I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of extending human life. As a boy, my favorite characters in the Bible were those like Methuselah who lived for hundreds of years. (Noah, of ark fame, was reportedly 600 when he built his boat, and he lived for another 350 years after the flood!)
I’m also drawn to science-fiction novels that feature longevity as a subplot. For instance, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (which I mentioned a few days ago in another context), medical advances allow people to live for more than two hundred years. (For a decade, I’ve had an idea for a short story called “Herb Nelson’s Long Life”, which would be about a man who has been alive for centuries.)
Naturally, I’m not just interested in fictional accounts of longevity. I’m interested in the science behind it too. Recently, I found time to read The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner, a book that examines the lifestyles of five of the longest-lived populations on the planet. What attributes do these folks have in common?
The Blue Zones
I first read Buettner’s work in the pages of National Geographic. In November 2005, the magazine printed his article, “The Secrets to a Long Life“, which offers a taste of what’s contained in The Blue Zones. In the article, Buettner profiles populations in Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Loma Linda, California. These are communities where people live long and stay happy.
Expanding his work to book length, he added two additional locations: the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and the Greek island of Ikaria.
In each of these five locations, people have long and healthy lives. They reach the age of 100 at rates significantly higher than average.
In The Blue Zones, Buettner shares stories from each of these locations, sharing how specific people have lived and thrived for ten decades. As he interviews people in each location, he tries to find common threads. What is that makes the people in Sardinia live so long? In Ikaria? Then, at the end of the book, Buettner draws from these five populations as a whole. What attributes do they share?
Long and Healthy Lives
After looking at these groups individually, Buettner makes nine broad generalizations about factors that seem to be related to longevity and well-being. Note, though, that correlations does not imply causality. These qualities are present in the communities he’s studied, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually the secrets to long life. (Though, of course, I’d like to think they are.)
Here are the recommendations from The Blue Zones:
- Be active. Those who live a long time are generally active people. They walk. They raise gardens. They have fun. If you struggle with this, Buettner suggests finding ways to force yourself to be active. He also recommends doing yoga twice a week.
- Cut calories. Many Eastern cultures have a practice in which they eat until they’re “80% full”. Buettner recommends cutting portion sizes through common tricks like using smaller serving dishes, making snacks a hassle, preparing smaller portions, eating more slowly, and eating early.
- Eat a plant-based diet. Eat two servings of vegetables with every meal. Limit meat intake. Avoid processed foods. Make fruits and vegetables the highlight of your diet. Stock up on nuts, and eat them every day.
- Drink red wine — in moderation. Sip it with your dinner, or institute a daily “happy hour” where you socialize with friends.
- Have a purpose. Take time to see the Big Picture. Craft a mission statement, and then find a partner to hold you accountable to it. Learn something new. Buettner points out that learning a musical instrument or studying a new language are two great ways to keep your brain sharp.
- Downshift. Reduce the stress in your life. Cut out the electronic noise. Arrive early to appointments. Meditate.
- Participate in a spiritual community. Buettner stresses the importance of spiritual communities, and encourages readers to open their minds, discard prejudices, and just go to a church service.
- Make family a priority. Live closer to your family. Own a smaller home, where people are forced to interact more. Establish rituals. Create a family shrine.
- Find the right tribe. Be likeable. Surround yourself with people who share your values. Identify your inner circle, the people you trust and support. Try to spend 30 minutes each day with these folks.
Here’s a Venn diagram (from Wikipedia) that summarizes Buettner’s findings from the three original Blue Zones. (I’d love to see a similar diagram that takes into account all five regions.)
Common attributes among Blue Zones
More than anything, Buettner writes, “Purpose and love are essential ingredients in all Blue Zone recipes for longevity.”
There’s no way a simple blog post can do justice to Buettner’s book. The Blue Zones is fascinating, at least for those of us interested in longevity. If you want more info, buy the book (or borrow it from the library, like I did). You can also visit the Blue Zones website, where you’ll find:
- Plant-centric recipes
- Checklists to push you toward some of the Blue Zones guidelines
- The Blue Zones Challenge for kids
- A life-span calculator (my life expectancy is 86.2 years)
- A happiness test (I scored an A-)
I’ll close this summary with a key piece of advice from The Blue Zones. “This information will do you no good,” Buettner writes, “unless you put it into practice.”