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Blue Zones: How to Live to 100 - TV Smart Talk

Written by Nell McCormack Abom | May 15, 2013 10:15 AM

How long do you want to live?  If you answered 100 years, what’s your game plan for reaching the century mark?  It might surprise you to learn that studies suggest longevity is 25 percent genetics and 75 percent lifestyle.  National Geographic explorer, researcher and author Dan Buettner traveled to five corners of the globe to report on so-called "Blue Zones," home to clusters of centenarians.

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Dan Buettner, author of "The Blue Zones"

He chronicled their secrets to living longer and healthier in his New York Times’ bestseller, “The Blue Zones.”  His follow-up book, “Thrive,” explored how individuals can maximize personal happiness, enhance vibrancy and increase longevity by adopting the Blue Zones' principles.  Buettner is our guest on a special Transforming Health edition of Smart Talk, Thursday night at 8, on witf-TV.  Share your question or comment for Dan Buettner at the bottom of this article.  You also can send an email to smarttalk@witf.org, Tweet us, or add a message on Facebook.

Buettner’s first book is a fascinating exploration of the culture and lifestyles of centenarians who live in Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, Loma Linda, California, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rico and Ikaria, Greece.

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The lifespan of residents in these five communities tend to be longer and healthier than the rest of the world’s population.  In fact, folks in these clusters live past age 90 at a rate up to three times that of Americans. “If you optimize your environment, better health and better welfare ensue,” Buettner says.  Although none of these five communities shares a single dietary or exercise routine, they do feature the Power 9 -- nine characteristics that contribute to individual health and happiness.

(I especially enjoyed the advice 102-year-old Kamada Nakazato of Okinawa shared with Buettner when he asked her the key to longevity.  She replied, "Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to people, smile.”) 

Our environment, studies show, plays a huge role in determining our health status.  A recent study found, for example, that when a person becomes obese, 57% of his or her friends will become obese and 20 percent of their friends were likely to be obese, as well.  One of the simple measures Buettner advocates is a walking audit, literally touring your community on foot, to see its potential and its liabilities when it comes to nurturing a vibrant, thriving community.

The Blue Zones Vitality Project selected the small, Midwestern community of Albert Lea, Minnesota in 2009 as a laboratory to test the theory that by changing the environment in several simple ways, residents could improve health.  For example, most Americans eat out more than 100 times a year.  The Blue Zones team got most of the restaurants in Albert Lea to switch to healthier fare on their menus while emphasizing words like “fresh” and “crispy,” not “healthy,” to nudge diners to select the better food. They also targeted schools for fitness, encouraged administrators to make sure kids didn’t have food or drinks in halls or classrooms, convinced them not to use food as a fundraiser or as a reward for performance. “Move more, eat less” became the new mantra in the Albert Lea public school system.  And, finally, the Blue Zones leaders asked local grocers to place huge signs in front of longevity-boosting choices like beans, teas and whole-grain foods.  “If you’re going to live to be 100, you’re going to want all of your best friends at the birthday party,” Buettner noted.

Did it work?  Well, over the course of three years, Albert Lea’s life expectancy increased an average of 3.1 years.  The community collectively lost 12,000 pounds.  Key employers saw an average drop of 21% in absenteeism.  And health costs for city employees fell 40%. 

Visit the Blue Zones website and find the Vitality Compass where you can plug in all kinds of information to calculate your own well-being and life expectancy.  We’ll ask Dan Buettner for advice on specific steps we can take to adopt the nine principles that promote longevity and happiness.  Together, let's make Central PA a Blue Zone.

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