You may have heard the term “Blue Zones” in health and wellness-related media. This phrase describes specific areas around the world that are home to people reportedly living healthier, longer lives. This research has become a fascination of health and wellness culture, with countless books, articles, and documentaries dedicated to the subject.

Blue Zones are not alone in sparking large-scale public interest and offering health advice. This reoccurring phenomenon begs the question: What should we be critical of when engaging with this kind of media?

First, I would like to consider its ability to appeal to our sense of agency as an individual. Consumers of Blue Zone content are encouraged to walk more, garden more, and eat more plants. However, narrowing the scope of health to the individual-level is not realistic, considering the abundance of other factors that influence one’s health and wellbeing. For instance, if a neighborhood is not walkable or accessible, a person cannot easily stay mobile. Or, if a person lives in a food desert, they cannot readily access nutritious foods.

The health determinants that are largely beyond our control are countless, including our education level and economic stability. These determinants disproportionately impact people of color and other marginalized communities. Blue Zone content is not alone in this narrow, individual scope. Countless cultural staples—from fad diets to TV shows—aim to convince us that we are in complete control of our health on a personal level.

Furthermore, I find it important to remain critical of this form of media because of its heavy branding. Blue Zone content has been taken from cultures around the world, sold, and many have turned a profit. The lifestyle practices of these communities have been turned into Blue Zone “lifestyle habits,” encouraged by the brand and marketed in their books and on their website.

The lifestyle habits that the Blue Zone media encourages are not inherently negative. According to the Blue Zone website, these long-living communities eat plant-heavy diets, destress, connect with loved ones, and stay mobile. These habits directly align with our current scientific understanding of healthy living. Regardless of their content, however, I believe we should be cautious when a company portrays their health-related research as an absolute answer to our health questions and encourage us to purchase items related to this promise. Their ability to influence us is especially powerful given the sensitivity of the topic.

Ultimately, I do not believe Blue Zone media and other similar sources are all bad. They can inspire individuals and communities alike, as with residents of Albert Lea, Minnesota, who are taking it upon themselves to increase their built environment’s walkability and change their food options at restaurants as a response to Blue Zone research.

At the same time, it is important to note the power of captivating branding and the potential for companies to appeal to our sense of agency, especially when the information pertains to such a personal topic.

Isabella HankinsContributor Isabella Hankins studies Community, Environment, & Planning and Medical Anthropology & Global Health at the University of Washington She joined the Age Friendly Seattle team in 2023.

This article appeared in the May 2024 issue of AgeWise King County.