NICOYA, Costa Rica, Feb. 2, 2007 — -- If you like a mystery, you're going to love this.
In 2005, Dr. Luis Rosero-Bixby, a Costa Rican demographer trained in the United States, presented a paper at an international conference claiming to have discovered that 60-year-old Costa Ricans have the longest life expectancy of anyone in the world. In other words, if you are middle aged and live in Costa Rica, you are more likely to reach, say, a healthy age 90 than your counterparts worldwide.
The academics at the conference did not believe Rosero-Bixby. After all, Central America is still considered "Third World," a place of poverty, tropical disease, and, during the 1990s, terrible wars. How could the people here live longer than "First World" countries like those in Europe and the United States?
In August, thanks to a grant from National Geographic and Allianz Life, I traveled with a world-renowned longevity expert, Dr. Michel Poulain, to meet Rosero-Bixby and examine his data. We interviewed 90-to-100-year-olds to verify their ages, and then doubled-checked in the archives (Costa Rica has an excellent record-keeping system that has recorded everyone born since 1888) to make sure our subjects weren't lying or misguided about their dates of birth.
We found that not only was Rosero-Bixby's data accurate, but in looking at it more closely we noticed something extraordinary -- a Blue Zone: In northwestern Costa Rica, residents live even longer than people in the rest of the country.
This area -- the Nicoya Peninsula -- is about 70 miles long and 30 miles wide. Surfer beaches and upscale resorts hem the peninsula's western edge. But inland, forest-covered hills and cow pastures blanket most of the terrain.
For the 75,000 or so people who live here, life proceeds much the way as it has for hundreds of years. Nicoyans make their living as small farmers, laborers or sabaneros -- cowboys who work the area's huge cattle ranches. Judging by the dusty villages where neighbors hang out on porches, or the rural homes where women still cook on ancient wood-burning stoves, you'd never guess that the Nicoya is the longest-life place in the Americas.