An Interview With Blue Zoner Dan Buettner

by Charles Platkin, PhD

This is an interview I did with Dan Buettner more than 10 years ago — it is still fascinating to read years later after watching the amazing Netflix special series: Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones

Do you want to look and feel younger? Live longer? Research shows that our daily habits rather than our genes actually account for as much as 90 percent of our life expectancy. So how do we live longer? Dan Buettner, a storybook-style explorer who has completed more than 18 major expeditions, led a team of demographers and scientists across the globe to uncover the secrets of the “Blue Zones” — five geographic regions where small populations are living remarkably long, full lives. The goal of the Blue Zone project, in partnership with the National Institute on Aging and the University of Minnesota, was to distill a cross-cultural longevity formula. I was able to grab a few minutes of Dan’s time via e-mail – here are a few of his fascinating findings about living longer and better.

Dr. Charles Platkin: What in the world is a Blue Zone?

Dan:   The Blue Zones are the places where people have the longest life expectancies or the highest centenarian rate.  My team of experts and I have discovered and researched the longevity hot spots of Sardinia; Okinawa, Japan; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; and the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, Calif. [ soon after Ikaria, Greece was named as a Blue Zone]  In each Blue Zone, I’ve found that people reach age 100 at rates significantly higher than the rest of us, and on average they live longer, healthier lives with only a fraction of the rate of killer diseases found in America.

Dr. Charles Platkin: Can you explain the core concept behind “The Power 9?”

Dan: There are nine common denominators or behaviors shared by all of the world’s longevity all-stars. We’ve organized these behaviors into four categories:

Move Naturally – Ensure that your home, community and workplace present you with natural ways to move. Focus on activities you love, like gardening, walking and playing with your family.  I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve never met an overweight centenarian.  By and large the oldest-lived people are fit, active and move as often as they can. For instance, the Sardinian Blue Zone’s unique geography provides many opportunities for movement.  The sun-beaten terrain, cut by deep valleys, is not suited for large-scale farming.  So, over the centuries, shepherding offered the best way to earn a living.  The work was neither stressful nor strenuous, but it did require miles and miles of walking each day.  (Walking five miles a day or more provides the type of low-intensity exercise that yields all the cardiovascular benefits you might expect, but it also has a positive effect on muscles and bones — without the joint-pounding damage caused by running long distances daily.)  Sardinian male centenarians seemed to avoid bone loss and fractures.  One Italian study has shown that Sardinian centenarians reported less than half as many fractures as the average Italian centenarian.

Belong to the Right Tribe – Surround yourself with the right people, make the effort to connect or reconnect with your religion, and put loved ones first.  In all of the Blue Zones, spending time with family and friends is an integral part of everyday life.

All of the world’s longest-lived people were born into — or consciously chose to associate with — the right people    The Framingham studies show us that if your three best friends are obese, you have a 50 percent greater chance of also being obese. The reverse is true, too.  If you dine with people who eat healthy food, you’re more likely to eat healthy food. If the friends you spend most time with play a sport, you’re more likely to join them.   As your mother said, “You’re known by the company you keep.”   You’re also likely to resemble them.

Eat Wisely – Use the 80 Percent Rule:  In Okinawa, many of the older people utter the phrase “hara hachi bu.”  It’s a Confucian-inspired adage that means, “Eat until you are 80 percent full.”  We can practice it by recognizing when we are getting full, using plates that are smaller, serving ourselves smaller portions and putting the rest of the food away.

Avoid meat and processed food, and drink a couple of glasses of wine daily. In prewar Okinawa, the majority of people who had become centenarians underwent periods of hunger, of discipline, of physical exertion, and of eating bitter-tasting but healthful foods like goya (a dark green, bumpy, bitter gourd). When the Allies won World War II and the United States established a military base on Okinawa, the Americans brought peace, prosperity, jobs, and a culture of rich fast food and huge portions.  But as is the case with most stories of development, prosperity arrived as a paradox:  The end of economic hardship also brought an end to the disciplines, lifestyles, work requirements, and diet that had helped foster the culture’s extraordinary longevity.  A sharp increase in obesity-related diseases such as diabetes has ensued.  Okinawa now has Japan’s highest rate of obesity in men who are middle-aged and younger, as well as one of the highest rates of premature death from cardiovascular disease.

Have the Right Outlook – Know and be able to articulate your sense of purpose, and be sure that your day is punctuated with periods of calm.  In Okinawa, the word for this “right outlook” is “ikigai.” In Costa Rica, they call it “plan de vida.”

This may all sound too simple, but the payoff is huge. The average American could live up to 14 more good years by putting these habits to work.

Dr. Charles Platkin: How has your research changed your own attitude toward growing old?

Dan: When I began this research, I, like many people, was not looking forward to getting older.  Our culture doesn’t value aging or see the positive aspects of wisdom, perspective, acceptance and history.  Many people feel that their life gets out of control as they get older.  However, by making a few simple, basic changes people can add many good, healthy and vital years to their life.

Dr. Charles Platkin: Can you give us a few examples of specific foods we should be eating to increase longevity?

Dan:  The message from Okinawa is to add more foods made with soy, such as tofu and miso soup.  Flavonoids in tofu may help protect the heart and guard against breast cancer.  Fermented soy foods also contribute to a healthy intestinal ecology and offer even better nutritional benefits. We learned that the Seventh-day Adventists who ate nuts at least five times a week have about half the risk of heart disease and live about two years longer than those who don’t.  Costa Ricans have eaten maize (corn) since the time of the Chorotega Indians (the Mesoamericans who were the sole inhabitants of the Nicoya area of Costa Rica until the Spaniards arrived in 1522).  They use lime (calcium hydroxide) to cook the kernels, which infuses them with higher concentrations of calcium.  But just exposing corn to heat can also increase its nutritional value.  A Cornell University study found that cooked corn contains higher levels of antioxidants than raw kernels.

Dr. Charles Platkin:  You mentioned that Okinawan males who are middle-aged or younger now suffer from obesity and cardiovascular disease. Does this mean you think that other Blue Zones will also start to suffer the fate of the rest of the obese, unhealthy world?

Dan:   I have noticed that in all the Blue Zones junk food is becoming more readily available and replacing whole-grain breads, lots of local fruits and vegetables and occasional lean meats.  The young people in each of the Blue Zone cultures are fatter and less inclined to follow the tradition.  However, these young people do have connections with their grandparents and great-grandparents, who provide love, care, expectations and motivation to perpetuate traditions and who push children to succeed. This could help to moderate these unhealthy additions.

Dr. Charles Platkin: What about exercise and fitness?

Dan:   Many Americans exercise too hard. The life expectancy of our species, for 99.9 percent of human history, was about 30 years.  The fact that medicine has pushed life expectancy to age 78 doesn’t mean our bodies were designed for three-quarters of a century of pounding.  Muscles tear, joints wear out, backs go out. The world’s longest-lived people tend to do regular, low intensity physical activity. The key is to do something light every day. Our Blue Zone research, as well as other well-documented studies, shows that exercise programs fail as often as diets do — a huge percentage of the time.  Part of the Blue Zones’ message is to create an environment that supports healthier behaviors so that the benefits that come from diet and exercise naturally occur.

Dr. Charles Platkin:  OK, now a few questions about you… Your favorite “junk food”?

Dan:   Do you consider vodka and cranberry juice a junk food?

Dr. Charles Platkin: Your favorite breakfast?

Dan: Oatmeal with walnuts, soy milk and brown sugar.

Dr. Charles Platkin: What do you consider the world’s most perfect food?

Dan:  Tofu.  It’s low in fat, high in protein, full of minerals and has all of the amino acids necessary for human sustenance.  

Dr. Charles Platkin: Who’s your hero?

Dan:  My dad and George Plimpton. The former because he taught me values and adventure, the latter because he taught me how to use words to achieve my dreams.

Dr. Charles Platkin: What’s the most bodacious chance you’ve ever taken?

Dan:  Biking across the Sahara without sunscreen.

Dr. Charles Platkin: Your proudest moment?

Dan: Getting a speeding ticket while riding my bicycle near my home in Minneapolis.

Dr. Charles Platkin: Define failure.

Dan: Not to have tried.

Dr. Charles Platkin: Which historical figure can you relate to most?

Dan:  Ulysses. He was an explorer who took risks. He went out into the world and brought back things for the betterment of the community.  My goal with Blue Zones is to bring back information from around the world to improve the lives of people.

Dr. Charles Platkin: As a child you wanted to be?

Dan:  A fireman

Dr. Charles Platkin: What’s your motto?

Dan:  Live Large.

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