Capital Investment Advisors

#166 – Unlocking the Lessons of Blue Zones with Dan Buettner

Today on Retire Sooner, Wes Moss revisits one of his favorite interviews from his radio show, Money Matters. He talked about Blue Zones – areas in the world where people live exceptionally long and healthy lives – with renowned explorer, educator, and expert on longevity from National Geographic, Dan Buettner. From diet to social connections to DNA, they explore many factors that impact our well-being. This includes the benefits of having a sense of purpose and passion, a key tenant of the Retire Sooner mission. Wes and Dan also explain which health and happiness strategies different Blue Zones across the globe excel at, offering inspiration and considerations for living longer and retiring happier. Originally recorded in 2019 for Money Matters on 95.5 WSB in Atlanta, there are timeless lessons we hope listeners will take from this discussion.

Read The Full Transcript From This Episode

(click below to expand and read the full interview)

  • Wes Moss [00:00:00]:And it’s summertime. This was back to school week for lots of kids around metro Atlanta, around the state of Georgia, which always gets me thinking about next chapter. It’s a new chapter. Kids are going back to school. It’s a new grade. It’s a whole new world for them. And as kids and students, we do that year after year after year. Then we get into the adult world and we work for 30 or 40 years and then be getting ready to transition into our new chapter. It might be a pre retirement phase. It might be full retirement, at least from our working life. One of the core pieces to a happy retirement is health and longevity. That piece of the equation is just as important as the money side of the equation when it comes to a happy retirement. I think that’s why many years ago, I really was drawn to the work of Dan Buettner, who is a very well known National Geographic Fellow who many years ago wrote an article titled The Secrets of a Long Life. All of his research around that led to what today is a very well known book called “Blue Zones: Nine Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who Live the Longest.” These are lessons around longevity and living a happy, long life. So whether it’s back to school season for you and your kids, or you’re eyeing this new season of some form of retirement, let’s spend some time with Dan Buettner, one of the world’s greatest teachers around one of the world’s most important topics. I’m Wes Moss. The prevailing thought in America is that you’ll never have enough money and it’s almost impossible to retire early. Actually, I think the opposite is true. For more than 20 years, I’ve been researching, studying, and advising American families, including those who started late, on how to retire sooner and happier. So my mission with the Retire Sooner podcast is to help a million people retire earlier while enjoying the adventure along the way. I’d love for you to be one of them. Let’s get started first. Dan, if someone has never been introduced to the blue Zone’s concept about longevity and the Blue Zones concept around happiness, can you just give us our audience a brief overview of your work?Dan Buettner [00:02:25]:My specialty at National Geographic has been identifying extraordinary populations, extraordinary populations that have achieved outcomes that we want either in longevity or the latest work was In Happiness and then reverse engineer it. So the first blue zone book. We spent two and a half years with demographers whose specialty is finding populations where people have the highest life expectancy or the highest centenarian rate or the lowest rate of middle age mortality. Which means when you’re 40 and 50, you have the best chance of reaching a healthy age 90 or 95. So once you find those populations, because we know only about 10% of how long you live is dictated by your gene, we know that these people possess something, they’re doing something right that’s making them manifestly longer lived. And we also know by measuring their telomeres, their DNA, in a sense that they’re biologically younger at every decade. And this isn’t a test tube. It’s not theoretic, it’s not some supplement hocus pocus. These are real populations who’ve achieved the outcomes that we want. And then the second wave of work involved recruiting a team of mostly medical experts who could go into these populations and identify the common denominators. The end result is a number of lessons that we can take away to help us live get the most good years out of life and the most life out of our years. And by the way, in America, poor health is costing our country about $17 trillion a year. $3.7 trillion a year. And health is really money these days. So investing in your health is really as important as investing in your retirement fund.

    Wes Moss [00:04:36]:

    When you originally set out on this project, was it the demographics conference or was it National Geographic or was it you that said, here are these five places around the world, and let’s just talk about those five places for a minute. And again, where were they for our listener audience? And then what did they essentially have in?

    Dan Buettner [00:04:58]:

    So I originally got the idea and then got funding from the National Institutes on Aging to hire the demographers. And then once I identified these places, I took the idea to National Geographic, and they embraced it and really provided the funding for the second half of the work. The longest lived women in the world live in Okinawa, Japan, about 800 miles south of Tokyo. The longest lived men live in the highlands of Sardinia, an area called the Noro Province, about ten times more male centenarians there than you’d expect to see in the United States.

    Wes Moss [00:05:35]:

    Ten times.

    Dan Buettner [00:05:36]:

    In Ikaria, Greece, which is near Turkey, you have an island of 10,000 people that are living about eight years longer than Americans do, but largely without dementia, which makes them extraordinary. Wow. And then Nicoya peninsula of Costa Rica. This was from previously, where the Contras lived. You have an area here where a 50 year old is about three times more likely to reach a healthy age, 95 than an American would. And they do so spending about one 15th the amount we do on health care. And then in the United States, the longest lived population is among the 7th day Adventists, the highest concentration of whom live around Loma Linda, California. And they’re living about ten years longer than their Californian counterpart. So in all these places, people and by the way, the type of longevity they have is nothing magical. What they’re doing that the rest of us are not is eluding the diseases that foreshorten our lives. They’re not getting cancer. They’re not getting heart disease or diabetes or dementia at near the rates that the rest of us are. So my job was to figure out how and that was the result. Were the Blue Zones books that I’ve.

    Wes Moss [00:07:00]:

    Been writing well, this is your idea and then funded and backed by National Geographic. And you went around and you interviewed hundreds of folks in these places and tried to link them together. I think maybe Wes start with I think a good summary of that is that I think, correct me if I’m wrong here, but the Power Nine or the move naturally and purpose and downshift that link these five communities together. So maybe to start with, the Power Nine is a great way to tell our audience a little bit more about the linkage of the common denominator that helps people around the world. In these Blue Zones live the longest. Really have the highest life expectancy or the highest percentage of Centenarians on the planet which is amazing to.

    Dan Buettner [00:07:54]:

    You know, they’re vastly different cultures. You have Asia, Latin America, Europe, North America. So I was really interested in what are the things that you see in common in all these Blue Zones. I labeled it Power nine. It was sort of a fun way to put a name on some serious research. But no matter where you go and people live a long time, they are moving every 20 minutes or so. So they’re not running marathons or doing triathlons or pumping iron, but they do garden. Every time they go to work or a friend’s house, they’re walking. Their house is not full of electronic mechanized conveniences. So the point is, they’re keeping their metabolisms running at a higher rate every day without thinking about it, as opposed to sort of the folly that we Americans subscribe to that we can sit in our office all day. Long and then think, we’re going to spend 20 minutes in the gym or a half hour in the gym at the end of the day and make up for it. That’s not how we work and we know that doesn’t work. The other thing is they’re eating mostly a plant based diet, which is a real revelation for me. They of course do eat a little bit of meat, but it’s usually a celebratory food. It’s usually a wedding or a birthday or Sunday after church or some lunar New Year. But their day to day food consumption was mostly, and get this, the four things that you see in all Blue Zones when it comes to food, they’re eating greens, whole grains, nuts and beans, about a cup of beans every day, which is probably adding up to an extra four years of life expectancy.

    Wes Moss [00:09:48]:

    Wine at five. Can you talk us through that piece of the equation?

    Dan Buettner [00:09:53]:

    Yeah. So if you look at 155 dietary studies done over the past 100 years in these Blue Zones, you see that about 95% of what they put in their mouth are whole foods, plant and plant based. And they eat a little bit of meat on average about five times a month. But really, if there were a secret longevity food that everybody should be eating, it would be beans, about a cup of beans a day. And to your question about wine, they all drink, all five of the blue zones. People drink on average two to three drinks a day. But there’s one type of wine we found in the highlands of Sardinia, highest levels of artery scrubbing polyphenols in the world, and it’s called kananal. It’s made from a grenache grape and it’s very, very red. All the antioxidants, by the way, are in the pigment of the grape. So the redder the wine, as a rule, the healthier it’s going to be for your heart. This one has the highest levels of polyphenols in the world, about three times higher than any other known wine. And we think it probably contributes to the extraordinary longevity of these Sardinian men.

    Wes Moss [00:11:09]:

    What about the now a couple of caveats with drinking, one about drinking with friends and then can you save up dan and take one or two glasses of wine and know have a couple of big nights in a week?

    Dan Buettner [00:11:23]:

    People actually ask me that, yeah. So if you look two to three drinks a night, I know you cannot save up and have 21 on the weekend. But the way you see it, wine consumed in Sardinia, there’ll be a small glass at lunch, another small glass with friends at five, and then another small glass with dinner. And by the way, if you’re consuming a glass of wine with a blue zone meal, which is to say a plant based meal, you’re probably about tripling the absorption of the antioxidants. So there’s actually an argument that as long as you’re eating plant based, a glass of wine might even be better than a glass of water with a meal. Which isn’t to say if you’re not drinking now, you shouldn’t start drinking, but if you are, it’s probably good news.

    Wes Moss [00:12:09]:

    Can you find this wine? Pronounce it again? It’s cannoa.

    Dan Buettner [00:12:13]:

    Cannonau. C-A-N-N-O-N-A-U. Can you find wine?

    Wes Moss [00:12:18]:

    Can we find cannonau in the United States?

    Dan Buettner [00:12:21]:

    Yeah, if you go to Whole Foods, for example, you’ll be able to find it there or a specialty wine shop. And by the way, because it hasn’t been marketed, it’s relatively cheap for the price.

    Wes Moss [00:12:36]:

    Is your cash working for you? For years, banks have gotten away with paying next to nothing for the privilege of holding your money. Today, investors have more options as the Federal reserve has raised and raised and raised interest rates dramatically. Why not take advantage of it? If you’re interested in finding a higher yielding solution for the safety allocation of your investment portfolio, reach out to my team at Let’s go through the power nine. And I want to ask about number two on the list is purpose. And I know that I’ve seen other interviews with you. And now a big part of your sense of purpose is to spread this message and your work, which is, I think, so incredibly important for folks to listen to, but tell us about, I guess, your sense of purpose and maybe what the Okinawans say about their sense of purpose.

    Dan Buettner [00:13:37]:

    As a rule, sense of purpose is that intersection between what you like to do, what your passions are, what you’re good at, and an outlet for it. And I believe there’s also an important service element to true purpose. So if you’re not giving back in some way, it’s probably not a meaningful sense of purpose in blue zones. You see this you mentioned the Okinawans, they have this word, ikigai, which is roughly the reason for which I wake up in the morning. And by the way, they have no word in the Okinawan dialect for retirement. Instead, this responsibility, purpose concept drives their entire adult life. And we know from very good studies in the United States that people who can articulate their sense of purpose, their Eegai, live about eight years longer than people who are rudderless. So if you could put purpose in a capsule, it would be a blockbuster drug.

    Wes Moss [00:14:39]:

    It really and how about for you, though, is how much of your sense of purpose is tied to the research and the blue zone communities that you’ve helped get going?

    Dan Buettner [00:14:51]:

    Well, I’ve been a lifelong explorer, and I’m very clear what I’m good at is going out into the world, finding traditional people, and distilling their wisdom and their lessons for the rest of us. If I had to sum mine up, that would be, you know, part of it my way, I guess, of sort of giving back. And I had a great editor at National Geographic, Peter Miller, who taught me this. But if the expeditions you’re doing now aren’t somehow making the human condition better, they’re probably just stunts. And since about 2009, I’ve been working with cities now about 50 cities throughout the United States, and helping them adopt blue zone principles at the population level. And we started with Albert Lee, Minnesota, 2009, and we helped them lower their health care costs by 40%. And most recently and you can Google NBC Nightly News or CNN. We just helped Fort Worth, Texas, about a million people lower their obesity rate, childhood obesity, and their smoking rate, which will save that city about a quarter of a billion dollars a year. And again, that is taking wisdom from places like Sardinia and Okinawa and putting it to work in America.

    Wes Moss [00:16:14]:

    How many years did it take to see some of these blue zone habits and the impact on a place like in a big city in Texas? How long did it take?

    Dan Buettner [00:16:26]:

    Well, first of all, the blue zones approach, we don’t think we’re going to collectively get a million people to change their habits. That’s delusional. But we can make the environment such that the default, the healthy choice is the easy choice or the unavoidable choice. If we do that at the policy level and at restaurants, grocery stores, workplaces, schools and churches, and it takes us about five years to put it in place and get it up working. But after you get it in place because they’re long term interventions, they continue to accrue dividends to know we’re no longer working as actively in Fort Worth, Texas, but the streets are more walkable and bikeable and safer for kids. You can no longer smoke in restaurants and bars, which is helping drive the smoking rate down. The food deserts in Fort Worth now offer fruits and vegetables so poor people have better access to healthier food that will last for the indefinite future. And we expect to continue to see obesity drop and people’s reported life satisfaction increase in Fort Worth for the foreseeable future.

    Wes Moss [00:17:49]:

    I want to transition to and talk about happiness. If we talk about this number seven, which is the sense of belonging and then our loved ones and the right tribe and I want you to get into that. But I’ve read different works of yours that comes back to certain cities are set up. To your point. We can’t just have new habits because we’ll eventually ditch them. We have to have a community that almost our way of life perpetuates and facilitates these habits, move naturally and so forth. What do you see in if we were to talk about that for a minute here. What are these communities? I guess let’s start with sense of belonging and what that means for the communities and why it helps people live longer.

    Dan Buettner [00:18:41]:

    Yes. So we know that if you’re lonely, which is to say that you don’t have at least three friends who you can call up and count on on a bad day, for example, be able to borrow money from them. If you don’t have at least three friends that are that good, it’s as bad for your health as a smoking habit. Shaves about eight years off of your life expectancy. So a couple of our strategies in blue zone cities we know that if a street has a sidewalk wide sidewalk that invites outdoor cafes and older people getting out, that a lot of social interaction happens spontaneously, unplanned by just bumping into people. Secondly, we learned this strategy in Okinawa called a moai. So when our team is in the city, we will build thousands of these committed social circles where we find people who share interests and values and we organize them around walking and eating plant based meals together. So it’s very easy. It’s something everybody does. And we’ve had astounding success at helping lonely people connect with other lonely people and everybody then lives longer. And to your point about happiest, I did this book, Blue Zones of Happiness, and a cover story for National Geographic. One of the most dependable ways to get happier is spend more time socializing. The happiest people in the world are socializing six to 7 hours a day, face to face. Right.

    Wes Moss [00:20:20]:

    Social media doesn’t count. FaceTime doesn’t count. This is face to face contact. Right. And also what is describing him, the concept of a moai.

    Dan Buettner [00:20:33]:

    So you see it, by the way, it originally occurred in Okinawa because there weren’t banks. So four or five friends got together and sort of shook hands and said, we’re going to hang out. And by the way, if we need money to buy seed for our fields, we’re going to count on each other to borrow money in times of need. But now they’ve morphed into it, boils down to essentially a committed social network. So through life, these pods of four or five people travel together metaphorically, and they have each other’s back in times of difficulty and in times of prosperity they share. And the best story I had was I found five women who belong to the same Hawaii. Their average age was 102 years old, and they still get together every night, drink, socky, gossip, argue about who the Hawkeye liked best back in 1941. But really, they stayed young and they cared for each other. And when you look at America, in contrast, in the 1980s, the average American had three good friends they could count on on a bad day. We’re now down to about 1.7. So as we implode into our electronics and move farther out into the suburbs, we’re getting lonelier. And not coincidentally, for the last three years, life expectancy for Americans has dropped.

    Wes Moss [00:22:05]:

    We have gone from three close friends on average in the 1980s down to 1.7.

    Dan Buettner [00:22:12]:

    Correct. Talk about average.

    Wes Moss [00:22:14]:

    Talk about the impact of social media. Wow. I don’t know if that’s social media. I don’t know what that is. But you would think that we’re even more connected. And the research now shows that we’re less connected or less tight social relationships than we’ve ever had. That’s concerning.

    Dan Buettner [00:22:33]:

    I’ll give you a litmus test and I’m going to address this question to the business travelers in your audience. When’s the last time that the person sitting next to you up in business class or even coach turned to you and said a word? Now everybody has their Bose headphones on and they’re buried in their electronics or the movie in front of them. It used to be 15 years ago, you at least said hi to the person next to you and made some conversation. So we’re changing. And the lessons from The Blue Zone will suggest that we’re headed in the wrong direction when it comes to social connectedness.

    Wes Moss [00:23:11]:

    I remember thinking back when I was, yeah, let’s go back 20, even 30 years ago. You’re right. When you’d get on a plane, you would chitchat. Now, I’m guilty of this because I just want to put my headphones in and not chitchat with anybody, which I’m going to change that after this interview. By the way. And then you go back 2030 years, you used to hear people meeting on planes that started dating and got married. Today, I think it’s impossible. Nobody talks to anybody.

    Dan Buettner [00:23:37]:

    Here’s my anecdote to that. If I ever meet you on the airplane, I always say the following. I say? Hi. My name is Dan Buettner. How are you? And they’ll look at me and they’ll always, well, how are you? And I say, I’m feeling in a very chatty mood, and I can’t wait to travel with you. That’s awesome. They get this look of complete terror. And then I say, just kidding.

    Wes Moss [00:24:00]:

    I’m doing that from now on. Dan, you talk about what is happiness? It’s life satisfaction. Are you experiencing your life? Do you have a sense of purpose? And then how did you look at cities around the globe in relation to how happy the population is?

    Dan Buettner [00:24:18]:

    Yeah. So Gallup gathers very good data on life satisfaction and how we actually experience our life. And with National Geographic and Share Care, I convinced them to control for ethnicity, age and income. So as a rule, if you’re white, old and rich, you’re going to be happier. So we took those variables out of the equation, and then we listed the cities that are the happiest, and this is cities. We had 15 different metrics that included how physically fit they are, how good they feel about their job, how good they feel socially, how satisfied they are with their lives. And I wrote about this in National Geographic Magazine. The number one was Boulder, Colorado.

    Wes Moss [00:25:13]:

    Boulder and then some of the other top ten. What did they really have in common? Is it a very active walkable place to live with decent weather, or is that something that tied these together?

    Dan Buettner [00:25:28]:

    That’s part of it. Weather doesn’t make much of a difference at all, actually, because we adapt to weather. But here’s the big secret. In every place, not only in the Americas, but in the world where you have happy population, it’s always because sometime in the past, usually 50 to 75 years ago, civic leaders shifted their focus from just economic development to adopting policies that would specifically favor quality of life. So you take San Luis obispo. About 40 years ago, a mayor got elected and noticed that the streets were clogged with traffic and sidewalks were narrow and people were connecting. So he went to work at routing streets outside of Routing, the highway outside of town, getting rid of billboards. Nobody likes billboards. Investing in a Thursday night farmers market where everybody can come together and celebrate around healthy food and physical activity. And every city is a little bit different on what they’re going to like. But as a rule, there’s a very clear bundle of policies that are going to favor quality of life, and it’s leaders who are focused on them and not just on making trying to juice the local economy, which often happens at the expense of people’s health and wellbeing, but really focus on humans and not just business.

    Wes Moss [00:27:09]:

    I love it, man. Well, thank you so much. Safe travels and I really appreciate your time today here on the show.

    Mallory Boggs [00:27:15]:

    Hey, y’all, this is Mallory with the Retire Sooner team. Please be sure to rate and subscribe to this podcast and share it with a friend. If you have any questions, you can find us at . You can also follow us on Instagram and YouTube. You’ll find us under the handle Retire Sooner Podcast. And now for our show’s. Disclosure this information is provided to you as a resource for informational purposes only and is not to be viewed as investment advice or recommendations. Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal. There is no guaranteed offer that investment return, yield or performance will be achieved. Stock prices fluctuate, sometimes rapidly and dramatically due to factors affecting individual companies, particular industries or sectors, or general market conditions. For stocks paying dividends, dividends are not guaranteed and can increase, decrease or be eliminated without notice. Fixed income securities involve interest rate, credit inflation and reinvestment risks and possible loss of principal. As interest rates rise, the value of fixed income securities falls. Past performance is not indicative of future results when considering any investment vehicle. This information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Investment decisions should not be based solely on information contained here. This information is not intended to and should not form a primary basis for any investment decision that you may make. Always consult your own legal, tax or investment advisor before making any investment tax, estate or financial planning considerations or decisions. The information contained here is strictly an opinion and it is not known whether the strategies will be successful. The views and opinions expressed are for educational purposes only as of the date of production and may change without notice at any time based on numerous factors such as market and other conditions.

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