Dan Buettner is a National Geographic fellow and New York Times bestselling author who has discovered the secrets to happiness and longevity in what he has dubbed “blue zones,” or parts of the world where people are not only living longer, but living with less disease and more satisfaction.
Heading into the new year, Buettner is offering readers a four-week challenge to create meaningful and lasting change. Here’s part of what he told me on this weeks’ News Not Noise Podcast, edited for clarity:
Why do you think now is a good time to take on a new challenge?
Well, in the first week of January, about 80 million Americans will make new year's resolutions. And by the first part of February, about 68 million of those will have forgotten those resolutions. So at a time of year when we're thinking about trying to make changes in our lives, why not try something new? Instead of trying to change your behavior, which often works in the short run, but universally fails in the long run, why not engineer your life, set it up so that the healthy choice becomes unconscious? [Then] you have something that lasts for a change.
What is a blue zone and what can we learn from your discoveries?
It started out as an effort funded by the National Institutes on Aging and then on assignment with National Geographic to, in a sense, reverse engineer longevity. So instead of looking for a “fountain of youth” in a test tube or a Petri dish, we hired demographers: people who study populations. There's a certain type of demographer who specializes [in] old age.
Over the course of about three years, we found five of the statistically longest lived areas in the world. Okinawa, Japan [has the] longest lived women. Sardinia, Italy, the longest lived men. Ikaria, Greece, a population that lives about eight years longer than Americans do, but without any discernible dementia. The Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica where people have about half the rate of middle-aged mortality, but they spend one fifteenth the amount we do on healthcare per capita. In the United States, among the Seventh Day Adventists in and around Loma Linda, California.
And these are people who've achieved the outcomes we wanted: living up to 10 years longer than the rest of us, but without diabetes, cancer, heart disease, [or] dementia that really disable our lives [and] makes life really not worth living. These people are living long lives, staying sharp to the very end, and leaving a lot left over. Our projects found the common denominators, and remarkably, no matter where you go in the world, where you see long-lived healthy people, they're all doing the same thing under the same organizing principle. And that's what I've captured for National Geographic, and then distilled in sort of an actionable prescriptive in the Blue Zones channel.
You have said socializing and community are key to longevity. But that's not so easy, especially now. How do we achieve that in a COVID world?
We spend over a hundred billion a year on diets, and we spend a lot of time and effort measuring our food and restricting ourselves. And I just argue that if you took those same resources and effort and focused it on building or curating the right social network, we have a much better outcome.
Building that circle of friends, three or four friends who you can count on, on a bad day, whose idea of recreation is, you know, walking, playing pickleball, or gardening. Something active.
We have a population of people who've achieved it, and populations like Okinawa, Japan, where they have this social practice known as a Moai. People proactively surround themselves with four or five people who have these characteristics. Friends have a big impact on how we move through life. So, you know, I recommend that this new year's, [we] start thinking about rebuilding that immediate social network.
To hear the rest of Dan’s advice on Blue Zones and how to live your longest, best life, check out the News Not Noise Podcast.