Buettner pinpoints Earth’s ‘blue zones’ where people live longer

06/14/2013 1:59 PM

06/14/2013 6:17 PM

How does Dan Buettner stay healthy? For one thing, his job – writing and speaking about longevity hot spots – keeps him busy.

Buettner, 52, is author of “The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” ($14.95, National Geographic).

It is a one of several books he has written about people whose lifestyles and locales – “blue zones” – have kept them alive and kicking longer than most of us.

The essentials of what he’s saying are at www.bluezones.com, the online component of what has become a mini-industry and a mission for Minneapolis-based Buettner. In an interview, he talked about …

WHAT PROMPTED HIS RESEARCH: “It’s a scientific approach to longevity, knowing that only about 20 percent of how long you live is genes; the other 80 percent is lifestyle. The National Geographic’s Expeditions Council and the National Institute of Aging wanted me to learn about demographically-confirmed areas where these (long-living) people are. It was a three-year, half-million-dollar project to statistically identify them through birth and death records, etc.

“Once these pockets of people are identified, you can reverse-engineer the long-life formula, and that’s what we set out to do.

“It was kind of an uber-assignment for me to research and write.

“The point I try to make is that there’s no ‘silver bullet’ – no magical vegetable or supplement. We found it was a swarm of ‘silver buckshot’ that adds up to extraordinary longevity in five places.”

THE LONG-LIVING PLACES: “There are five places. For women, it’s the main island of Okinawa, Japan. For men, it’s the Nuoro highlands of Sardinia. For the best chance of reaching 90 or 95, it’s the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. The longest-living Americans are Seventh-day Adventists who are concentrated around Loma Linda, Calif., and the strictest Adventists live about 10 years longer than their counterparts.

“The final blue zone is Ikaria, Greece (an island in the Aegean Sea). It is not only among the places for people who live longest, but there’s hardly any dementia there. The team that followed up on my work surveyed people there who were older than 70 and tested for physical and cognitive functioning.

“None of these spry centenarians tried to make it to 100; it just happened. But they live in an environment and near foods that enabled this to happen.

“I tell the story of Stamatis Moraitis, who lived in America and had lung cancer. He moved back home to Ikaria – and 37 years later is alive at 100 and, without chemotherapy, drugs or therapy, is cancer-free. The kicker: On a trip back here to find his doctors, he learned they were all dead.”

THE ROLE OF LIFESTYLE: “Ikaria is historically a melting pot, with Roman, Greek and Turkish influences. There’s no genetic purity you can point to. There’s nothing in these people that the people 8 miles away on the island of Samos don’t have.

“Ikaria has been known for centuries for radon baths; there are high levels of ground radiation on the north side of the island. It was a health destination in ancient times. That’s one theory.

“But I believe people on Ikaria adhere to the Mediterranean diet more resolutely than any other people on Earth. For decades, every day, every person there drinks three kinds of tea in rotation – an oregano tea, a sage tea and a thyme tea – with local honey. We had the teas tested; all have anti-inflammatory properties and are diuretics, which lower blood pressure.

“They also grow and tend their own gardens, are physically active, socially engaged, and don’t live by the clock.”

ISOLATION NOT A FACTOR: “Not all ‘blue zone’ places are remote. Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula is a beach destination. Naha, Okinawa, is a city of maybe 1.4 million. At Loma Linda, Calif, you get off the exit and see a Weiner Hut and Del Taco. They live in California smog, but they live longer than the rest of us by decades.

Longevity can also be as a tourist draw: “At Nicoya, a half-dozen ‘blue zone’ businesses have popped up.”

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