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Buettner contacted Robert Kane, the director of the University of Minnesota's Center on Aging, and floated the idea. Kane was more than happy to help.
"I was excited at that point, because I wanted something that would change children's attitudes about old people," Kane says.
Kane introduced Buettner to the top demographers and scientists at the National Institute on Aging in Washington, D.C. Buettner flew to D.C. to make his pitch. He was rewarded with a $300,000 research grant—and, more importantly, scientific clout. "So I was able to surround the project with really the top names," Buettner says.
A world-renowned demographer told Buettner that Okinawa Island wasn't the world's only longevity hot spot—there was one in Sardinia. If there were going to be two places, American audiences would want a third in their own country, the National Geographic editor reasoned. Buettner's scientific contacts put him in touch with a well-documented longevity hotspot in California.
"The first three Blue Zones, they were found," Buettner says. "I just dug them out."
Now Buettner had the perfect formula: three hotspots of longevity in three countries. He slaved for months rewriting a one-page letter pitching the story to National Geographic, and in the end, the magazine couldn't turn him down.
In 2003, Buettner began his Blue Zone trips. The format for each expedition was the same: The first half was spent talking to every expert who could help him understand the culture's longevity secrets—anthropologists, historians, dieticians, geneticists. "You essentially give the ingredients to the recipe," Buettner says. "What is the profile of the culture—not the individual—that correlates with the longevity?" The second half of each trip was spent finding people who represent each culture's life-prolonging habits. "To tell a story, you need to find a good character," says Buettner.
In Loma Linda, Buettner spent a day with Marge Jetton, a spry, upbeat 101-year-old with a well-ordered pouf of curls. Buettner arranged to meet Marge at the hair salon she has visited every Friday for 20 years. He was supposed to arrive at 8 a.m.
"You're late!" Marge shouted when Buettner stepped into the salon behind schedule.
Half an hour later, Marge's hair freshly done, she and Buettner zipped along Southern California's network of freeways in her mauve Cadillac sedan, on their way to Marge's volunteer appointments. First stop: a retirement home, where she lugged in four bundles of magazines. "The old folks here like to read them and cut out the pictures for crafts," she explained to Buettner.
Marge was a Seventh-Day Adventist, one of thousands living in Loma Linda, a smog-encrusted community halfway between Palm Springs and Los Angeles. The Adventist religion prohibits smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating biblically unclean foods such as pork, Buettner learned. It also discourages consuming other meat, rich foods, caffeinated drinks, and stimulating spices.
Adventists are a highly studied group—from 1976 to 1988, the National Institutes of Health funded a study of 34,000 California Adventists, and a new study is going on now. The earlier study concluded that the average Adventist lives four to ten years longer than the average Californian. Their diet of soybeans, tomatoes, and other fruits lowered their risk of developing certain cancers. Eating whole wheat bread, drinking five glasses of water a day, and consuming four servings of nuts per week reduced their risk of heart disease.
Buettner wove together his visits to Okinawa, Sardinia, and Loma Linda in a lively, fun-to-read story that made the cover of National Geographic. It was an instant sensation, quickly becoming the third best-selling issue in the magazine's history. Buettner did the media circuit on Anderson Cooper, Good Morning America, CNN, Fox.
Buettner's National Geographic story was such a success that he got a book deal to expand on the concept. He continued the search for more hotspots, finding Blue Zones in the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and the beautiful island Ikaria off the coast of Greece. Buettner's first book, Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest, was a New York Times bestseller. It helped that Buettner was embraced by Oprah.
Oprah welcomed Buettner to her show along with her regular guest, Dr. Oz, who had recently accompanied Buettner to Nicoya to see the Blue Zone concept firsthand. Among the lessons for Winfrey's audience: the importance of getting up off the couch.
"You know, most Americans don't really exercise. A very small proportion," Buettner told Oprah. "But in Nicoya, they'll be making lunch and it's like doing 25 reps with the free weights."
WHILE BUETTNER WAS researching a new book—on "how you set up your life so that you can live longer without even thinking about it"—he began thinking about how to bring the Blue Zones lessons to a real community.
Buettner called everyone he knew in the public health field, looking for models. "Lo and behold, there's none of them," Buettner says. So he started thinking about how to do it himself.
He met with Nancy Graham, editor of AARP Magazine, who was also interested in doing a city health makeover. Buettner presented his ideas to United Health Foundation, which kicked in $750,000 toward the $1 million project. He asked Leslie Lytle, a community health behavior expert at the University of Minnesota, to co-direct the project, and hired Joel Spoonheim, a former planner, to run the daily operations.
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