I recently sat down with my favorite author, Dan Buettner, to talk about Blue Zones. Dan is the researcher who discovered that in certain areas and communities across the world, people tend to live longer, healthier lives. As you know, I am a huge proponent of early, happy retirements, so this issue held particular interest for me.
His work is fascinating, and describes, as he says, populations who are “getting the most good years out of life, and the most good life out of their years.”
There are five Blue Zones in the world: the Barbagia region of Sardinia; Ikaria, Greece; the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; and the Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California.
Some of the world’s oldest women live in Okinawa Japan, while some of the longest living men are found in the highlands of Sardinia. These places have ten times more centenarians than we expect in the US. The island of Ikaria, Greece, has 10,000 people who are living, on average, eight years longer than Americans – largely without dementia. The US’s longest-lived population is found among 7th Day Adventist in Loma Linda, who live about ten years longer than the average American.
These folks are eluding the diseases that shorten our lives, like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and dementia.
Once Dan identified these populations, he worked with demographers and medical experts to understand the longevity piece and figure out the common denominators.
And it turns out these places do indeed have a few common traits. Additionally, by measuring the DNA of people in these communities, the team discovered the extraordinary fact that the people in Blue Zones are actually younger than other humans at every decade of life.
Dan has identified lessons that we can all take away from these communities. “We have identified extraordinary populations that have achieved outcomes that we want – longevity and happiness – and then reverse engineering it,” he said.
The data he collected are the basis for his four books, which describe and promote how we can all adapt our lifestyles to fit with those of the Blue Zone communities. If we do, Dan believes that by adopting some Blue Zone behaviors, we can benefit in terms of health and happiness.
During my conversation with Dan, we hit on the Power Nine – the top nine habits and traits of these healthiest folks on the planet.
These include lifestyle choices from social circles to how they prioritize loved ones, to how much they eat and drink, to what they eat and drink. Dan also examines the importance of having a sense of life purpose and how much physical movement Blue Zoners incorporate into their daily lives.
Perhaps the most fascinating area we discussed was how we, as Americans, can adopt a Blue Zone lifestyle.
Dan has worked with public officials to test this theory. In Fort Worth, Texas, for instance, he used his data on “lessons we can take away” from these regions to reverse engineer how this particular community functions.
He worked with local officials to make streets more walkable, eliminate smoking in restaurants and bars (which has helped curb smoking rates) and brought fresh fruit and vegetable to food deserts, thereby providing all with access to healthy food.
As Dan says, “We can’t get people to all change their habits, but we can change the environment to put them in a place where they adapt to this new lifestyle.”
This point stuck with me. We have to adopt the Power of Nine in our lives in total to reap the benefits, not just select and adopt a few of the concepts.
We talked about what will work – and what won’t. In particular, we discussed movement or exercise, diet, and social connections.
For instance, folks in the Blue Zones incorporate regular movement into their daily routines. They get up and move about every 20 minutes. They do this by walking to shop or to see a friend, by gardening, taking care of their homes and lawns without modern machinery, and other activities. This practice keeps their metabolism running at a higher rate every day. These folks aren’t doing triathlons, and they’re not sitting at an office from 9 to 5 and then hitting the gym to make up for it with a half-hour of cardio. Plus, research shows that 95% of people stop going to the gym. So, if you want to adopt this part of the Blue Zone lifestyle, set yourself up to move naturally.
If you want to adopt a Blue Zone eating style (Dan has a forthcoming cookbook with traditional recipes from these regions), it’s not about going on a temporary diet. It’s about shifting the way you eat going forward.
On the social side, try to cultivate a real sense of belonging – create a tribe of loved ones and trusted friends. We live in a world with a plethora of social media and digital friends, but our “real life” friends have dwindled over the past three decades. It’s gone from three close friends for Americans in the 1980s down to an average of 1.7 today.
The biggest takeaway from my interview with Dan was that people can’t just pick a few Blue Zone lessons and practice them occasionally. Instead, they must become a way of life.
In what areas can you make permanent changes to your habits to live like Blue Zone residents? That’s a question worth pondering. The answer could add years to your life.