Joys of ageing
New York Times best-selling author Dan Buettner shares about longevity and happiness from meeting some of the oldest people living on Earth.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow, has met some of the oldest people who live on Earth by visiting areas he called the “Blue Zones”, and from them, he has picked up a thing or two about longevity and happiness. He reported his interest in his cover story for National Geographic Magazine’s November 2005 edition, “Secrets to Longevity”. And in April 2008, he published his book “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Have Lived the Longest”.
In Singapore for an exclusive talk by Treasure Bay Bintan, an upcoming integrated destination, Buettner shares some secrets to Ageless Online:
You and your team of researchers sought out hotspots of human health and vitality or what you termed Blue Zones. Why on earth were you keen to research on ageing in the first place?
It started in the spring of 2000 when I was leading a series of interactive, educational projects called “Quests” in which a team of Internet-linked scientists investigated some of Earth’s great puzzles. One of the Quests brought me to Okinawa (Japan) where I learned about their extreme longevity and small rate of heart disease. This initial interaction sparked my interest in how a community could surpass everyone else in age and what their secrets were. This led to what you see today.
When did you do the research and how long did it take you and your team to complete it? How many people in each of the hotspots did you talk to?
Research really started while travelling around the world completing my “Quests” in 2000. In 2005, we arrived in Okinawa to do a deeper dive into what the secrets of longevity really were. We continued our research until 2008 when my first book came out which outlined the nine lessons of these five Blue Zones we found. After travelling thousands of miles, speaking to hundreds of people and researching birth and death records of entire communities, we are still ever searching for the next Blue Zone.
You gave a TEDxTC talk in September 2009 about some common longevity myths such as living to be 100 and treatments that can slow ageing. Are these myths still myths today with healthcare improving leaps and bounds, and life expectancies increasing around the world?
The most common myth associated with these treatments is that ageing can be reversed and that there is a quick single fix to health problems. A person cannot take a pill and suddenly be happy and healthy. They must make small changes in their everyday life and surround themselves with the right support to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Only then will they start seeing positive changes and enhance their longevity.
What are five lessons you learned from all your research?
From all of our research, we have found that there are not five but instead nine lessons which we discovered in every Blue Zone in the world. They are:
1) Move naturally – The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron or run marathons. Instead, their environments nudge them into moving without thinking about it.
2) Purpose – Why do you wake up in the morning? Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
3) Down shift – Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. The world’s longest-lived people have routines to shed that stress.
4) 80-percent rule – “Hara hachi bu” – the Okinawans say this mantra before meals as a reminder to stop eating when their stomachs are 80-percent full.
5) Plant-slant – The cornerstone of most centenarian diets? Beans. They typically eat meat – mostly pork – only five times per month.
6) Wine @ 5 – Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers, especially if they share those drinks with friends.
7) Belong – Attending faith-based services four times per month – no matter the denomination – adds up to 14 years of life expectancy.
8) Loved ones first – Centenarians put their families first. They keep ageing parents and grandparents nearby, commit to a life partner and invest in their children.
9) Right tribe – The world’s longest-lived people chose or were born into social circles that support healthy behaviours.
With people now saying plant-based foods doesn’t give all the nutrients and too much tofu is not good, how then do we get past this?
You can get more than enough nutrients from a plant-based diet if you include beans and nuts. Many great recipe ideas can be found on our recipes page. As far as tofu is concerned it is important to have everything in moderation. If every meal you eat is tofu then you should start implementing other substitutes.
Have you decided to revisit your research for an update or even add more hotspots to the already five? What are the five now? Any more books you are planning to author on ageing?
The five current areas are Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan and Nicoya, Costa Rica.
I do still keep in touch with individuals in our Blue Zones. We are always searching for another Blue Zone but have yet to find any that shares the extreme longevity of the current five.
A new book is in the works to be released in the next year. It will focus on the diets of the world’s longest-lived as well as the community work we have been doing throughout the US.
Anything you learned particularly on older women?
I spent a lot of time with the women of Okinawa who are the oldest in the world. They rely on plant-based diets, they garden, enjoy the sun and keep a close group of friends known as their “Moai”. These safety nets lend financial and emotional support in times of need and give all of their members the stress-shedding security of knowing that there is always someone there for them.
They also have an attitude. They’ve learned to be likable and to keep younger people in their company well into their old age.
I understand you initiated a Blue Zone project in the US to get people following the principles of living longer. What have been some milestones and how can such a project be initiated in say Asia?
We have gone into many communities throughout the US and are continuing to expand. We have worked with policymakers and Government to help create an environment that nurtures a healthy lifestyle. This approach takes the pressure off of the individuals to make large changes and puts it on the community as a whole to make small changes. We have seen great milestones such as the smoking rate of the beach cities of California dropping 30 percent and obesity rates dropping 14 percent in a short time.
To initiate a project like this in Asia, the community needs to come together and decide that they would like to get healthier as a whole. After this, they can contact local leaders and policymakers encouraging systematic changes to be made.
Anything else to add?