Researcher Dan Buettner and his team have traveled the world in search of the keys to longevity
By Natasha Persaud
Where are people living the longest and healthiest lives? With funding from National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging, one of the National Institutes of Health, longevity researcher Dan Buettner and his teams of scientists searched the world for the answer. Here, Buettner shares some of the keys to longevity from the best-selling book, The Blue Zones. Use his insights to help you live up to your full potential.
What are Blue Zones, and what do they have to do with longevity?
Studies of twins have helped to establish that only about 20 to 30 percent of the average person's life span (within certain biological limits) is dictated by genes; the rest is lifestyle. So, if we can find the optimal lifestyle of longevity and distill it into a usable prescriptive, we have a de facto formula for longevity.
Blue Zones are geographically definable places where people live measurably longer lives. Their habits amount to best practices in health and longevity, and that's what I've captured in my book, The Blue Zones. The four Blue Zones discussed in my book are Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; and among the Adventists of Loma Linda, California. In May 2009, we revealed a fifth blue zone: the Greek island of Ikaria.
What are some of the keys to living a long, healthy and happy life?
We found nine common denominators that we call the "Power 9." Most of them focus on making small but subtly powerful changes to your home and social environment, which sets you up for effortless, long-term change. Among some of the more surprising "secrets”: Eating two ounces of nuts several times a week is linked to a life expectancy that’s two to three years longer than the average. We don’t know if this is because of the anti-inflammatory nature of nut oils and omega-3 fatty acids or because people eat nuts instead of fatty and sugary snacks and therefore tend to live longer.
On the other hand, what are some of the unhealthy habits that can shorten my life span?
The longest-lived people eat a plant-based diet, which includes fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts. Generally speaking, the more meat you eat, the quicker you'll die. Smoking and unhappiness have a commensurately severe drag on your life expectancy. We found that each will cost you about eight years.
One of your keys is having a sense of purpose in life. What do you mean by that?
If I asked you right now to tell me the real reason you wake up in the morning—that is, what motivates you to get out of bed—could you tell me? We found that the life expectancies of people with the strongest sense of purpose outlive those with no sense of purpose by 11 years.
If you have a reason for living that transcends your work life—a passion, a talent, a hobby you love, volunteer work, participating in a spiritual community or another way of contributing to the world—you're much more likely to eat right, take your medicines, exercise and reap the benefits of engaging with life.
How much longer can I hope to live by following these principles?
The average American could live 10 to 12 extra good years and avoid about 70 percent of the diseases that will foreshorten their lives by following the Power 9 principles.
I’m over 50 years old. Can beginning to follow these tips now still help me to live longer?
You're never too old to reap the benefits of the Power 9. In fact, with some of them, you'll instantly feel and look younger. We found, for example that the longest-lived people sleep seven hours per night. If you’re getting enough sleep, your metabolism works more efficiently and you’re less likely to experience depression. These same things that help you live longer may also shorten the period of disability at the end of your life.
How does the health of the average American compare to those living in the Blue Zones?
I can tell you that people in the Okinawan Blue Zone have substantially lower rates of colon, prostate, ovarian and breast cancers and one sixth the rate of cardiovascular disease. Since the majority of Americans over 65 will die of cancer, heart disease and stroke, it’s quite likely that this lifestyle has something to teach us.
What did you find most surprising or counterintuitive as you did your research?
There were many surprises. We discovered that no diet in the history of the world—whether it promoted eating particular foods or restricted calories or both—ever worked in the long term to sustain weight loss. Also, we found out that on the whole, moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. Finally, there’s no pill or supplement that will slow aging or help you live longer.
What are you working on?
In 2008, we created a Vitality Compass and Vitality Coach (bluezones.com) that calculate your life expectancy and help you adopt Blue Zones habits. We're also researching another potential blue zone; stay tuned!