Dan Buettner's Blue Zones teach nine secrets of a longer life
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.
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.
The accomplishment gave him not only the adventure he craved, but also the platform to build the Dan Buettner brand. People loved his stories of pedaling through Alaskan wilderness and Mexican fishing villages. Buettner milked the public-speaking circuit and found that he could work one day a month and make $900. With a low overhead because he still lived with his parents, that was all the money he needed.
In 1990, Buettner embarked on a second record-setting tour, this time 12,888 miles around the world via the Soviet Union. He wrote a book about the journey, winning a Minnesota Book Award.
By his third trek in 1992, Buettner had passed the age of 30 and wanted his travels to have more existential meaning. South Africa was still gripped by apartheid, so Buettner and his brother Steve decided to cycle the length and width of Africa—12,172 miles—with a multiracial team, including Chip Thomas, an African American doctor. F.W. de Klerk, president of South Africa, said the cyclists would be welcomed with open arms.
The trek across Africa was grueling. The cyclists pedaled for days on washboard roads and rutted mud, sometimes through war zones and often on no more fuel than bananas.
"As we were cycling south through Algeria, we heard all sorts of stories about travelers being kidnapped and killed," Thomas says.
When they reached one South African town, Buettner got off his bike and pulled out his map, as was the team's custom. A group of men circled him. One pulled out a club and whacked Buettner over the head. Buettner fell to the ground but managed to whip out his pepper spray and fend off his attackers. He ran to his bike and pedaled away as fast as he could as the men pelted him with rocks.
"That was scary," Buettner says.
Steve captured the trip and its emotions on a Hi8 camera, and Buettner's team kept in touch with students from 50,000 schools across the country via CNN and newsletter. Teachers used the expedition to teach the children about geography and social studies. Buettner wrote a book and produced an Emmy-winning documentary.
In 1995, Buettner and his brother Steve formed an educational company. Buettner would travel the globe in search of answers to the world's greatest mysteries, and his quests would be beamed into classrooms via satellite and the internet. Schoolchildren could participate in real time by telling the explorers where to go.
Buettner spent the next several years probing the fall of the ancient Maya, exploring humanity's origins in Africa, re-tracing Darwin's route through the Galapagos, and following Marco Polo's trail over the Silk Road. When Buettner sold the company in 1997, he made enough to buy his home on Lake of the Isles, where real estate runs in the millions.
"I do have a charmed life," Buettner says. "I was supposed to be a fireman in Roseville. You know, it's a result of strategic serendipity more than just dumb luck. I think you create your own charm when it comes to life."
IN 1998, Buettner was speaking at an education and technology conference in California when a woman from Japan approached him. Her company wanted him to do an educational quest for schoolchildren in Japan—would he be interested?
Buettner blew her off. But a few weeks later, the woman hopped a plane with three of her colleagues and flew to Minnesota to get Buettner's attention. It worked.
"The first thing I had to do was find an interesting mystery," Buettner recalls. "We looked at ancient bronze-age culture. They were all too esoteric."
Buettner stumbled upon his next obsession when his brother Nick turned up a World Health Organization report that said Okinawa Island had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world.
"I said, 'That's a good mystery.'"
In the spring of 2000, Buettner stood behind a low-roofed home in the tiny fishing village of Ogimi as 99-year-old Ushi Okushima showed him the herbs growing in her terraced garden. Under her gentle care, ginger, turmeric, and wild onion flourished.
Over steaming cups of green tea shared on tatami mats inside her simple home, Buettner had pestered Ushi to show him her plants. He was convinced that some exotic herb growing innocuously behind the house held the key to Ushi's longevity.
"Yes, I do have longevity foods," Ushi told him.
Now, in the garden, Buettner pointed at a wild-looking herb. "Is this it?"
"No," Ushi said.
"No, it's in the house, I'll show you later," Ushi said.
She waddled back into the house to the pantry, which held her secret to long life: a can of Spam.
Buettner laughed. Like him, the Spam had come to her all the way from Minnesota.
Everywhere, people were interested in longevity. Buettner could see it in the Web traffic following the Okinawa longevity quest. "It wasn't just kids anymore," he says. "There were dot-coms and dot-nets. So we knew that adults were interested in this."
When Buettner suggested a story on longevity hotspots to an editor at National Geographic, it was greeted with excitement.
"Now there you've got something," the editor said, urging him to do more research.
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.
With the funding in place, Buettner and his team had to choose a city. The University of Minnesota helped Spoonheim come up with the criteria: It had to be a statistically normal town that fit the national average for health indicators like cardiovascular disease and obesity, it had to be a freestanding town of 10,000 to 20,000, and it had to be within driving distance of the Twin Cities. Fifteen Minnesota cities met the criteria. Once Spoonheim ruled out college towns, 10 cities were left in the running.
Spoonheim called each of the towns and pitched the idea: Did they want to be America's first pre-fab Blue Zone city? Spoonheim gave applications to the three most enthusiastic. Then it was down to which city had the strongest commitment to the project.
On Christmas Eve, 2008, Spoonheim made a phone call. Buettner and his team had decided where to create America's first intentional Blue Zone: In Albert Lea, a picturesque community of about 18,000 souls about an hour and a half south of Minneapolis.
In January 2009, Dan Burden, a Florida native bundled in four layers under his winter coat, stepped out of a bus alongside a snow bank edging a road just outside of downtown Albert Lea. The temperature was -53 degrees. As a group of city officials and Buettner's team looked on, shivering, Burden stamped his feet for warmth and pointed at the ground. This was a great place for a sidewalk, he explained, the hot steam of his breath vanishing rapidly into the frigid air.
Burden was the first of four expert consultants called on to make over the town. By the end of his two-day visit, the city was shuffling its budgets to find money for a walking path around Fountain Lake, the town's central jewel.
As winter gave way to spring, Buettner's team launched several initiatives. They divided the Blue Zone's nine life lessons into four categories—move naturally, eat wisely, right outlook, and connect—and came up with ways for the town to adopt the changes with relative ease. Lytle worked with the school districts to revise their nutritional programs. Spoonheim assisted locally owned grocery stores in creating signs to identify healthy foods and recruited restaurants to make changes to menus.
On May 14, the auditorium of the high school gym filled with the kick-off celebration of the Vitality Project in Albert Lea. The high school cheer squad and drum line welcomed residents into the gym. A cadre of 150 volunteers clad in blue T-shirts handed out welcome packets. Dr. Brian Wansink, head of the Food Lab at Cornell University, introduced the Blue Zone concept and ways to get involved. Then residents visited booths and signed pledges.
Throughout the summer, Albert Lea put those pledges into practice. Groups of neighbors joined walking moais, meeting regularly to walk and talk. Albert Lea residents took cooking classes, planted food in community gardens, and learned how to find their purpose through a series of workshops.
By October, close to 20 percent of Albert Lea's residents had participated in the Vitality Project. An online questionnaire helped 786 residents determine their before-and-after life expectancies, which rose by an average of 2.9 years. City workers and their families lowered their health care costs by 32 percent in 10 months.
For Brian Mattson, a 39-year-old social worker, the Vitality Project launched a new way of life. Overweight by 150 pounds, Mattson typically spent evenings alone in his home, watching television and eating entire bags of Doritos. When his mom dragged him to the Vitality Project kick-off, he committed to walking with his neighbors.
"Pretty soon you start doing it regularly," Mattson says, adding that more changes then seemed possible. "It became: 'I'll eat more fruits and vegetables.'"
Now Mattson has lost 30 pounds, and he's starting to work on his social connections. Recently, he played a small part in a local theater production—something he used to love but had let fall by the wayside for nearly a decade.
Though Buettner recommends making no more than three changes at a time, the Furland family—Sue and Bob, both in their 40s, and their sons Tom, 16, and Tim, 14—decided to adopt all the changes. They planted a garden in their backyard, joined walking moais, renewed their commitments to church and volunteer activities, and consumed less meat and more grains and nuts.
"People just felt together on something," Bob says of the community response. "Everybody that was involved seemed happier when you'd go to the events."
DAN BUETTNER STRIDES into Caribou Coffee in Uptown, dressed in yuppie yogi gear: black T-shirt emblazoned with a neon Buddha, zip-up fleece bearing the insignia of lululemon athletica—the brand favored by wealthy women who do Bikram. Despite his book's admonition to show up early, Buettner arrives late—he couldn't find a parking spot.
The coffee shop is Buettner's frequent morning office, where he sweats away over the keyboard on the manuscript for his forthcoming book on happiness. Here, the coffee barista greets him by name. He orders the new hot cocoa, the one with real, rich chocolate pieces melted into milk. It's not exactly on the Blue Zones meal plan, but Buettner likes to try new things.
He carries his paper cup to a big wooden table by the front window and takes a seat. As the talk turns to his project in Albert Lea, Buettner flips open his laptop and brings up the stats from the life expectancy survey.
In a chair nearby, a 30-something man overhears. His ears perk up. He leans over and addresses Buettner.
"Hey, man, I just started following you on Twitter."
Buettner looks up, a little startled, and smiles.
"Oh," he says. "Who knows where that will lead?" He smiles. "But thanks."
Buettner's big project now is taking his Blue Zones to more cities. Already, several cities are interested in being the sites of the makeover, and a health reform corporation called Healthways has signed on as a partner.
"I've made my career out of making discoveries and making those discoveries interesting to the general population. I like doing that," Buettner says. "You can walk up a hillside and get to the top and see a beautiful sunset, but it's better if you discover that and you're with somebody else.
"I have a thrill out of recognizing something and saying, 'Isn't this amazing,'" Buettner says. "I get to do it by a factor of 10 million."
The Power of Nine
Buettner's "nine little things" aren't exactly groundbreaking. In fact, what Buettner uncovered in his global pursuit of the fountain of youth turned out to be well-established medical principles that doctors and social scientists have known about for years. Buettner's real contribution is in distilling the wisdom of traditional cultures into easy-to-follow steps—he calls them the Power Nine.
When he was traveling with Buettner in Okinawa, Greg Plotnikoff, medical director of Abbott Northwestern's integrative medicine program, was impressed with the agility of a woman in her late 80s who served her visitors green tea.
"She comes out of the kitchen area carrying a tray—on it is a beautiful teapot and teacups—and with minimal effort, carrying this tray with hot boiling water and beautiful pottery, with no assistance, she lowers herself to the floor," Plotnikoff says. "Balance and strength and flexibility were built into her daily life."
Buettner recommends finding a physical activity you like, setting a date with a friend to do it together, and making movement a regular part of your life.
Hara hachi bu
The Confucian-inspired Okinawan saying means, roughly, eat until you're 80 percent full. That's not a diet strategy—it's a way of life. Rather than stop eating once they are full, as most Americans do, Okinawans stop eating once they are no longer hungry.
Using smaller plates and tall, thin glasses makes portions seem bigger and is an effective way to painlessly cut overeating, according to Wansink, the food expert. Wansink also recommends eating slowly, savoring each bite.
Eat a plant-based diet
Strict Adventists avoid meat entirely. Sardinians and Okinawans enjoy it only occasionally—at festivals and special celebrations. Studies have shown that vegetarianism is associated with longevity.
Worried about getting enough protein? Actually, adults over age 19 only need about 0.8 grams of protein for every 2.2 lbs. of body weight—or about 1.8 to 2.8 ounces per day, according to Lytle. And there is plenty of iron in fortified grains.
To live like the people of Sardinia, Loma Linda, and Okinawa, Buettner recommends making beans and tofu the centerpieces of meals, eating four to six servings of vegetables per day, and adding nuts to your daily intake.
Okinawans enjoy sake. The shepherds of Sardinia drink wine made from Cannonau grapes. About a glass or two a day is right—any more than that will bring negative consequences that offset the health benefits of moderate drinking.
Find your purpose
Okinawans call it ikigai, Nicoyans call it plan de vida. Richard Leider, world-renowned expert on finding meaning in life, calls it "the reason to get up in the morning."
"It's not just a nice-to-have thing," says Leider. "Purpose is the golden thread that holds the other factors in vitality together—health, wellness, diet, exercise."
To find your purpose, Leider recommends asking yourself some basic questions.
"What are your gifts?" he says. "What are your passions—what do you care about? What are your values—what are environments you want to be working in? Gifts plus passions plus values equals calling or purpose."
Adventists have a ready-made de-stressor called the Sabbath. They don't do work or organized sports or homework those days. Instead, they spend time with their families, creating a sense of closeness and balance.
To lower stress in your own life, Buettner recommends reducing noise in the home by turning off the television or radio. Aim to arrive to appointments 15 minutes early—it helps cut anxiety and creates a cushion for traffic and parking time. And start a meditation practice of at least 10 minutes a day, eventually working up to 30 minutes.
If you already attend a church or spiritual center, renew your commitment by becoming more involved. If organized religion's not for you, you might consider humanist groups, like Unitarian Universalism.
Sardinians would be ashamed to place their elders in a retirement home. Okinawans pray to their ancestors each day. People who center their lives on family are generally happier, Buettner says. Create rituals and spend time together.
Find your people
Studies show that people become like one another as they spend time together. So surround yourself with people who are committed to you and who support your healthy choices. Be likeable. Identify your inner circle and invest in those friendships—find a regular time to meet and share your lives.
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