Damnit. I’m not even that legitimately interested in longevity research or the idea of “blue zones,” which I’ve pointed out many times as mostly just areas in the world where the people are uniquely SHORT, the greatest lifespan-enhancing characteristic since looking both ways before crossing the street. But here I am with yet ANOTHER blog post about these obnoxious blue zones.
I couldn’t resist being intrigued in something I discovered recently, for reasons that you’ll soon understand.
It’s said that one of the world’s blue zones, where people live an abnormally long lifespan, is in Loma Linda, California where a bunch of vegetarian 7th-day adventists live. It’s in San Bernardino county, where the life expectancy is markedly average. In fact, 35 counties in California alone have higher life expectancy.
While not all of the residents of San Bernardino County are these supposedly long-lived 7th Day Adventists, how the average isn’t skewed at all is kinda puzzling. We’ll leave that alone and give them the benefit of the doubt, but I expect the other “blue zone” in the U.S. is an ACTUAL blue zone worthy of study.
This potential “blue zone” is an area of the U.S. where life expectancy has been the longest for a while, and one that is really dominating of late. Interestingly, even though I did nearly a decade of grueling and obsessive health research in my 30s, I had no idea about this area.
More interestingly, especially to me personally, is that the county in the U.S. with the 2nd-highest life expectancy, is the county I graduated high school from!
Yeah, it hurts to lose to another county, but 2nd place is pretty good eh?
So where’s the top county? The one with the very highest life expectancy? Well, it’s a county that BORDERS THE #2 COUNTY!
Pretty outrageous huh? The top 2 counties in the entire U.S. in life expectancy border one another.
If that’s not enough for you, #3 on the list ALSO BORDERS THOSE TWO COUNTIES!
I shit you not. The top three counties in life expectancy in the entire U.S. are all clustered together in one, small area surrounding the White River National Forest, where I was employed as a Wilderness Ranger for 7 summers. The counties are Summit, Pitkin, and Eagle, where life expectancy was in the 86-87 range when last assessed in 2014. Here is the full list of the top 50 counties in the U.S. Colorado has 8 other nearby counties in the top 50 in the nation.
I’ve also spent time living adjacent to the #5-ranked Marin County in California and in the #14-ranked Teton County in Wyoming. And I’ve lived and traveled to a ton of other places, so I feel pretty qualified to speak about what makes these places unique. I’m a blogger, so also keep in mind that I have a long history of feeling qualified to speak about lots of things, lol. AND I’m an author, so my perception of the importance of my every thought is obviously wildly inflated!
Consider that the cluster of 3 counties in Colorado that we’ll mostly be focusing on is comprised of mostly white people, who don’t have the best life expectancy by national averages (more than 8 years less than Asians and 4 less than Latinos). So we really are looking at a life expectancy that’s fully 7 years higher than average. There could really be something to this area.
What’s different about these places, the habits and lifestyle of the local culture, and the people who live there, and is there anything useful for you to glean from it all? Should you up and move there right away? That will be the focus of the remainder of this long-winded post…
First of all, we have to consider that there is absolutely NOTHING special about this area. Sure, it’s no statistical anomaly. We can all agree that there’s no way in hell that the 3 counties in the U.S. with the longest life expectancy would randomly be clustered together. But it could be something less exotic, such as the fact that, because the area is at high elevation and extremely mountainous, that unhealthy people either don’t move there in the first place, and/or they move away from the area as they get old because they feel too crappy living there. That alone could explain why these three counties so excel in the life expectancy category.
These are also very wealthy areas, and you’ll notice if you flip through the list of counties with highest life expectancy and read a little about them, most of them are hubs of wealth that hold titles like “highest median income in the country” or “highest average income” or “lowest poverty rate” and the like. We know that being financially secure is a powerful predictor of longevity in the U.S. And seniors living in this region are definitely some of the richest people on earth. Real estate values in some towns in these counties sped past absurd decades ago and are deep into the ludicrousphere now. No really. Look at this nonsense.
Interestingly, since I started writing this post a few weeks ago, I noticed that California updated their life expectancy data by county, and now the highest life expectancy there is off-the-charts at 90.0, and it’s Mono County which, in terms of lifestyle and setting, is basically EXACTLY the same. In fact, if you look up these counties on Google images, you’ll think you’re looking at the same place.
So, what if it’s NOT because of the way people migrate and emigrate to these places? What if there is actually something about these places that make them a fountain of youth?
If there is something truly magical about these three counties (and also Mono County in California), it’s basically a discussion between two factors:
- Living at high elevation yields a number of life-enhancing metabolic effects due to higher carbon dioxide blood saturation
- Exercise and fitness really is an amazing lifespan extender, and mountain people get WAY more of it than normal folk
You know I love a good hormonal/metabolic explanation for things. I read Ray Peat’s massive geekfest about high altitude living years ago, and how it protects against stuff like cancer, supposedly. I generally wrote it off since I was dating a girl at the time whose parents were both diagnosed with cancer in their 50’s within the same month, and their close friend who lived down the street just had a double mastectomy. It wasn’t feeling like I was living in some cancer sanctuary, but rather the opposite. I reacted like most people react to Ray Peat… “This guy is full of shit man!”
And while I still love Ray and consider him probably the greatest health theorist of all time, I haven’t changed my mind much on his altitudinal attributions. I’ve become increasingly less interested in exotic explanations and wild “red pill” theories as I’ve gotten older (42 bitches!) and slightly more mature (my estimated mental age is now up to 22). I realize now that it’s actually kind of easy to piece together a research puzzle that makes “so much sense” but that really doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s like following a rope that supposedly leads to a pot of gold, but eventually you get to the end and it’s just the end of a useless rope, tied into a noose for convenience, lol.
I think the explanation is probably the cultural differences between high mountain outdoor recreation meccas and the rest of the world.
What really stands out that’s unique about this area? I’ve lived in two of the three counties and dozens of other places, and believe me, the difference is MONUMENTAL.
People who live in the mountains (not NEAR them, but right up in them) are outdoor recreation addicts, and exercise through outdoor recreation is just a different type and level of fitness and vitality. Plain and simple. It’s not a “lifestyle,” it’s a full-on “culture.” If you’ve watched X-Games, you’ll know it even has its own language, haha.
This undiscovered “blue zone” that is connected by the White River National Forest has 11 ski areas and 8 massive Wilderness areas. These “gyms” are where people go to “work out” for 4-12 hours at a time, as many days per week as they can, every week of their lives. It makes a huge difference. No childhood obesity epidemic in this area folks. Audience and faculty looking tight like tigers too. Go Skiers! Sniffle, sniffle…
Anyway, since most of you cannot just up and move to the outrageously expensive high mountains, I think the real lesson is to make sure you find a sport or hobby that you really love doing that gets you out of the house and physically active at a decent clip. There is nothing like exercising for pleasure. You’ll do it for 2 hours and wish you could have stayed for longer. Then stay for 3 hours and wish you could have kept doing it. Then you’ll find yourself doing 4 hours, then 5, and then becoming like one of these mountain people, who, at ANY age, can literally go out and exercise from dawn to dusk (and they often start before dawn with those dorky headlamp things) like goddamn ELK.
Remember that lady with a double mastectomy I mentioned? She once, at age 60 and in remission, decided to accompany my ex on an 18-mile dayhike to visit me during one of my overnight work trips as a ranger at Conundrum hot springs. 2,791-foot vertical gain on that hike. She hiked up there in less than 3 hours, sat in the hot springs for an hour and had a snack, and then hiked back down. LIKE IT WAS NO BIG DEAL.
Know any 60-year old women that don’t live in the mountains that can do that on a random Friday afternoon, no big whoop? Me neither. But mountain people hike, bike, ski, board, climb, or paddle several times per week for several hours per session. Nearly all of them.
Even when I worked at a restaurant on a ski mountain there was an incentive program and awards at the end of the season for those who hiked 2,000 vertical feet and several miles up to the restaurant from the base of the ski mountain at dawn in sub-zero temperatures the most times. Some did the trek every day!
Anyway, think about that. Fitness and exercise is not 30 minutes per day 3 times per week–a brief interruption from the TV, phone, car, and computer. That’s nothing.
After 9 years mostly in Florida and comparing a sedentary lifestyle to an active, mountain lifestyle built around outdoor recreation and an exciting culture celebrating it, I have no doubt that a truly physically active lifestyle is a powerful prophylactic against many of the ills of aging. I hope to get it back someday. I have serious trouble motivating myself to do much outdoors when it’s flat as a pancake outside (mmm, pancakes), and it has cost me a great deal of vitality no doubt.
Or has it? As you know, I’ve shared many times that trips out West and a temporarily active lifestyle while returning to sedentary lifestyle after has actually led to repeated bouts of weight gain for me personally. What do you guys think? I’m crazy and lactic acid explains it all?
Or should I have just written a long-winded post about achieving financial security to expand your lifespan instead–one major key being to stop obsessing over your health and trying to live some hunter-gatherer type lifestyle outdoors and focus instead on your career? Should my next post be about the Green Zone being the REAL blue zone?