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No magic pill for living till 100, but there are nine lessons we can learn: Dan Buettner – Times of India

Dan Buettner has spent years researching Blue Zones, the five places in the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives. With his documentary on the secrets of longevity creating quite a buzz, he spoke to Sunday Times about what centenarians can teach us
Have you uncovered the magic pill to a long life?
No, what I did discover is that the key to health and happiness is not a silver bullet but instead a silver buckshot. There is no fountain of youth or magic pill that we can take to live long, healthy, happy lives. It takes many small changes to create an environment that curates healthy living. There are populations that have achieved the outcomes we’d like that we can emulate.
What are the common factors that have helped people in places like Okinawa, Sardinia and Loma Linda live till 100 and beyond?
We found nine evidence-based common denominators among all places. We call it the Power9.
1. Move Naturally: The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
2. Purpose: The Okinawans call it ‘Ikigai’ and the Nicoyans call it ‘plan de vida’; for both, it translates to “why I wake up in the morning”. Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
3. Down Shift: Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.
4. 80% Rule: ‘Hara hachi bu’ — the 2500 Confucian mantra that Okinawans say before a meal reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and don’t eat for the rest of the day.
5. Plant Slant: Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat — mostly pork — is eaten on average only five times per month. Serving sizes are 3-4 oz (85-115 gm), about the size of a card deck.
6. Wine at 5: People in all Blue Zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends. And no, you can’t save up all weekend and have 14 drinks on Saturday.
7. Belong: All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community. Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.
8. Loved Ones First: Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping ageing parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (it lowers disease and mortality rates of children too). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to three years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (they’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).
9. Right Tribe: The world’s longest-lived people chose — or were born into — social circles that supported healthy behaviours. Okinawans created ‘moais’, groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So, the social networks of long-lived people have favourably shaped their health behaviours.
So we can skip gym, eat carbs and still live long if we have good friends to hang with?
It’s reframing how we look at those things. It’s difficult for many to keep a gym routine and our bodies weren’t designed to sit all day at a desk job and move for an hour at the gym in the evening. We need natural movement often throughout the day. Carbs have gotten a bad reputation because jelly beans and black beans both have carbs but they are obviously not the same for our health. Curating a group of healthy friends whose idea of a good time is getting outside for a hike or enjoying a plant-based dinner and listening/supporting each other is a lot more useful.
India is seeing soaring rates of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and cardiac events. What are the changes we need to make?
Short term changes should really start on an individual level. Eat dinner as a family at the table (not in front of the TV), serve yourself at the counter, find a handful of plant-based items your family loves and add them to your cooking rotation. Keep salty snacks and sugary drinks out and put fruit and healthy snacks (nuts) on the counter. Get natural movement throughout the day and encourage your entire family to join you. Long-term changes need the local government or employer to get behind. For example, creating walkable and bikeable cities that aren’t based around cars but pedestrians.
Why the term “blue zone”?
The term Blue Zones came about as the demographers we work with, Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain began identifying the regions with the highest concentration of male centenarians. As they zeroed in on the cluster of villages in Sardinia they drew circles on the map. The only pen they had was blue. Because of this we began referring to these longevity spots as Blue Zones.
You have taken on not just the powerful fast food industry but also the anti-ageing industry that sells us cosmetics, drugs, gym memberships and new kinds of “health” foods every year. What kind of resistance did you face when you tried to recreate the Blue Zone environment in the United States?
People in the United States really value personal choice and there was fear that what we wanted to do would take away many of their choices. But, after some education, we showed that we wanted to do the exact opposite. Instead of taking away their choice to drive to the supermarket we wanted to also give them the choice to ride their bike, instead of taking away the choice of buying a salty snack we wanted to give them the choice to buy fresh fruits and vegetables as well. Again, it goes back to the environment and creating an area where the healthy choice is the easy choice.
You say in the documentary that if someone is obese and ill in the US, they have their surroundings to blame. Can you explain? We have been told health, weight loss are a question of self-discipline and control.
Self-discipline is like a muscle and muscle fatigues. That is why diets and exercise don’t work very well for human beings at a population level. If you get 100 people on a diet today, you will lose about 10 of them within three months. You’ll lose about 90% of them within seven months and you will lose almost all of them in three years. Our brains are hardwired for novelty. We like new things; we run out of gas. We lose our disciplines. No diet in the history of the world has ever worked for more than about 3% of the people who started for after, after two years. They’re good short term strategies. They sell a lot of books. They will sell programs, but they really don’t work. Exercise programs have a similar recidivism curve and so do people who try to take supplements to get healthy. Even if you had a pill that would make you healthier, which we probably don’t, at least proactively, people wouldn’t take it long enough to make a difference. So it is all about setting up the environment for health and wellness to ensue rather than something to be pursued.
In your book and documentary you have described Singapore as a Blue Zone 2.0. How have they achieved this in such a short time, in an urban environment, that we have so far seen only in isolated, rural pockets across the world?
The government of Singapore made the decision that they wanted to see a change. Using a wide range of policies, it discourages smoking, subsidizes healthy foods, and provides parks and public transportation easily accessible to everyone. Largely as a result, the tiny nation has achieved one of the world’s highest rates of health and life expectancy at 84 years. Its laws on drugs and guns may seem draconian, but this nation of 5.5 million suffered only 19 deaths from overdoses in 2019, compared to more than 100,000 in the US, and only three deaths from gun violence compared to our 49,000.
What habits of the Blue Zone have you adopted?
I try to live out all of the blue zones principles as best I can. I’m plant based and no longer eat meat. I know a few hours more of socializing will be better than a few more hours of work so you won’t find me working after 5pm. When I am working, I take many of my calls while walking. I host dinner parties for my friends weekly. I live in a walkable community where I can walk to the store or out to dinner.

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