Featured on November 7th’s episode of 60 Minutes, reporter Liz Hayes visited the small Greek island of Ikaria where people are three times more likely than the average American to live into their 90s. Identified as a Blue Zone, Ikaria is one of five locations where people live longer and know how to be happier than the rest of us (https://bit.ly/19SRKYb).
In 2004, internationally recognized researcher and explorer Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic and hired the world’s best longevity researchers to identify pockets around the world where people lived measurably better. In these Blue Zones they found that people reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States. They found the extra 10 years that we’re missing.
The key to getting the extra 10 years we’re missing is to follow the lessons from the world’s longest-lived people and create environments of health. For the first time in living history, the life expectancy of children is projected to drop. With obesity and diabetes on the rise, we are bombarded daily with hundreds of marketing messages encouraging us to eat things that aren’t good for us. Machines have engineered physical activity out of lives and networked electronics are replacing face-to-face human contact. We can counteract our environment of sickness by living by the simple lessons learned from the Blue Zones.
The Blue Zones identified are:
- Barbagia region of Sardinia – Mountainous highlands of inner Sardinia with the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians;
- Ikaria, Greece – Aegean Island with one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and the lowest rates of dementia;
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica – World’s lowest rates of middle age mortality, second highest concentration of male centenarians;
- Seventh Day Adventists – Highest concentration is around Loma Linda, California. They live 10 years longer than their North American counterparts; and
- Okinawa, Japan – Females over 70 are the longest-lived population in the world.
Buettner and National Geographic took teams of scientists to each location to identify lifestyle characteristics that might explain longevity. They found that the lifestyles of all Blue Zones residents shared nine specific characteristics. They call this list of characteristics the Power 9.
Move Naturally: The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
Purpose: The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
Down Shift: Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.
80% Rule: “Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.
Plant Slant: Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of deck or cards.
Wine at 5: People in all Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all weekend and have 14 drinks on Saturday.
Belong: All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.
Loved Ones First: Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).
Right Tribe: The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.
According to Buettner, by improving their lifestyle, people can look and feel better at every age and add 12 years to their life expectancy. The Danish Twin Studies established that less than 25% of how long the average person lives is dictated by genes. In other words, most of how long and how well you live is up to you.
To learn more about what Dan Buettner discovered during each Longevity Quest, please see his two best-selling books The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest and Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way.
Dan Buettner is an internationally recognized researcher, explorer, and New York Times bestselling author and National Geographic Fellow. He founded Blue Zones, a company that puts the world’s best practices in longevity and well-being to work in people’s lives. Buettner’s National Geographic cover story on longevity, The Secrets of Living Longer was one of their top-selling issues in history and a made him a finalist for a National Magazine Award. His books The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest and Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way appeared on many best seller lists and were both featured on Oprah.
In 2009, Dan Buettner and his partner, AARP, applied principles of The Blue Zones to Albert Lea, Minnesota and successfully raised life expectancy and lowered health care costs by some 40%. He’s currently working with Healthways to implement the program in the Beach Cities of Los Angeles. Their strategy focuses on optimizing the health environment instead of individual behavior change. Writing in Newsweek, Harvard University’s Walter Willet called the results stunning.
Dan also holds three world records in distance cycling and has won an Emmy Award for television production.