When explorer, adventurer, author, and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner treks across continents, he says it’s more about the mysteries than the miles. One mystery in Japan intrigued him to learn the secrets of the world’s healthiest longest-living people to try and reverse-engineer longevity.
It led him to develop the concept of Blue Zones, of which he has identified five: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California. His research and discoveries resulted in his best-selling Blue Zones books: The Blue Zones, Thrive, and The Blue Zones Solution.
We recently spoke with Buettner about the secrets of the world’s longest living people to get his advice on how we can all live our lives as though we live in a Blue Zone.
What are Blue Zones?
Blue Zones is the term used to describe the world’s longest-lived cultures and the common characteristics that explain their longevity.
How did you discover them?
In 1999, I launched an expedition to identify the world’s longest-lived people. I had been doing explorations, which we called Quests, and had trekked and biked across the Sahara and to far-flung destinations all over the world. Around the same time, Michel Poulain and Giovanni Mario Pes introduced the term Blue Zone in connection with an area of extraordinary longevity in Sardinia, drawing a blue circle around it on the map. I joined forces with Pes and Poulain to identify the Blue Zone longevity hot spots around the world. We’re still collaborating on identifying and studying new Blue Zone regions, including in the United States.
What are the key characteristics of what people in Blue Zones are doing to stay healthy and live long?
In the world’s Blue Zones, where people live the longest and healthiest lives, people move naturally, eat wisely, connect with community, and have a strong sense of purpose. There are nine common lifestyle traits in all the Blue Zones, and we call them the Power 9. Put more simply, here are our Blue Zone values:
- We believe that a plant-based diet leads to a longer, healthier life.
- We believe that routine natural movement throughout the day contributes to longevity.
- We believe that relationships with family, friends, and people of faith lengthens life spans.
- We believe that a strong sense of purpose in life leads to longevity.
While the life expectancy of Americans born today averages 78.2 years, last year more than 70,000 Americans had reached their 100th birthday. You’ve identified one Blue Zone in the United States. What are people there doing to live longer that other Americans are not?
Loma Linda is a town with one of the highest concentrations of Seventh Day Adventists. Health is part of their doctrine, so most Adventists are vegetarian, and they’re keeping active, spending time in nature, and taking the Sabbath as a day of rest with family. Community is also a big part of their culture. To make it to 100 in America today, you have to have won the genetic lottery. But we believe that most of us have the capacity to live healthy well into our early 90s — and largely without chronic disease. As the Adventists demonstrate, by adopting a Blue Zones lifestyle the average person’s life expectancy could increase by 10 or 12 years.
Blue Zones is dedicated to creating healthy communities in the States. Tell us a little about the first effort in Albert Lea, Minnesota.
After I had spent a decade doing the explorations and identifying the Blue Zones areas in the world, I came back to the United States and wanted to bring some of those longevity secrets and lessons home. I realized people in Blue Zones were not trying to live longer or even trying to be healthy. It was their environment that nudged them into healthy behaviors all day. With funding from AARP, we launched the pilot program for Blue Zones Project in Albert Lea, Minnesota, choosing it for a few reasons, including its manageable size of 18,000 residents as well as the buy-in from the people there and its leaders.
In our community work, we focus on the Life Radius — the area close to home where people spend 80 percent of their lives. This includes improving streets, schools, policies (like smoking and healthy food access), public parks, and working with employers and companies so that it’s easier for people to move naturally throughout the day, eat healthy foods, and connect with others. Local leaders, grocery stores, employers, businesses, and residents all took part, and the local team implemented key changes that set people up to move more, eat better, socialize more, smoke less, volunteer more, and reduce stress. In less than a year, residents added an estimated two-point-nine years to their life spans and health care costs for city workers dropped 40 percent. We now have over 45 communities taking part in Blue Zones Project right now, including cities in Texas, Florida, California, Pennsylvania, and Oregon.
How can we all live life like we’re living in a Blue Zone?
There’s no one thing that determines health and longevity, which is why we talk about the Power 9. The beauty of the Blue Zones is a connected web of factors, including a mostly plant-based diet, social activity, a strong community, and a defined sense of purpose. People in Blue Zones regions eat mainly plant-based diets where meat was a condiment or celebratory food, and nothing they ate had a plastic wrapper. So adding beans, greens, veggies, nuts, and whole grains to your diet — simple foods — is key to eating like a centenarian. Also, curate your social circle. Healthy behaviors are contagious. So if you don’t have friends that you do healthy activities with, then you should join a group — either a volunteer group that meets weekly, a walking group, or another healthy group that meets regularly.
One thing that is different about what we do — what we’ve found in our research and the innovative public health work we do in Blue Zones Project communities — is that we focus on changing the environment. Just focusing on habits doesn’t work, because just diet and exercise programs have been a public health failure. So if you’re trying to get healthier, set up your home and social life for success. Remove junk food, set up your bedroom so it’s easy to get enough sleep, and spend a lot of in-person time with friends and loved ones doing healthy and active things. Wine at 5 is part of the Power 9 not just because of some of the heart-healthy benefits of red wine. It also means you are getting off work at a reasonable time and getting together with friends to chat and decompress.
Does genetics play a part?
Genetics play a much smaller part than lifestyle. A study called The Danish Twin Study established that only about 20 percent of how long the average person lives is dictated by genes, while about 80 percent is influenced by lifestyle and environment.
Are there different Blue Zone areas for nutrition, health, and happiness — places where some but not all apply?
The five Blue Zones regions are places where people live extraordinarily long and healthy lives, with low rates of chronic disease and high rates of centenarians. But I also conduct happiness research and explorations, so there are other places that I call Blue Zones Happiness Hotspots. Denmark, Costa Rica, and Singapore are three places in the world that epitomize the different strands of happiness (purpose, pleasure, and pride).
Why is happiness important?
People with a high sense of life satisfaction and well-being are healthier, more productive citizens, better employees, and have lower health care costs. People in Blue Zones regions rank high on happiness scales, too. They are not drifting rudderless through life. They have a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives that can add up to seven years of longevity.
What do you do every day to follow a Blue Zones lifestyle?
I know what my purpose and values are. I do what I love and have made a career out of following my curiosity, and my research helps people. For my daily life, I sleep seven to eight hours a night, eat a Blue Zones diet, take at least an hour to do something physical every day, and generally finish work by 5 p.m., put my phone away, and have dinner or happy hour with friends or family.
What are things to stop doing or avoid?
Loneliness is one of the biggest epidemics right now. People who are lonely are three to 10 times more likely to die from all causes. So get out and join a volunteer group. Join or explore a faith-based community. Join an activity group like a walking group or bowling group or painting class. Get out and meet people and make new connections.
Do mind, soul, and spirituality play into the equation?
Faith is part of the Blue Zones Power 9 and the lifestyle habits of the longest-lived people. So, yes, spirituality is key to health and longevity. All Blue Zones regions had strong faith-based communities. As with other Blue Zones principles, being part of a faith community has many positive effects besides just the spiritual aspect: You meet regularly with people; you have a way to de-stress (prayer, meditation); and you’re likely to volunteer, which comes with many health and happiness benefits.
What’s next for Blue Zones?
I’m wrapping up my next book, Blue Zones Kitchen, with recipes from the world’s Blue Zones. It’s coming out in fall of 2019, published by National Geographic, and it’s full of recipes and incredible photography by David McLain that we captured in the Blue Zones regions. It’ll be a great accompaniment to the Blue Zones Meal Planner, which we launched last year — an amazing tech tool that’s helping people eat better. It combines personalized meal plans, real food coaches, and integrated grocery delivery for an incredible experience. It’s the combination of ancient wisdom with cutting-edge artificial intelligence, which I think is pretty cool.