We turn onto a street between the mountains that, at this time in the morning, reflect a greenness that is hypnotizing. The car is loaded to the brim with towels, sheets and some T-shirts that say “Growing old, the best time to be happy.”
“Today we’re going to visit those who are going to become centenarians in 2023 in the canton of Nicoya. We’re going to start in Quiriman with a person known as Don Chebo, Eusebio,” Jorge Vindas announces as the first of our ten stops during a Friday in October.
There are few places in the world where one can have the luxury of meeting so many people who have lived so long within such a small radius. National Geographic magazine set its sights on the cantons of the Nicoya peninsula because of this trait and named it one of the five Blue Zones in the world in 2007. The others are located in Icaria in Greece, Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan and Loma Linda in the United States.
Since then, the “blue zone” concept has become a source of pride for those who live in these communities and, at the same time, a business opportunity for those seeking to sell the secret formula for longevity.
Longevity For Sale
After stopping at a couple of houses to ask where Chebo lives, they send us down a gravel road that crosses through pastures.
This is the first time that Vindas has visited a potential centenarian in the town of Quiriman, but he has already traveled the peninsula from one end to the other to map them out. He founded the Nicoya Peninsula Blue Zone Association, which works to improve the quality of life of people in the blue zone who live a long time.
The association works to identify their needs and connect them with social programs from public institutions such as the senior citizen care network in Nicoya and the Mixed Institute of Social Assistance (Spanish acronym: IMAS) to provide support to the caregiver or the elderly person.
IMAS isn’t going to come to Quiriman to visit this man because they don’t know him. He would die and they wouldn’t know it,” says Vindas.
On the other hand, he says that the association has received very little support from private companies who exploit the blue zone image for their businesses.
“There are very few companies that do help. There are others who will make money and don’t contribute anything that can improve the quality of life of these families,” he criticizes.
American journalist and National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner published an article in that magazine in which he included the Nicoya Peninsula as one of the world’s blue zones. He later created the Blue Zones brand and has published five books to date related to this topic.
He affirmed that it’s very difficult to supervise the brand’s use in the country and its misuse can turn the blue zone into a meaningless concept.
“Before a tourist center or a product puts its label there, it should represent something that helps people live longer in a significant way, that celebrates and gives back to centenarians,” he told The Voice of Guanacaste in a video call interview.
In Quiriman, Eusebio spends the morning in a chair in the corridor of his aqua green wooden house.
Vindas asks if there are any dogs in the house before opening the barbed wire gate. Chebo yells “no” to him from the corridor, and we go through the damp patio to where he is.
Longevity Without a Recipe
Don Chebo ends each of his sentences with a short, raspy laugh. His shirt is tied with a knot on his belly and in his right hand, he holds a staff with a rubber patch on the end.
Although he was born in Sabana Grande in Nicoya, he came to Quiriman when he was 18 years old because he “found a girlfriend around there.”
The elderly man briefly reviews his life as Vindas goes through the questionnaire that he has prepared for each of the day’s visits.
-Don Eusebio, why have you lived so long?
-Who knows why it might be!
That short and honest answer isn’t so different from the one offered by demographer Luis Rosero-Bixby. The researcher from the Central American Population Center (Spanish acronym: CCP) at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) worked on the Costa Rica: Study of Longevity and Healthy Aging (Spanish acronym: CRELES) project.
The results of this study, carried out between 2000 and 2005, were what showed that senior citizens in the five cantons of the Nicoya Peninsula had exceptionally low mortality.
Along with this surprising finding, questions arose about the reasons for this longevity.
“The same question was asked about why longevity was exceptional in Nicoya [Peninsula]. One speculated, saw explanations, and discarded them. We were never, ever clear about the origin of this exceptionality,” the demographer stated.
Rosero-Bixby considers some of the factors that are sold as keys to achieving longevity, such as the hardness of the peninsula’s water, to be hypotheses that they have proven may contribute, but none of them is an explanation by themselves.
Vindas agrees that more research needs to be done in the blue zones and one method needs to be designed to be applied in each of them in order to reach better conclusions. Meanwhile, in the corridor of Chebo’s house, the questionnaire continues.
– Did you drink liquor?
– I haven’t drunk for 40 years, but it was uncountable: liquor, beer and everything.
– At what age did you start drinking liquor?
– About 20 years old.
– Before that, you’d never drunk liquor?
– My grandfather used to give me a little like that.
– And how old were you?
– About 15 years old. After that, you kind of start to like it.
The man who is almost 100 shares with us the habits that got him to his 99th birthday and that seem to go contrary to what we now understand as a healthy lifestyle: alcohol, tobacco and meat all week long (when there was some).
Vindas, who has been doing these questionnaires for many years now, explains that in general, the meat that those who have lived so long have eaten the most has been pork.
“One day, I asked the centenarian, why do you think you don’t have diseases like cholesterol, triglycerides if you ate pork all your life? And he answered me: ‘That was our fuel and we burned it off by working,’” he recalls.
Esteban Barboza, a professor and researcher at the Nicoya campus of the National University (UNA), believes that this lack of scientific explanation gives rise to many hypotheses that companies use to sell products with the blue zone concept, but which are far removed from the way of life of the communities.
“It’s easier to give people the idea that by buying certain gourmet products called blue zone, they’re going to live 100 years, than to say, ‘here in Nicoya, people eat pork stew and pork rinds,’” he said.
A Product with an Expiration Date
At almost 99 years old, Don Chebo says that he has no health problems, he only takes one medication for blood pressure and complains of pain in his feet.
-Would you like to live longer?
-Well, according to what God says.
– But would you like it?
-Well, it’s beautiful to be alive.
Eusebio’s generation is one of the last groups of centenarians that we’re going to have in the Nicoya Peninsula. That’s why, if we want to get answers about the longevity of these people, time is running out.
According to studies done by demographer Rosero-Bixby, the life expectancy of elderly people in the blue zone has been decreasing generation after generation.
People in this blue zone who were born in the decade of the 1900s had an average of 26 years left to live by the time they reached age 60, well above that of the rest of Costa Rica, who had around 19 years left. But the generations of the following decades have gradually lost that advantage.
“The generations of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s haven’t died out yet. There are survivors and these beings are exceptional, but when those populations born in those years are extinct, let’s say in the next decade, then we will no longer be able to speak of Nicoya as having exceptional longevity,” the demographer affirmed.
Vindas finishes his questionnaire and gives Chebo the towels, sheets and the T-shirt. We say goodbye and go back to the car.
In the visits that Vindas has made over the years, he has seen some factors in common every time he has entered the homes of people who have lived a long time.
“What has been seen the most in a good number is people with a lot of poverty, and even though they are poor people, sometimes they have a lot of people around them, family who take care of them, a lot of love and that kind of compensates a bit,” he explains.
He believes that talking about the blue zone and taking advantage of it commercially is a positive thing because it creates jobs for people in the province, but he thinks it can be done in a fairer way through a tourism model of life experience-based experiences in the blue zone.
Esteban Barboza, a researcher at UNA, also favors this way of using the brand for the benefit of the communities.
“It’s not simply making the local population invisible, but making them participate through their authentic ways of life. By authentic, I mean what they eat every day, what they do every day and see what experience I can have as a visitor,” said Barboza. He continued: “I think that is what has to be done to rescue this idea and not let it be taken advantage of only commercially.”
The creator of the Blue Zones brand, Dan Buettner, affirmed that another idea that could be applied to improve the quality of life of those who have lived so long is to allocate a percentage of the companies’ profits through a certification.
“If the government takes control of the brand in Nicoya and they take that money that they charged for the brand certification and refinance it in support programs for the elderly, it would become a kind of virtuous circle,” the writer explained.