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What You Can Learn From Communities Where People Live Past 100

Insights & Ideas Team •  September 29, 2014 | Home and Family

Will you live to be 100? And if you do, will you feel more like a spry 75?

National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author and explorer Dan Buettner has dedicated his career to identifying the healthy lifestyle habits that help some cultures live longer and better lives. The secrets he’s uncovered just might help you live a fulfilling life at 100 and beyond.

Buettner first became interested in longevity in 2002, when National Geographic asked him to find pockets of centenarians around the world and explore why they lived so long. Working with demographers, anthropologists and sociologists, Buettner identified five regions where people have longer lifespans: Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California.

Buettner calls the hotspots of human health and vitality “Blue Zones.” In these communities, elders live to record-setting ages with vim and vigor because of common diet and lifestyle habits. Since writing about them in National Geographic, he published the New York Times bestseller Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer. His TED Talk, “How to live to be 100+,” created a sensation with more than 2.1 million views.

“It’s wrong-minded to find individual people and ask them their secrets. You need to find the culture that lives a long time and find out their secrets—their dietary intake, cultural idiosyncrasies, social determinates,” he says. “The overarching principal is that people in these places didn’t try to live to be 100. Longevity happened to them. They happen to live in a culture that made the right choices for them.”

But there are things we can learn from those cultures. Their lifestyle choices are the nine lessons that Buettner encourages us to emulate:

1. Move naturally. No one in the Blue Zones sits at a desk all day and then tries to make up for it with 30 minutes at the gym. Instead, they are constantly nudged into activity and walking, through a lack of conveniences like elevators and drive-throughs.

2. Know your purpose. To the Japanese it’s ikigai, while Costa Ricans call it plan de vida. It’s your reason for being, or why you wake up in the morning. For many Americans, that reason is work. For members of Blue Zones cultures, it’s a lifelong responsibility to help the family or contribute to the community.

3. Downshift. All cultures experience stress, but cultures with excessive longevity have daily rituals that help them reduce stress and the inflammatory diseases associated with it. Strategies range from prayer and meditation to enjoying happy hour with friends. “A daily nap is associated with a third less heart disease,” Buettner points out.

4. 80% rule. Long-lived people not only avoid overeating, they stop eating when they feel 80 percent full.

5. Plant slant. Cultures with the most centenarians subsist on a diet high in vegetables and fruit and low in meat. Buettner believes that the less meat and refined sugars there are in your diet, the longer you can live.

6. Wine @ 5. Most Blue Zone cultures enjoy one or two drinks a day, especially while relaxing among friends and family.

7. Belong. Based on his research, Buettner estimates that attending some type of faith-based service once a week can add up to 14 years of life expectancy.

8. Loved Ones First. Residents of Blue Zones tend to make their multigenerational families their top priority.

9. Right Tribe. Spending time with friends is the most significant thing you can do to add more years to your life and more life to your years—as long as you hang out with healthy people.

Applying Blue Zone Practices to American Cities

In keeping with the theory that healthy communities produce healthy citizens, Buettner is taking evidence-based policy changes to communities across the U.S. The Blue Zones Project brings citizens, schools, employers, and community leaders together to collaborate on policies and programs that engender better health.

“Our health care system is aligned with making sick people less sick. Hospitals and doctors all make money when you show up already sick,” notes Buettner. But a few innovative health care providers have recognized the importance of health maintenance and have shifted the focus from disease treatment to disease prevention.

Through an innovative partnership with Healthways and Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa, Buettner introduced the Blue Zones Project to 10 cities in Iowa and had tremendous success in reducing obesity and lowering health costs.

“It’s hard to get a population of 100,000 to go on a diet and stick to it,” says Buettner. “We don’t try to change behaviors, we change the environment.” The Blue Zones Project coordinated private funding and public endorsements to optimize social networks and then built environments for a healthier overall lifestyle. “We’ve found that if it’s easy to walk somewhere, the entire city’s activity level goes up 30 percent. That’s easier than trying to convince people to go to the gym.”

In Waterloo, Iowa, for example, a multi-million dollar road construction project included landscaped sidewalks to encourage walking. Employees of one participating manufacturer lost a combined 1,661 pounds in one year, resulting in 56 employees moving from pre-diabetic to normal range.

Muscatine, Iowa, added six public vegetable gardens, and seven local restaurants took the pledge to increase healthy options on their menus. Employees of Algona’s Municipal Utilities saw a 29 percent increase in healthy cholesterol levels.

Applying the Blue Zones Lessons to Your Life

So how can the lessons of the world’s Blue Zones help you live longer and enjoy a better quality of life in your later years?

You can start by taking the Blue Zones Vitality Compass survey, which calculates your biological age, your overall life expectancy and your healthy life expectancy. The difference between the latter two are those years when you might require long-term care for lifestyle-related illnesses such as diabetes, COPD or the aftermath of a stroke.

Once you’ve completed the Blue Zones Vitality Compass, you can sign up for Vitality Coach, a service that sends reminders and tracks when you make better dietary and lifestyle choices. Over the course of the six-week program—about the time it takes to establish healthy habits—you can watch your choices translate into more days added to your healthy life expectancy.

Buettner also suggests maintaining a sense of purpose during retirement. It’s been said that the two most dangerous years of your life are the year you are born, because of infant mortality, and the year you retire, because of a sudden lack of life purpose.

“Here we have a retirement mentality of ‘we’ve worked, now the world owes us,’” says Buettner. In Blue Zone cultures, on the other hand, “older people are imbued with a sense of responsibility to help raise the kids and support the community.” While working on a Blue Zones Project with the state of Hawaii, he has encountered the word kuleana—defined as a sense of privilege and responsibility—that helps older Hawaiians feel important and involved.

Today’s retirement can last 30 years or more. If you’ve saved and invested adequately, that’s a long time to fill with leisure activities. Buettner suggests conducting a personal inventory of what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing and where you can find an outlet for those activities. Books like The Power of Purpose by Richard Leider or Refirement by James Gambone can help lead you through the exercise.

The results will help you identify outlets that let you stay engaged in your family and community and become your new ikigai—your reason for waking up in the morning. “Get in the habit of volunteering,” Buettner adds. “It sounds cliché, but it’s so powerful.”

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