Health Care

The Secrets to a Long, Healthy Life are in the Blue Zone

March 4, 2016  • Marci Krivonen, Guest Blogger

The body is built to live to a healthy 90 years old, but on average, Americans live to age 78. In some corners of the world, however, communities defy these statistics, leading unusually long and healthy lives. What makes them different?

Brothers Tony and Dan Buettner have made their lives’ work finding areas in the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives. They embedded themselves in these cultures for 15 years and identified nine commonalities that the communities share — their “secrets of longevity.”

Tony Buettner recently spoke in Aspen, CO, as part of the Murdock Mind, Body, Spirit Seriesat the Aspen Institute. With his brother, Dan — author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from People Who’ve Lived the Longest” and “Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way” — he has created an organization called Blue Zones which aims to help communities and individuals live longer and better. With Blue Zones, Buettner said, “we’ve identified ways from observing the longest-lived populations in the world, for individuals, families, organizations, and even communities to take some of these good years back.”

The Blue Zone

Their journey began on the island of Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, where the longest-lived men reside. Here, residents live 10 good years longer than Americans, and for every one centenarian man, there are four centenarian women. In the US, it’s one-to-one. Many people in Sardinia are shepherds, which requires low-intensity exercise. In cities there are few cars; people tend to walk or bicycle as they travel for work, school, or errands.

The diet of a Sardinian is 95 percent plants. When they do eat meat, the portions are small. And wine is drunk regularly with friends and family. Buettner said what was most amazing was how this population set up their society. “As you get older here, you’re more revered and you’re not put into retirement homes, you’re actually kept very close to your extended family.” He quotes a study that shows aging parents living near their family live four to six years longer than those who don’t.

The ground zero for longevity is in the archipelago of Okinawa, Japan. The longest-lived women reside here, and they live 12 good years longer than American women. This area has one-fifth the rate of breast and colon cancer, and one-sixth the rate of cardiovascular disease, compared to the United States. Again, this group eats a plant-based diet, using the superfood goya, or bitter melon, in dishes like stir fry. Goya has been proven to kill cancer cells, clean blood and reduce inflammation, according to Buettner.

Okinawans take a break everyday to reduce stress, Buettner said. One way they do this is through ancestor veneration. “They stop every morning and they think about the people in their family and those who came before them,” he described. “They relax and downshift.” The population also has committed social networks from a young age. They travel through life together, supporting one another in good times and bad.

The secrets to a longer, better life

After visiting five regions with a team of researchers, Buettner and his brother Dan came up with the “power nine” secrets to living a longer, better life. The first is to move naturally. “They did not belong to gyms and they did not run marathons,” Buettner said. “They moved on average every 20 minutes. They had gardens, they lived in de-convenienced zones, they walked and biked, they didn’t have a button for this electronic, they used their hands.”

The Blue Zone populations know how to downshift to reduce stress by practicing yoga, meditation, saying prayers or eating with their families. The longest-lived people have a sense of purpose and can articulate it.

They also eat wisely, drink a little bit of alcohol (usually wine), eat a plant-based diet (with a large amount of legumes), avoid overeating, and regulate portion sizes.

Those who live longer are well-connected in their social networks, put family first, and have monogamous spousal relationships. And, most have faith, regardless of a specific religion. Buettner referred to a study that shows people who show up to a faith-based community at least four times a month and are active, live four to 14 years longer than those who do not.

Blue Zones, the organization, is working to turn American communities around by implementing lessons learned in long-lived regions. The first community they worked with was Albert Lea, Minnesota, population 20,000.

“When we got to Albert Lea, it looked like the downtown was closed for business —  50 percent of the stores were vacant,” Buettner said. “They were thinking about widening their main street and increasing the speed limit and moving people right through town.” The Blue Zones team stepped in and brought vibrancy back to downtown with diagonal parking, outside dining, and pedestrian safety improvements. A walkway was built near the town’s gem, a nearby lake. In grocery stores, sugary options were taken out of checkout lanes and replaced with healthy snacks. Citizens joined walking groups and committed to exercising regularly. The result — health care claims for city workers dropped by 40 percent, tobacco use went down by 17 percent, and the number of people walking and biking downtown jumped to 56 percent.

Watch video of Tony Buettner's full conversation about Blue Zones.

Marci Krivonen is associate editor and producer of public programs at the Aspen Institute.