Dan Buettner's Blue Zones teach nine secrets of a longer life

Oprah author shares his longevity plan

The red-walled foyer of Dan Buettner's Lake of the Isles home is packed with party guests. Black-clad waiters weave among the revelers, offering up twirls of scallops and skinny pasta spun onto silver forks. In one section of the house, the gossip columnist for the Star Tribune stalks the governor with her video camera.

"Hi, C.J.," says Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the potential GOP presidential candidate, offering an awkward wave.

C.J. has followed Buettner for years—he and former supermodel girlfriend Cheryl Tiegs were frequently the subjects of her gossip column. Tonight, the Minnesota celebrity-hunting is good: Josh Hartnett is scheduled to appear. In the living room, Judge Mary Pawlenty, the governor's wife, in a floral burgundy tunic straight out of Mumbai, chats with the Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn, wearing standard Brooklyn hipster cowboy plaid. Everyone seems amused.

Dan Buettner
Nick Vlcek
Dan Buettner
In Guatemala, Buettner and his team of scientists probed the reasons for the fall of the ancient Maya.
courtesy of Dan Buettner
In Guatemala, Buettner and his team of scientists probed the reasons for the fall of the ancient Maya.

Dressed in a crisp white shirt and dark, well-tailored suit, Buettner, 49, circles the room. His guests have paid $500 to attend this living-room tailgate before the annual Butter Ball, the charity fundraiser Buettner started 20 years ago, which has become a who's-who of Minnesota elite, and he wants to make sure they get their money's worth.

"He works the room as well as the finest of politicians," says Dean Phillips, Buettner's neighbor and the CEO of Phillips Distilling Company. "If there were any babies there, I'm sure he would have held the babies."

Buettner's charm has served him well. It has allowed him to travel the world, set several Guinness records, and investigate the great mysteries of mankind.

Now he has decided to take on his biggest challenge: mortality.

Man has long searched for the fountain of youth, but the results have mostly been snake oil. Still, by 2008 products promising to make people look or feel younger had become a booming $28 billion-a-year U.S. industry, according to the Freedonia Group, a market research firm based in Cleveland.

Buettner says he's found the secret. He visited the ragged cliffs of Sardinia and the fertile gardens of Okinawa—global hotspots of longevity, dubbed Blue Zones—where people live to be 100 at astonishing rates. He identified what they have in common and distilled their secrets into a recipe he says could add a decade to your life.

"I found there's no supplement, there's no herb, there's no one thing that's going to make us live longer in the foreseeable future," Buettner says. "But there are nine little things that will."

   

IN JANUARY 1982, 21-year-old Danny Buettner traded the ice and snow of Minnesota's winter for the smooth white beaches of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. Then a senior in college, Buettner was throwing back a few cold ones with a buddy at the Island Beachcomber Hotel. It was all on the Star Tribune's dime. Buettner had sold subscriptions to the paper door-to-door so successfully that the newspaper rewarded him with free trips, this time a jaunt for two to the Virgin Islands.

"In quintessential Dan Buettner fashion, he offered to me the opportunity to buy half the trip he won for free," laughs Tom Heuer, the friend who went along. "But it was a hell of a deal—it was $400."

At the bar sat Remar Sutton, a gentleman with a sweet Georgia drawl and flawless decorum, who was down for the winter to manage the hotel.

Sutton introduced himself and the conversation flowed. He regaled the young men with tales of his escapades as a writer and a promoter—his best friend was George Plimpton, the participatory journalist and gadabout.

When Buettner returned to Minnesota, Sutton kept in touch. A year and a half later, he and Plimpton hired Buettner to work on a fundraiser for National Public Radio as the associate producer of a celebrity croquet tournament.

Forty celebrities would play with 40 CEOs at a luxurious Florida development. The merry trio—Buettner, Sutton, and Plimpton—would handle the publicity and coordinate logistics, while the CEOs would finance their year of fun.

For nine months, the men lived like kings—riding around in limousines, staying in the finest hotels, and eating in the best restaurants. They shuttled from Sutton's headquarters in the Bahamas to Plimpton's place in New York.

"George was heavily influenced by the notion that you can do what you love and make a living out of it," Buettner says. "If you're good at universalizing your experiences in an artful way, you can pretty much do what you want to do."

Buettner loved long-distance cycling. So when the croquet gig was up, he planned a bike trip. He figured if he set a Guinness World Record, sponsors would line up to pay his way. He wanted to bike from Minnesota to the tip of Argentina. So he wrote to Guinness: Would they consider such a trip a world record?

"No," the record authorities wrote back.

"But if you start in a place, say, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, the northern extreme of North America, and bike to the Southern extreme of South America, they would consider it," Buettner recalls. "And I'm like, 'Okay.'"

He spent a year raising money, and in 1986 set out with his brother Steve and four friends to conquer the Americas by bike. Ten months, five days, and 14 hours later, Buettner had cycled 15,500 miles and set a world record.

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