11 Aug 2019

Dr. Saul Newman: debunking the 'Blue Zone' longevity myth

From Sunday Morning, 9:48 am on 11 August 2019

Places such as Okinawa in Japan and Sardinia in Italy, are famous for being home to a high number of people living well past the age of 100, also deemed as 'Blue Zones'.

Some of the common factors in these various enclaves of centenarians are tight knit communities, who eat well, Mediterranean or plant-based diets, they don’t over exercise, instead having a busy domestic life with energetic chores is said to be sufficient for that.

But a new study (which is yet to be peer reviewed) from Dr Saul Newman, a researcher at the Australian National University, suggests the records in some of these places aren't kept particularly well, and in some cases people are simply fibbing about their age.

Dr Saul Newman from Australian National University.

Dr Saul Newman from Australian National University. Photo: Supplied

“I had come at this with a fairly critical angle to begin with, and really became more critical as I dug into the data,” Dr Newman told Jim Mora.

Dr Newman says he doesn’t have a problem with the advice about healthy lifestyles that centenarians have, but points to flawed data as the real issue.

“It's really a peripheral issue. I'm taking issue with the data and not with the output.

“I think the real fascination here is not so much how do I live a long time? It's the remarkable longevity that's at stake here. You know, how do I live to these extraordinary ages? And that's the real fundamental problem here is that we don't know anyone lives to these extraordinary ages, because there are intrinsic problems with data.”

When he started to dig into the data on regions with the most longevity, he says he found that they didn’t actually have the longest lived average figures that one would expect and things didn’t quite match up.

“So Okinawa, for an example, is world famous for having this extreme longevity. But if you look at the statistics from within Japan, they have the shortest average lifespan, all the provinces of Japan, they also have the highest murder rate. They have one of the worst economies. And of course, one of the most heavily bombed during the war.

“So, there's this string of problems with this idea that this would be the longest lived population. You know, why not Tokyo where everyone's even more wealthy, and they have better records?”

Dr Newman used some data from the Gerontology Research Group, and the Sydney Morning Herald reports that its director has criticised his interpretation of the data. The director claimed Dr Newman was using it selectively to prove a point, and reiterated the data from Sardinia was well validated.

However, Dr Newman says that he’s used all of the data that was available from the US and Italy, and that they’d told him “they have some hidden database behind the paywall that they won't give to anyone that somehow will disprove all of this”.

He denies being selective of the data, and says claims on Loma Linda were instead proof of being selective on the other side of research.

Close up medical doctor holding elderly female's trembling hands

Photo: 123RF

Loma Linda with a population of about 23,000 is a US district with a Seventh Day Adventist Church community that has the factors believed to be required to be deemed a “Blue Zone”.

“Yes, they have an average lifespan of 86 and 83. But so do all 125 million citizens of Japan, all of the citizens of Hong Kong, all of the citizens of Singapore. Now, nobody has gone around and said that those places have some sort of special zone that makes people live long in these regions,” Dr Newman says.

“There's absolutely nothing new about that. It's just you're just going to a rich part of town and saying gee, people live a long time in the rich part of town.

“They had the entire US to pick from and they picked one town, if we did the equivalent in London, and went to the rich part of London, I would expect the average life expectancy to be 10 years higher than what it is in Loma Linda.”

Fraud and data error are some of the reasons why Dr Newman believes these regions have managed to claim higher longevity rates.

“And there was this instance, in Japan, where they discovered 230,000 of their centenarians … were already dead, and there are only 40,000 left. Now, those 40,000 may also have been dead, they just couldn't certify that they were dead.

“So when you have these claims of all these, you know, thousands of people living past the age of 100, or 105, you have to be extremely dubious about that. Because if history is any guide, there's fraud and error all the time and this seems to be the primary cause of these records.”

Dr Newman says the problem with claims of longevity in a particular region was leading to “wasted research” and he wonders whether these are just ways to sell diets.

“If you are happy, and if you eat well, and if you have a good social life, and therefore a good outlook on life, you're going to live a long time. The problem is that you're not necessarily going to live past 110. And you don't need to study these ‘extraordinary populations’ to find any of this out.”