QCOSTARICA — The shrinking of Costa Rica’s Blue Zone is a reminder of the fragility of these unique and valuable cultural legacies and longevity ecosystems.
Exceptionally high longevity is the prime attribute of the so-called Blue Zones around the globe: from Sardinia, Italy, to Okinawa, Japan, research on these regions has been at the core of longevity science and mainstream health dialogues for over two decades.
Individuals who live longer, more optimal, healthier lives than the global average mark the distinction in these regions or communities. One such Blue Zone is the Nicoya Peninsula in northern Costa Rica, revered for its exceptional health outcomes since 2014. However, recent studies reveal that the size and impact of this Blue Zone are not only diminishing but are expected to vanish within the next 20 years.
As Luis Rosero-Bixby, a Costa Rican public health and demography expert at The Central American Population Center of the University of Costa Rica, reports, multiple underlying factors might be contributing to this gradual shrinking, including increased rates of obesity, stress and sedentary lifestyles adopted by the Peninsula residents in recent years.
Moreover, accelerated urbanization and overall globalization might also be impacting this tendency. Large-scale developments, augmented tourist activity, and cultural shifts have significantly affected the region’s traditional way of living — life habits fostering longevity and well-being have been replaced with sedentary behaviors, unhealthful nutritional patterns and more isolation.
Another proposed rationale behind this long-lived reduction involves a generational evolution. “If they ask me what can we do to prevent Nicoya from ceasing to be a Blue Zone, I’d say we can’t do anything because these generations, born in the 40s, already tend to decreased longevity,” says Rosero-Bixby. But the question remains.
“It is a million-dollar question we won’t fully answer: Why the Nicoya Peninsula? We have some hints (low-stress levels and diet, for instance), but we have never fully explained every aspect that made it a Blue Zone. In contrast, we don’t entirely know why the reverse effect is now happening either,” notes Rosero-Bixby.
Initially 180,000 in 2004, the number of centenarians has decreased to 20,000, suggesting this renowned Blue Zone no longer covers some of its five original locations (Santa Cruz, Hojancha, Carrillo, Nandayure, and part of Nicoya). Indeed, it is shrinking with no observable, significant shift.
“There is still a stronghold of older adults there who continue to show high longevity, although the trend shows that this Blue Zone will keep getting more undersized, and perhaps in 20 years from now when we redo the map, the circle (of the blue area) will be just a speck or completely vanished altogether,” Rosero-Bixby says.
When it comes to timing “it’s hard to say when exactly it might fade, but the fact is that over the years, the size of the Blue Zone has been dwindling. Nevertheless, the decline does not mean the Nicoya Peninsula is no longer a Blue Zone. It is a longevity blue centriole, clearly.”
The Nicoya Peninsula sheds light on the declining Blue Zone as a crucial example of sustainable living that could inform and inspire a larger global audience. Losing these long-lived sites can be detrimental to improving public health and well-being across the region and beyond.
An emerging Blue Zone
After analyzing database rates of deaths and births and comparing these with the electoral rolls of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Rosero-Bixby — known as the “father of demography in Costa Rica” — found what could be a second Blue Zone within the national territory.
His research detected a new hot spot where the death rate for those over 60 is much lower than the national average. Specifically, it is 0.81 or 19% lower in three of the many cantons of Alajuela (one of Costa Rica’s central provinces), including Upala, Los Chiles and Guatuso. Enter — a potentially novel Blue Zone.
Rosero-Bixby explains that future lines of inquiry are required to determine whether or not these towns qualify as longevity hubs. Still, he believes it is the first good indication that something unusual is happening in that area. “With these data points, we have to wait a little longer for more definitive conclusions, but it should be further investigated.”
He adds, “just as Nicoya’s Blue Zone emerged in 2014, studying what is happening in Alajuela would be worthwhile and also necessary to rule out it is not a product of distorted data. Perhaps it is truly the emergence of a new Blue Zone!”
A note on preservation
Maintaining the Nicoya Peninsula as a Blue Zone would require a comprehensive, intercultural approach addressing social, economic and environmental factors. Educating the local population about the value and advantages of time-honored lifestyle, family and dietary dynamics can be a salient first step.
By reinforcing the integral health benefits of these unique traditions, Nicoya residents can be further encouraged to keep their millenary social rituals and thrive. Initiatives to balance economic development and environmental preservation can also be advantageous.
For instance, promoting responsible tourism practices that respect and support local culture can generate revenue while minimizing the negative impacts on Nicoya’s traditional way of living. Besides, broadening the concept of Blue Zone to encompass neighboring areas could help preserve and expand this longevity health oasis.
The bottom line
The shrinking of Costa Rica’s Blue Zone is a reminder of the fragility of these unique and valuable cultural legacies and longevity ecosystems.
Through proper education, sustainable development, and more contemporary approaches to Blue Zones, collective efforts can safeguard the area’s heritage and contribute to the overarching human pursuit of leading healthier, longer and happier lives.