I suspect that most of us would agree that good health comes from simple but important changes in our lives, like exercising more and eating more plant-based foods and whole grains. Interestingly though, Dan Buettner, author of the new book, “The Blue Zones -Secrets for Living Longer’’ says diet and exercise are just part of the story.
According to Buettner, “Healthier, longer lives also come from social connectedness and living a life of purpose.” In fact, his research shows that the first and best source of longevity is to keep aging parents nearby. He calls it the “grandparent factor.”
In families that adhere to this idea, when grandma is at home, she maintains the food tradition, the garden, and takes care of the grandkids when mom goes to work. Grandpa, living at home, has agriculture knowledge. He has the wisdom to know when to plant and when to sow, when to harvest, and how to make the wine.”
Respecting that wisdom, according to Buettner, is good for everybody. It also turns out to be good for the older people themselves, who have a reason to get up and feel like they are useful.
About 15 years ago, as part of a National Geographic project, Buettner identified the places that he said posed great mysteries of life — such as why super-agers in these locales live disability-free lives.
“My brother, Nick, who was collaborating with me, had stumbled on this 1999 report that said in Okinawa, Japan they had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. I said, ‘Ah-ha, which is a good mystery.’ Okinawa is a melting pot so it’s not genetic. So, what was it?’’
After touring Okinawa, Buettner decided to draw a blue line around each area that a worldwide network of demographers had identified as having communities of super-agers living disease-free lives. The five blue zones he’s written about in his books are Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, California.
As Buettner writes in his book that, “People living in the blue zones are just as human as we are, and their health advice touches on many familiar themes: purpose, faith, community, rest, exercise, healthy diet, and so on.
“But blue zoners don’t struggle nearly so much as us to make all of those factors work harmoniously, and it makes an enviable difference: they live 10-plus years longer on average, and they’re healthier all the way from cradle to grave.’’
During a recent Longevity Club meeting, Buettner was asked if lifelong learning fits in with blue zone healthy living. His response: “Long life expectancy is associated with adult education, so lifelong learning is good for all of us. In blue zone communities, men and women continue to use their minds as they age; they always have a craft that keeps their brain engaged. They are always learning.’’
The generations also keep connected through community socializing.
“In Costa Rica, villages have huge parties that start during the day and go until 8:00 the next morning, with wine consumption and dancing. And, it is not just a bunch of 20-year-olds. You’ll see 80, 90 and 100 year olds show up from the community,” he says.
Buettner, age 63, who holds several Guinness World Records for longest endurance cycling times, eats the way blue zoners do — plenty of beans, vegetables and whole grains.
“We often thought there was a genetic component to the super-agers in Sardinia, because Sardinia has a genetically pure population. But when we looked at the spouses of centenarians, they don’t share any genetic overlap, but they are more likely to live to be centenarians because of the lifestyle!”
“That proves that there is a lifestyle contagion — that it might be from a bacterial exchange. If you live with a centenarian, you are kissing your spouse and you are sharing food. And, of the 90-year-olds in Sardinia, over 80% drank wine every day of their adult lives,” said Buettner.
“I know there is controversy over alcohol consumption, but I can tell you blue zoners are drinking moderately every day, usually with friends and food, and they are still making it into their 90s with a fraction of the chronic disease that Americans have.’’
Buettner is very concerned that the American way of eating threaten blue zones. “As soon as American food comes in, longevity goes out the door. Okinawa is no longer a blue zone because of that. It’s not a healthy place to live anymore,” he said.
“Costa Rica breaks my heart. It was one of the greatest examples of longevity in the world, but it is now letting in the Burger Kings and the McDonalds – the standard American diet for the average 20-year-old, which shaves 10 years off your life expectancy, as compared to blue zones’ whole plant-based diet. Since they’ve adopted these foods, their obesity and diabetes levels are shooting upward. It will lose its longevity in a half generation.’’
Ken Stern of the Longevity Project asked Buettner if it is realistic to believe the United States can change its unhealthy eating, isolation and sedentary ways.
“The consensus is that if the federal government brought together the best thinkers in America who knew how to design cities for healthy living and then listened to what these thinkers believe is effective and feasible, we would do better.,” Buettner replied. “Cities that are walkable have much higher economic vitality than cities that are crisscrossed with traffic.”
“There is no villain here but since the 1970s, when Earl Butts was the secretary of agriculture and he created all these incentives to go grow wheat, soy, rice and give that to American food companies, we have become too good at creating empty calorie foods that taste irresistible, and Madison Avenue has gotten too good at marketing them,” says Buettner.
“If we diverted one quarter of the $4.4 trillion that we are shoveling at this problem to help keep people healthy in the first place then we could start shifting subsidies to what’s good for us: beans, whole grains, fresh fruit. Everybody likes fresh fruit, but in this system it’s so expensive. Not everybody can afford it.’’
To avoid isolation, especially in retirement, Buettner suggested volunteering for a cause that appeals to your personal likes. He treats friends to lunch twice a week in his home city of Miami.
“I’m making good friends, and we already know that friends measurably impact our behavior. Technology can facilitate bringing people together, like if you’re using Instagram to find like-minded people to play pickleball with. But sitting in a house scrolling for two hours, no, it’s not going to do it,” he says.
So . . . it is not rocket-science . . . a healthy diet . . . some regular exercise . . . and a commitment to stay truly connected to family and friends just might extend your life! Certainly seems worth a try to me!