What is the key to a prolonged and healthy life? According to author and National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner, the solution – or solutions – might lie in the concept of “blue zones,” a few select locations across the globe where people live longer than the norm, seemingly without adhering to strict diets, costly supplements, or strenuous exercise regimes.
For more than two decades, Buettner has been researching these five communities: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California. He asserts that in these areas, the phenomenon of “longevity ensues” due to the fact that individuals who live longer are “essentially a result of their surroundings.”
In his most recent book and Netflix series, Buettner revisits these five communities and introduces a sixth one – Singapore.
You see, people might initially think, “Ah, he must have a magical solution.” However, your book and two decades of research indicate that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer; it’s a complex mix of factors. You’ve discovered these unique places. Could you delve into them and explain why you authored this book?
DAN BUETTNER: During our National Geographic assignment, our objective was to unravel the secrets of longevity. Rather than seeking answers in laboratories, we collaborated with demographers to identify regions globally where people are achieving remarkable longevity, reaching ages of 90 and even 100, all while avoiding the diseases that afflict many Americans. Subsequently, we enlisted a second group of scientists to uncover the shared traits or associations behind these remarkable cases.
Regardless of the continent – be it Asia, Latin America, North America, or Europe – we consistently observe the recurrence of similar factors that contribute to the longevity of individuals.
And what are some of those things?
If you’re curious about what a centenarian consumed to reach the age of 100, you need to understand their lifelong eating habits. We’ve conducted dietary surveys spanning a century in all five blue zones, and the results are clear: the predominant diet is based on whole, plant-based foods. Across all blue zones, five staple foods consistently appear: whole grains, greens, tubers (such as sweet potatoes), nuts, and beans.
Consuming a cup of beans daily not only provides you with sufficient protein and a substantial amount of fiber, but it’s also linked to extending your lifespan by an additional four years.
Exercise and supplements are both intriguing aspects of longevity, as our conversation earlier revealed. It’s captivating to note that it’s not solely about food. While exercise certainly plays a role, the supplements industry, valued at $151 billion annually, raises questions.
In reality, I consider exercise to be a significant public health challenge that has not been effectively addressed. Merely 23% of Americans achieve the minimum recommended amount, which is around 15 minutes per day.
In blue zones, there’s no emphasis on weightlifting or gym sessions. Instead, they reside in areas where daily activities like going to work and various occasions involve walking. They cultivate gardens in their backyard and avoid relying on the modern conveniences that have removed physical activity from our routines. By staying active throughout the day, their metabolism remains elevated, thanks to constant movement being woven into their lives. This appears to be the overarching concept.
You’ve dedicated time to these blue zones, and you’re planning to spend even more time there. What sets places like Sardinia or Okinawa apart, where they seem to be doing something that we, here in America, aren’t?
That’s the interesting point. In the United States, we often approach health and longevity with a goal-oriented mindset. We think, “I want to extend my lifespan and improve my health. I’ll try this diet or that supplement regimen, or maybe I’ll explore various biohacks to enhance my well-being.”
In blue zones, none of those approaches are taken. Longevity naturally occurs as a result of their environment.
This was quite intriguing. I inquired about the timeline if I were to embark on this personally, and you mentioned it would take around a month to get started. However, it’s more than just my individual efforts, isn’t it? It’s about the collective actions of my community. When we discuss the community we’re a part of, whether it’s a blue zone or any place we reside, it goes beyond mere exercise or conscious decisions. You emphasize the influence of unconscious choices and even the company we keep.
Indeed, if your three closest companions are dealing with obesity and poor health, there’s a significantly higher likelihood—around 150%—that you’ll also struggle with overweight issues. Consider the contrast in life expectancy between regions like Kentucky and Boulder, Colorado. This isn’t due to the people in Kentucky being any less dedicated as Americans, but rather they reside in an environment where it’s markedly more challenging to access healthy choices, nutritious food, and opportunities for physical activity.
Ensuring you’re situated in an environment that supports your optimal decisions is key. Take Singapore, for example. You’ve mentioned Singapore in your discussions. What strategies did they implement to defy conventional trends and enhance the average life expectancy?
I’m excited to introduce Singapore as a fresh addition to the list of blue zones. This designation comes from my observations in the book, and it’s a deliberately cultivated blue zone. Over the course of my lifetime, Singapore has witnessed a remarkable rise in life expectancy, nearly 25 years to be precise. It currently boasts the world’s highest and healthiest life expectancy. What’s interesting is that this achievement doesn’t stem from the fact that Singaporeans with health issues adhere to better diets.
Their achievement is attributed to their environment. In Singapore, healthy food is subsidized, and there’s a tax on junk food. Additionally, there’s a tax on driving cars, while walking is incentivized and supported.
They have strict regulations against drugs. An intriguing aspect is that if your elderly parent resides with you or within a 500-yard radius, you receive a tax benefit. This encourages the care of older individuals and reduces reliance on retirement homes, which may not always promote health.