When you think of incredible discoveries in Costa Rica, you most likely think a new animal or plant species… But what if we told you it’s longevity? Human longevity, specifically. Welcome to the Costa Rica blue zone.
There’s something fascinating happening in Costa Rica’s northwestern region: People here live longer. As in, longer than elsewhere in the world. The question is, why?
Welcome to “Longevity Island”
Let’s start at the beginning.
In 2005, Costa Rican demographer Dr. Luis Rosero-Bixby conducted a study based on a national sampling of about 3,000 Costa Ricans aged 60+, with oversampling of the “oldest old.” In other words, Rosero-Bixby studied the country’s senior citizens – here, known as ciudanos de oro, or golden citizens – with emphasis on those skewing older.
He discovered that Costa Ricans (especially men) who reach age 60 are more likely to live longer than their contemporaries elsewhere in the world. In fact, in a follow-up research paper (PDF) with William H. Dow and David H. Rehkopf, Rosero-Bixby found that “for a 60-year-old Nicoyan male, the probability of becoming centenarian is seven times that of a Japanese male, and his life expectancy is 2.2 years greater.” Additionally, the region has one of the world’s lowest rates of middle-aged mortality.
At first, the scientific community (and the planet at large) was skeptical; how could Dr. Rosero-Bixby’s findings be true?
Turns out, they are. Further research backed them up. And now, it’s a well-known fact: Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, dubbed as a “high-longevity island,” is one of the world’s rare blue zones – one of only five original regions, joined by Icaria (Greece), Okinawa (Japan), Lima Linda (California, USA), and Sardinia (Italy).
So, what’s the secret behind our region’s long life?
The Secret to the Costa Rica Blue Zone
Although science generally agrees that longevity is a complex equation based on both lifestyle and genetics, most experts believe that the former – that is, lifestyle – accounts for about 75% of the calculation. Only 25% comes courtesy of our genes.
In other words, genetics being equal, the Costa Rican lifestyle can tip you into the long-life column.
So, what’s the secret sauce to the pura vida lifestyle?
According to the Blue Zones Power 9®, while blue zones residents are far-flung and have many differences, research has found nine lifestyle commonalities that correlate to their longevity:
- Move Naturally: While residents of the Costa Rica blue zone don’t necessarily go to the gym, they live in a way that encourages daily movement. Yes, surfing and beach strolls count!
- Purpose: Nicoyans call it a plan de vida (life plan) and it refers to your reason to wake up in the morning. According to research, this purpose can equate to up to seven years of extra lifespan!
- Downshift: Did you know that stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which is associated with every major age-related disease? And, while Blue Zone residents experience stress (they’re human, too!), they also engage in behaviors and routines to shed their stress.
- 80% Rule: Blue zone residents, through tradition and behavior, stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. That 20% gap can mark the difference between gaining or losing weight (or maintaining a healthy weight). Blue zone residents also tend to eat their smallest meal later in the day.
- Plant Slant: The cornerstone of a centenarian diet? Beans! In Costa Rica, this most often means black or red beans, followed by garbanzos/chickpeas and lentils.
- Wine at 5: Research shows that long-lived blue zone residents drink moderately – and regularly. ¡Salud!
- Belong: A sense of belonging – particularly, research showed, in a faith-based community – correlated to longevity. Religion or denomination had no bearing; the importance was found in feeling like they belong to a community.
- Loved Ones First: Centenarians – that is, people who live to age 100+ – had some family values and lifestyle markers in common. In addition to committing to a life partner, they also had aging parents/grandparents living in their homes. Interestingly, having more generations under a single roof not only contributed to senior longevity but also lowered both the disease and mortality rates for children in the home.
- Right Tribe: Like belonging and family, long-lived Costa Rica blue zone residents also choose social circles that support healthy behaviors. Framingham Studies show that lifestyle habits – smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness – are contagious, so surrounding yourself with positive “contagions” (ex. happiness and active lifestyle enthusiasts) is good for you.
Your Life in the Blue Zone: A Factor of Five
Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and a main researcher behind the Blue Zones, simplifies geographic longevity into three major factors (which easily map to the Power 9®, above): environment, customs/habits, and lifestyle.
So, whether or not you technically live in the Costa Rica blue zone (again, that’s the Nicoya Peninsula), what can your new neighbors teach us about staying healthy as retirees? Here are a few lessons from Costa Rica’s longest-lived residents:
- Focus on Your Family & Friends: Northwestern Costa Ricans/Nicoyans spend lots of time with their families and friends, who provide support and a feeling of belonging. The lesson here: Find your tribe.
- Drink the Water: The peninsula’s hard water is rich in vitamins and minerals, including calcium, which strengthens bones and the heart. So drink up!
- Get Physical: Nicoyans aren’t strangers to hard, physical labor – and that’s a good thing because getting physical keeps you strong and limber. Whether it’s taking a hike, grabbing your surfboard, or kayaking into the wilds, regular and enjoyable physical activity – likely, a big reason you’re moving here, right? – can help you tack years onto your life.
- Enjoy the Sun: Vitamin D, straight from the sun, helps fuel strong bones and healthy body functions. (On the flip side, vitamin D deficiency can contribute to heart disease, osteoporosis, and other issues.) So step outside! Just don’t overdo it. Sunscreen is your friend.
- Create a Plan de Vida: Centenarians on the Nicoya Peninsula have an informal approach to their plan de vida – a life plan, or sense of purpose. Give yourself a reason to live. According to Jorge Vindas, who has studied Costa Rica’s centenarians for more than 15 years, “If they plant an orange tree at 90 they plan on eating the fruit.”
Costa Rica Healthcare: Another Key Factor
You can find a lot of Big Claims about Costa Rica’s healthcare, including the off-cited WHO ranking: 36th-best in the world (one spot higher than #37 United States) and a longer-than-average lifespan (as of 2019, 80.3 years vs. 79.1 in the USA).
Those are powerful and impressive numbers – and many researchers attribute them to one powerful factor: As a recent New Yorker article highlighted, Costa Rica’s CCSS focuses on public health – as in, keeping the public healthy (as opposed to treating a sick public.)
In large part, that boils down to preventive healthcare: For Costa Ricans, this means quality medical services starting before birth, and continuing throughout their lives. When you’re a resident of Costa Rica, you’re covered by the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (“La Caja,” the Costa Rican public health system).
Get into the system and you’re on the road to a full menu of preventive health services, including regular blood panels (and other tests), check-ups/check-ins, colonoscopies/endoscopies, men’s & women’s health visits, and more.
And all this means that, while moving to Costa Rica (and the northwestern Costa Rica blue zone) doesn’t guarantee you’ll live to 100, it may put you on the road to longevity. And not just long life, but a good long life – a life of great food, regular exercise, and plenty of time for family and your community.
Questions about Life in the Costa Rica Blue Zone?
You have questions, we have answers! Whether you’re already well on your way to living in Costa Rica or just dipping your toes into research, we’d love to help you explore the possibilities of life (and longevity) in Costa Rica.
At Blue Water Properties of Costa Rica, we’re committed to you. Not to selling you a property or spamming you with all the options, but to helping – genuinely and with good intent – to match you to the perfect property for your needs and wants. We thrive on relationships and promise the fastest communication and best services in the industry.
We’re also proud to offer some of the best Costa Rica real estate. We have both condos and homes, land and businesses for sale. Go ahead – try us. Give us a chance to show off our expertise – and wow you with the possibilities! We look forward to it.