Live Long and Prosper

The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest

Dan Buettner. 2008. National Geographic, Washington, D.C. 304 pages.

To fans of the sci-fi series Star Trek, the phrase “live long and prosper” is immediately recognizable as the Vulcan salutation of good will. Ordinarily we may not express this sentiment in such terms, but to have a long and healthy life is something most of us hope for: not only for ourselves but for others. National Geographic writer and explorer Dan Buettner’s 2008 book, The Blue Zones, is his attempt to move beyond wishful thinking to find out what it takes to achieve the universal aim of a long and prosperous life.

The origins of the book’s title lie in research carried out by Belgian demographer Dr. Michel Poulain in the early 2000s. Visiting the island of Sardinia to check out claims of a high proportion of centenarians, Poulain circled an area of the map that seemed to have a high concentration of long-lived people. He used blue ink. This gave rise to the term Blue Zone, later adopted by demographers. Buettner decided to visit Sardinia for himself, as well as journey to other longevity hotspots where the proportion of healthy 90- or 100-year-olds to the overall population is unusually high.

In The Blue Zones we are invited to go on the journey with Buettner, which involves listening to the stories and experiences of people who are enjoying old age and trying to understand the cultural dynamics that make it possible. As he puts it, “to learn from them, we need only be open and ready to listen.” Much of the information presented is therefore anecdotal as interviews and stories are related to the reader. He often mentions experts and associated studies, but this is not a scientific exposition. Rather, it’s a compilation of the accounts of people who have “been there, seen it and done it” when it comes to achieving a long life.

Buettner’s literal journey was to four distinct populations in widely varying geographic, social, economic, religious and political situations: the Barbagia region of the Italian island of Sardinia; the Japanese island of Okinawa; a Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda in Southern California, United States; and Nicoya on the peninsula of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. His intellectual journey was a quest to discover the common denominators of all four populations, to find “a cross-cultural distillation of the best practices of health,” he writes—“a de facto formula for longevity.”

Despite terming the factors in the formula “the Power Nine,” Buettner, to his credit, avoids trying to build a marketable system based on esoteric knowledge. Instead, he relates his findings in a straightforward way, with the aim that the various lessons learned could be adapted and applied by the average person currently living the typical Western industrialized lifestyle. Following is some of what he discovered.

The Basics: Diet and Exercise

One interview with then-102-year-old Okinawan Kamada Nakazato relates that before each meal she says “hara hachi bu.” Translated, this roughly means “eat until you are 80 percent full.” Eating less is one obvious way to cut down on excess calories and so help avoid the various health problems associated with obesity. But it’s not just quantity that counts when it comes to diet; quality is important as well. The typical Okinawan meal of stir-fried greens and tofu is a high-volume, high-fiber, highly nutritious dish, but it has only a fraction of the calories of a typical fast-food meal.

Another of the findings is that three of the populations eat only a little meat—in some cases only on special occasions. The exception is the religious community of Seventh Day Adventists at Loma Linda, many of whom are strict vegetarians. The diets of the various groups are dominated by beans, whole grains and vegetables. The Okinawans also eat a lot of tofu and the Adventists typically eat plenty of nuts and soy products.

Remaining physically active also seems to be a factor in achieving a long life. Buettner relates the example of 103-year-old Sardinian Giovanni Sannai, who had spent much of his life walking several miles a day while looking after his sheep, and who even managed to beat a man 60 years his junior at arm wrestling. There is also the amusing tale of Ellsworth Wareham from Loma Linda, who in his early 90s was busy digging holes and sinking posts to build a garden fence, only to end up in open-heart surgery four days later—not as a patient but as a surgeon! Many of the people interviewed had built into their daily routines frequent exercise, whether walking, gardening or simply doing household chores by hand without labor-saving gadgets.

It’s interesting that a campaign in England and Wales called Change4Life, meant to improve the health of these populations, has as its slogan “Eat well, Move more, Live longer.” Similar slogans are promoted by various communities in the United States: “Eat Smart, Move More” (the State of North Carolina), or “Eat Well, Live Well, Move More” (Chicago, Illinois).

The Benefits of Family

Many of the centenarians interviewed were still actively participating members of their extended family. Buettner tells the story of Maria Angelica Sale from Sardinia, who had been involved in raising her grandchildren and specifically in helping to set expectations for them to succeed academically. When she became very ill at 100 and was lying on her supposed deathbed, she chided one of her grandchildren (who was failing as a student at the time), insisting that she would not die until he had got his act together and finished university. Maria recovered and her grandson returned to school and graduated. Such anecdotes lead Buettner to make the point that “it would be hard to overestimate the importance of family in the Blue Zone. . . . Grandparents provide love, childcare, financial help, wisdom, expectations and motivations to perpetuate traditions and push children to succeed.”

This is not a one-way street however. The older generation in turn receive love and emotional and physical support from their families. Of the 50 or so centenarians that Buetttner interviewed on Sardinia, all but one had a daughter or granddaughter actively caring for them. He notes that there is a culture of respect for elders in the Sardinian Blue Zone and asks the question, “Is there a connection between respecting elders and longevity?” His answer: “Absolutely.”

In Costa Rica, 100-year-old Abuela Panchita, whose 80-year-old son cycled to visit her every day, tells of how she used to care for her parents: “It’s like this. . . . Those who honor their parents are rewarded by God.” This seems to be a reference to the oft-overlooked fifth of the Ten Commandments, which says “Honor your father and your mother as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long . . .” (Deuteronomy 5:16).

A Reason for Living

A further benefit of family responsibility is that it provides a purpose to life. Of course, other factors help in this regard too. On Okinawa, 102-year-old Kamada Nakazato was the village noro, a spiritual advisor to the townspeople. On one trip, Buettner met up with Dr. Suzuki, who was assessing Kamada’s health. “I think the fact that she still retains her duties as a noro is very important,” Suzuki observed. “Roles are very important here in Okinawa. They call it ikigai—the reason for waking up in the morning.”

Life for the typical Okinawan peasant, such as Kamada and her family, was tough. Historically all of the family continued to work and support each other into old age. Buettner explains, “The idea of retirement never occurred to the Okinawan peasant. To this day there’s not a word for it in their language.”

The comparatively young 75-year-old Tonino Tola, still actively working as a Sardinian shepherd, further illustrates the importance of having a purpose for living: “Without the animals and the work it takes to raise them, I would be sitting in my house doing nothing; I would have little purpose in life. . . . I like it when my kids come home and they find something here that I have produced.”

How different this is than our usual experience in the Western world. Buettner does a good job of contrasting his own experience of American society with those he has observed in the Blue Zones. On a personal level we can all strive to maintain a purpose in life, but that becomes so much easier to achieve when living in family units and in a society where older people are valued, honored and respected. One area that Buettner could have emphasized more is the need to go beyond the action an individual can take, because a fundamental change at a deeper structural level of society is ultimately what’s needed.

The Value of Faith

Buettner does argue effectively that, generally speaking, people of faith are healthier and happier than their counterparts. He points to research focusing on Seventh Day Adventists, among others, which offers several reasons for this. One is that churchgoers are less likely to engage in harmful behaviors such as smoking. And along with a code of behavior comes the peace of mind that “right living” can bring. Again, while this can be seen as a benefit to the individual, Buettner fails to make the link between the right behavioral standards and the impact upon wider society. A cohesive family unit that includes a place and purpose for the elderly, and that values work and contributing, is a basis for a different approach to life. It is outward-looking rather than just self-seeking.

Another benefit of faith is that church services and daily meditation and prayer allow for self-reflection and stress relief, resulting from the opportunity to unload a lot of the worries that many people carry around. Ironically, in Western societies these are often byproducts of the pursuit of material acquisition and the practice of competition over cooperation in an increasingly individualized society where selfish motives are considered acceptable; it’s often the case that “more is less.”

Why is faith so effective in dealing with personal anxieties? A look at the Judeo-Christian foundation for faith, the teachings of Jesus found in the Bible, offers some clues. For instance, Jesus emphasized the value of focusing more on eternal truths than daily concerns. Later He said; “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

While the rest referred to here can certainly describe what daily prayer can do in relieving anxiety, one of Jesus’ teachings included a weekly rest. The fourth of the Ten Commandments calls for resting physically from work on “the Sabbath,” or the seventh day of the week. This biblically instituted period of time, for the most highly populated areas in the world, runs from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday. Buettner relates the value of this “sanctuary in time” as described by a Seventh Day Adventist pastor from Loma Linda, whom Buettner interviewed for his book. The pastor, Randy Roberts, noted that his staff and students look forward to the Sabbath as a time when they can leave off work and study; rejuvenate; and spend time with family, friends and God. “When you have that as a pattern in your life 52 times a year, it can make a big difference,” says Roberts. And since the Sabbath also points to God as Creator and to humans as the created, Roberts advises, “It reminds us that we don’t need to have all the answers . . . and that we are dependent on God. That also is part of the sanctuary.”

What If?

In concluding his book, Buettner issues one caveat: the factors he has considered are associated with longevity and not necessarily causal. However, he notes that by adopting them we will be stacking the deck in our favor. Buettner says many people could be falling short of their potential maximum lifespan by up to 10 years and asks: “What if you could follow a simple program that could help you feel younger, lose weight, maximize your mental sharpness, and keep your body working as long as possible?” The “program” is not a system that pretends to offer insights into altering the biological process of aging—available as a pill, lotion or medical procedure—but simply the adoption of a lifestyle that has been gleaned from the collective experiences of many of the world’s longest-lived people. But as he also acknowledges in his preface, “Of course this information will do you no good unless you put it into practice.”