Steps you can take today to help live a longer, healthier life
People have been trying to discover the fountain of youth for centuries. Whether inspired by the writings of fifth-century Greek historian Herodotus or the story of 16th-century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon who theoretically discovered Florida in the process, people have been wondering for centuries about the secrets to living well longer.
That desire — obsession? — has only increased in recent years as medical treatments and health information have improved life expectancy generally. Between 1960 and 2015, life expectancy for the total population in the United States increased by almost 10 years — from 69.7 years in 1960 to 79.4 years in 2015. By 2060, the life expectancy for the total American population is projected to increase by about six years, from 79.7 in 2017 to 85.6, according to a U.S. Census report.
Baby boomers, who, at least in their heads, are perpetually 45, have only fueled this increasing interest in extending our lifespans. As a result, so-called anti-aging strategies, from serums to IV drips to dietary supplements, have been exploding. In 2021, Americans spent more than $151 billion on vitamins and another $21 billion on protein supplements.
But in an age where information (and misinformation) is at our fingertips, figuring out how to live better and longer can be so overwhelming that reaching for those Cheetos feels like the only solution.
Enter journalist Dan Buettner. For decades, Buettner has been studying and reporting on the isolated areas across the globe where the number of centenarians is statistically higher than the norm. “It all started in the spring of 2000 when I was leading a series of educational projects called ‘Quests,’ in which a team of scientists investigated some of Earth’s great puzzles,” Buettner writes in an email. “I had heard about Okinawa’s unusual longevity a few years earlier and thought it would be a great quest to investigate what their secrets to good health and long life were. We spent ten days studying, exploring and summing up what we found.”
Five years later, Buettner returned to Okinawa with a new team. He had written a cover story for National Geographic called “The Secrets of Long Life,” and was determined to delve deeper into the Okinawan lifestyle and open his search to find more so-called “blue zones.” These blue zones, named for the blue dots used on a map by Michel Poulain and Giovanni Mario Pes while originally studying longevity in Sardinia, Italy, include Okinawa, Japan; Singapore; an Adventist community in Loma Linda, California; and others.
Fast forward to today. Buettner has written countless books about blue zones and the blue zones lifestyle, including his newest book, The Blue Zones Secrets to Living Longer: Lessons from the Healthiest Places on Earth. He also has a new documentary on Netflix called Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones.
Buettner is also working with communities around America to help them create blue zones of their own by incorporating the lifestyles and habits found in the original blue zones around the world. In Albert Lea, Minnesota, for instance, employers realized $7.5 million in savings in annual health care costs, while participating residents added 2.9 years to their lifespans within one year of participating in the project. In Fort Worth, Texas, they saw a 31 percent decrease in smoking, and a nine-point increase in the number of residents who exercise at least 30 minutes three or more days weekly. Today, the Blue Zones Project is working with over 72 communities in the United States.
While making these health and lifestyle changes can feel overwhelming, Buettner reminds people that even taking a couple of steps is better than doing nothing at all. “The key to health and happiness is not a silver bullet,” he writes, “but instead a silver buckshot. There is no fountain of youth or magic pill that we can take to live long, healthy, happy lives. It takes many small changes to create an environment that curates healthy living.”
“I try to live out all of the Blue Zones principles as best I can,” he adds, noting his diet is plant-based and he no longer eats meat. “I know a few hours more of socializing will be better than a few more hours of work, so you won’t find me working after 5 p.m. When I am working, I take many of my calls while walking. I host dinner parties for my friends weekly. I live in a walkable community where I can walk to the store or out to dinner.”
Interested in making a change in your aging lifestyle? Below are a few — and we mean a few — of the top tips from Buettner’s research on how you can take steps toward living longer and healthier.
The bottom line, says Buettner, is to take even one or two steps toward investing in your health. “It’s important not to think of the Power 9 as a checklist that you must hit every day,” he says. “It is a direction of small changes throughout your entire life/environment that help set your surroundings up for success. I don’t want people to think ‘I haven’t followed the 80 percent rule today so I failed.’ It’s about being mindful of how to include these in your environment.”
The Power 9
9 Common Characteristics Among Blue Zones Inhabitants
- Move Naturally: People in the blue zones aren’t joining gyms or running races. They live in places that require them to move without thinking about it. They work in their gardens, walk everywhere and sit on the floor. They’re exercising without realizing it.
- Purpose: Have a reason to get up in the morning, whether it’s volunteering or working. Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy, according to Buettner.
- Downshift: Stress leads to chronic inflammation, which is associated with every major age-related disease. We can’t eliminate all stress, of course, but people in the blue zones also have routines, or coping mechanisms, that enable them to shed some of that stress. Sardinians, for instance, do happy hour (in moderation, of course) while Adventists have a weekly Sabbath routine that requires stepping away from daily life.
- 80 Percent Rule: “Hara hachi bu” is a 2500-year-old Confucian mantra that Okinawans say before meals to remind themselves to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. Overeating, in contrast, seems to be an American requirement, resulting in high obesity rates and a multitude of health issues.
- Plant Slant: Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets, according to Buettner’s research. When blue zoners do eat meat — mostly pork and only a few times a month — the portions are notably smaller than America’s Big Mac mentality, coming in at about the size of a deck of cards or 3 to 4 ounces per serving.
- Wine @ 5: People in all blue zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Research suggests moderate drinkers outlive nondrinkers. The trick is to drink 1 to 2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. Notably missing from this list is hard liquor.
- Belong: All but five of the 263 centenarians Buettner interviewed belonged to some kind of faith-based community. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add four to 14 years of life expectancy.
- Loved Ones First: Successful centenarians in blue zones put their families first. Aging parents and grandparents live nearby or in the homes of their children. (Some of the blue zones don’t even have nursing homes.) Added benefit: Having aging elders in or near the home lowers the disease and mortality rates of children in the home, too.
- Right Tribe: Find friends who support your healthy choices. Okinawans create “moais,” or groups of five friends that are committed to each other for life.
Want to make changes to your diet that can help you live longer and age more healthily? Here is a list of some of the healthy foods regularly consumed by blue zones inhabitants.
- From Sardinia, Italy: fava beans, barley, kohlrabi, fennel, sourdough bread, tomatoes
- From Nicoya, Costa Rica: In addition to beans, corn and squash, a group Buettner calls “The Three Sisters,” Nicoyans consume a lot of peppers, cilantro, coconut and papaya
- From Loma Linda, California: Avocado, nuts, soy milk, oatmeal, beans, spinach and broccoli (also, see the recipe for Roasted Potatoes and Green Beans with Mustard Drizzle)
- From Ikaria, Greece: beans, fennel, wild greens, lemon, olive oil, raw honey, sage and rosemary (also, see the recipe for Chickpea Soup with Lemon and Herbs)
- From Okinawa, Japan: tofu, miso, green onions, mushrooms, seaweed, turmeric, imo (purple sweet potatoes)
Want to make a change in your diet but don’t know where to start? Here are two lists from Buettner — four “always” foods and four foods to avoid.
4 “Always” Foods
- 100% whole grains
- Two handfuls of nuts a day
- Five fruits and vegetables a day. Buettner says eating seven or more portions of fruits and vegetables a day can lower the risk of premature death by 42%.
4 Foods to Avoid
- Sugar-sweetened beverages
- Salty snacks
- Packaged sweets
- Processed meats
Lifestyle changes are an important part of aging in blue zones. Here are some of the life lessons from the blue zones Buettner highlights in his book and Netflix series:
- Eat a plant-based peasant diet
- Put family first
- Celebrate elders
- Take a walk
- Drink a glass or two of red wine daily
- Laugh with friends
From Nicoya, Costa Rica
- Have a plan da vida
- Drink hard water (or water with a high calcium content), which helps with bone density
- Focus on family
- Eat a light dinner
- Get sensible sun
- Embrace common history
- Maintain your social network
From Loma Linda
- Get moderate regular exercise
- Watch your BMI
- Find a sanctuary in time: Theirs is the weekly sabbath, which creates a forced weekly social media timeout
- Give something back
- Avoid meat
- Eat a light dinner
- Snack on nuts
- Drink plenty of water
- Spend time with like-minded friends
From Ikaria, Greece
- Mimic mountain living, walking uphill like shepherds
- Make family and friends a priority
- Find your “ikigai”: your life’s purpose and reason for getting out of bed
- Eat a plant-based diet
- Enjoy sunshine
- Eat more soy
- Activate your home environment: Sit on a mat on the floor
- Be interested and interesting
- Build your moai, or social network
Bring It on Home
Creating a Blue Zones Home
In addition to offering information about diet, Buettner’s new book, The Blue Zones Secrets to Living Longer, includes a section on ways in which you can incorporate healthier lifestyle choices in your home. Here are a few to consider:
- Get a dog. People with dogs get an average of five hours of exercise weekly just from taking care of Fido.
- Have only one TV. The fewer TVs, the less likely you’ll be to plop yourself in front of one.
- Replace power tools with hand tools. Obviously not all jobs should be done by hand, but shoveling, raking and pushing a mower are productive outdoor workouts, with some burning almost 400 calories in an hour.
- Disconnect the automatic garage opener.
- Place cushions on the floor. Okinawan elders sit and get up from the floor dozens of times daily. Sitting on the floor improves posture and overall strength. Turns out, that “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercial is no joke.
At top: Sardinian vineyards like this one play a role in the “blue zone” practices described by journalist Dan Buettner. Photo by David McLain.