Dan Buettner is walking and talking in downtown Minneapolis. Back in London, on the other end of our call, I’m sitting at a desk and immediately realise my mistake and try to sit-cross legged.
“I’m crossing my legs!” I say at my screen, seeking approval. “Like an Okinawan!”
“You should be sitting on the floor,” shoots back Buettner. “But I guess you can have half a point.”
The 63-year-old has a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye. It’s the kind that one associates with the centenarians all over the globe, those that Buettner has made his life’s mission to celebrate.
His quest has taken him to Okinawa in Japan, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Ikaria in Greece, Sardinia in Italy and Loma Linda in the United States. And what is it that connects these places? Full point if you said they’re all Blue Zones – and all home to an unusually high number of people who live to 100.
The term Blue Zone was first coined in a 2004 academic paper by Michel Poulain and Giovanni Mario Pes, who had been studying longevity in Sardinia. Buettner, an explorer, author and public speaker (who also holds three Guinness World Records for endurance cycling) went on the hunt for more areas with a high density of centenarians, and brought the concept to the mainstream in his series of articles in National Geographic and books.
Building on that, the recent Netflix series, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, has sent the concept stratospheric, introducing many more people to the disparate places that seem to hold the key to living a long life and throwing light on how they do it. The series zooms in on the five places originally identified by Buettner and reveals a sixth – Singapore, the Asian city-state with an average life expectancy of 84 and the newest member of the Blue Zone fraternity.
Buettner laughs about the sudden surge of interest in his project, or ikigai (a Japanese concept referring to something that gives a person a sense of purpose, a reason for living). “I’d like to say that like every overnight success, it only took me 20 years,” he says.
When he set out to find the secret of longevity Buettner hoped it would be a herb, or a shared compound in the water. Something simple that could be packaged and disseminated to the rest of us. It took a year to realise there was no silver bullet. And another five to work out that in trying to live longer, we in the West were doing the very opposite of what they do in the Blue Zones.
“These people never tried to live a long time. There’s no dieting. There’s no CrossFit, gym memberships or triathlons. There’s no brilliant Instagram influencer telling them what to do. They’re not taking supplements. But they’re outliving us.”
It’s not just that they live a long time. Blue Zone inhabitants report lower levels of the chronic diseases so prevalent in other communities. It’s not just life span, it’s health span too.
Their lives are at odds with the Silicon Valley obsession with living forever, so graphically illustrated by Bryan Johnson, the tech entrepreneur who spends millions to remain forever young, says Buettner. Johnson has – reportedly – slowed the pace of ageing by 31 years, thanks to a regimen of restricted diet and intense exercise, as well as injecting his own son’s plasma into himself.
It’s a way of living that puzzles Buettner. “It’s like prolonging a sh**ty life; maybe he’ll be successful, but what’s the point? Shooting himself up with his child’s blood! That’s not the life I want. I want to sit around with friends and drink wine and connect humanly and eat good food on the Aegean coast under a grape trellis.”
Spoiler alert: yep, the Greek island of Ikaria exemplifies Buettner’s favourite Blue Zone lifestyle. It’s a culture that likes to party, encouraging people to get together to drink red wine, eat delicious food, and dance and laugh the night away.
“I’ll be there next week!” he exclaims.
Buettner goes to all the Blue Zones every year, as well as trying to find new ones – such as Singapore. Earlier this year he was in Japan, and he seems cautiously optimistic that he’s found another area that what he terms the Standardised American Diet has yet to spoil.
If you’re familiar with the original Blue Zones you’ll know that while the details of their cultures vary wildly – the red-wine-loving Ikarians share a Blue Zone platform with the teetotal Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California – what unites them all is an emphasis on a sense of social connection, purpose and a low-stress outlook.
They eat wisely and move naturally; physical activity is embroidered into the fabric of everyday life. Other things in common include diets that are 95 per cent plant-based – all have a preponderance of whole grains, greens, tuberous veg (sweet potatoes or potatoes), nuts and beans.
Still, how often do people badger Buettner for the golden equation? “Often!” he shoots back.
We live in a time of social media gurus, and he has become one in his own right. Next year he will host a retreat with Despite refusing to dish out diet advice, there is one surprising Blue Zone habit that he says we should all get on board with. You might not like it though. Buettner firmly believes that the best thing any of us can do immediately is to curate our circle of friends – cutting it if necessary.
Studies have shown that if your best friends are obese and unhealthy there’s a strong chance you will be overweight too. Similarly, if your friends are active, eating mainly plant-based foods and happy, that has a measurable impact on your own behaviours for years, says Buettner.
“And that’s a much more dependable, cheaper and enjoyable way to pursue longevity then all of this cr*p that’s marketed to us – new diets or exercise programmes – all of which run out of gas for most people within two years.”
Yes, but it’s hard to make friends in middle-age, is what he frequently hears. Nonsense, he says: “If people poured the same time and money as they do into fad diets and exercise regimes, they might be surprised.”
Buettner goes so far as to suggest actively courting acquaintances who have healthy habits. “Invite him or her out for lunch. You’ve got to put yourself out there, but the payoff is huge and measurable.”
The Blue Zones website even has a checklist of what to look for in a new friend. It asks, is this person’s idea of recreation sitting around watching TV or going out to the pub, or is their idea of recreation playing pickleball, or walking or cycling. It also asks, does this person care about me on a bad day? Is this person vegan or vegetarian?
Buettner has friends whose diets are almost wholly plant-based because of him. However, it’s the one area on which he’s had pushback from the public. “People who are obsessed with meat come down on me pretty hard. But that’s about it.”
My own annoyance with the Blue Zones is that they are all located in far warmer climates than the UK. I’m sure I’d be more content if I didn’t have to deal with northern hemisphere winters every year and the seasonally-induced bouts of depression (SAD) that can go with it.
Buettner concedes that Blue Zones do tend to be at the 20th parallel but, importantly, not the tropics. “They’re where people can get out into the garden and grow fresh fruits and vegetables – not where they might die prematurely from infectious diseases.”
The geographical location means that people in Blue Zones generally have two or three growing seasons a year; so vegetables, beans and grains are plentiful all year long; in northern climates, after the August harvest things get a bit lean. “So there’s a lot of pickles, which are high in sodium, as well as cured meats. And that’s what people develop a taste for.”
The original Blue Zones may represent the continuation of hundreds of years of acquired cultural traits, but in a globalised world, Buettner believes we can all take on the lessons about longevity they offer us.
And that includes not focusing too much on fresh fruit and veg. “People think they need fresh fruits and vegetables to be healthy. But you solve about 90 per cent of the problem with beans and grains. It’s often about peasant foods, but knowing how to make them taste delicious.”
He cites the Costa Rican “three sisters” dish of beans, squash and corn together, as providing all the amino acids we need and without the cholesterol or saturated fat found in animal products.
Mediterranean diets, meanwhile, favour beans and pasta. “Home made minestrone or delicious rosemary chickpea pie with fresh greens,” enthususes Buettner. The Asians have tofu, “which is cheap”.
The focus in the West on fresh fruit and veg puts some people off. “They’re too expensive,” he says. “You should go with what’s easy, cheap, tastes delicious and familiar and go from there.”
In 2009 Buettner experimented with replicating a Blue Zone in the midwest town of Albert Lea, Minnesota. Resources were poured into making permanent changes. A trail around the lake is still there – and still attracting lots of visitors. The four community gardens remain too, as do the sidewalks, created to connect people wishing to walk downtown.
“There’s a mandate that when a new building goes up, the sidewalk needs to connect to the rest of downtown, so they’re continuing on the Blue Zone journey. We changed their environment.”
Buettner believes that the creation of healthier environments generally needs more government intervention.
He singles out Blue Zone newbie Singapore – where in just over 60 years, two decades has been added to the average life expectancy (now nearly 84) – as a good example of what can be achieved with a more paternalistic approach.
“It produces the highest health-adjusted life expectancy in the world,” he says. “And they’ve done that by eliminating smoking, taxing junk food and sugar, subsidising healthy food like brown rice, taxing car ownership and driving and subsidising walking and public transportation. And lo and behold, they have a much slimmer population with much lower rates of chronic disease – and they’re happier as well.”
What’s made such intervention possible is that Singapore sees its greatest resource as its people. “It’s not oil or coal. Its people,” says Buettner. “So it’s in their interest to set policy to favour their resource.”
There are places where he feels government intervention is less necessary, citing in particular Japan, where there is a “time-honoured culture of making health and community and co-operation a part of life”.
It’s a very different story in the country he calls home, the United States, where, he says, you have “an ethnically diverse population that’s constantly fed the notion that freedom is the most important value in life and that people are trying to steal your freedom – the insistence on maximum freedom doesn’t produce the healthiest people.”
He believes that in the US – and the UK for that matter – business interests have more sway than the aim of creating healthier and happier lives for everyday people.
He points to a recent report that three out of five scientists on an expert panel that suggested ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are being unfairly demonised have ties to the world’s largest manufacturers of the products. The manufacturers included Nestlé, Mondelēz, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and General Mills.
In this depressing, obesity-inducing environment rife with chronic disease, the Blue Zone message feels like a beacon of hope. Not just about living a longer life, but a fuller life too. One where ageing is celebrated and the wisdom of our elders is cherished.
Buettner walks the walk, along with the talk. While he travels a lot, he always takes his Blue Zones mentality with him. He is based in Miami, a city that is walker-friendly and full of healthy eating spots. He visits his parents in Minneapolis once a month. Wherever he lands in the world he makes sure to check in with a buddy as soon as he can.
“I travel with a simple backpack wherever I go, and it very quickly feels like home. And I have friends sprinkled all over the world.”
Ironically, after 20 years on this journey to discover how to achieve a healthy and happy long life, it has brought him back to where he started.
Buettner comes from a big Italian family, and he remembers that when he was growing up they would always sit down as a family to eat, they went to church on Sunday, meat was expensive and thus an occasional treat, their neighbourhood was walkable and kids played outside.
“When you’re a young adult and in your teens you want to break away from that and do something new and different – and I now realise there’s so much wisdom in what my grandmother used to do.”
They are not, though, particularly glamorous things to do, and Buettner knows it.
“Nobody makes money from you walking and being with your friends. They make money from you buying some huckster supplements or superfood.”
Instead of looking for the secret to a long and healthy life in test tubes and laboratories, he wants us to find it at home, with our friends and in our gardens.
“These are the things that work. And they manifestly work for people like us around the world.”
Most importantly he wants us all to see that longevity can – and should – be joyous. “It doesn’t have to be a chore,” he says.
Balance: Japanese sit on the ground and get up and down a lot
Diet: low in calories and fat while high in carbs; it emphasises vegetables and soy products and foods such as tofu, squid ink soup, mugwort and seaweed
Hara hachi bu: eating until you’re 80 percent full
Moai: “meeting for a common purpose”, often shared hobbies or interests bringing people together who then support each other
Ikigai: having a sense of purpose
Steepness: centenarians live in hilly areas and walk everywhere
Good carbs: bread and pasta are homemade in social groups
Stress control: steer clear of high stress jobs
Care for elders: great value is placed on older relatives
Lomo Linda, California
Volunteer: giving back has a social wellbeing benefit
Plant-based diet: vegetarian and plant-based diets are common
Faith: being Seventh Day Adventists encourages sticking to healthy routines and resting on the sabbath
Right-tribe: time is spent with like-minded people who prefer playing pickleball to the pub
Herbal tea: Ikarians enjoy drinking herbal teas with family and friends
Raw honey: 100 per cent pure, natural, unheated, and unpasteurised is a diet staple
Partnership: romantic unions and strong, loving partnerships and marriages are fostered
Wine: red wine on the island has been made the same way for centuries
Dancing and laughing: equal to a workout at the gym, but more fun and with friends
Nicoya, Costa Rica
Plan de vida: having a reason for living
Handy hobbies: instead of going to the gym, activities include gardening and doing things by hand
Slow down: rest and relationships are prioritised over work, which could help reduce chronic stress
Three sisters stew: the time-honoured corn, beans and squash dish is affordable and nutritionally complete
Nature walks: Singapore’s streets are designed for people – not just cars – with plenty of sidewalks and community gardens
Greens and fish: the typical diet is rich in calcium-packed dark green vegetables and fish, plant proteins like tofu, and plenty of whole grains
Multigenerational living: the government provides incentives for multi-generational housing, which can combat loneliness and promote mental and physical health
Workplace wellness: there is a robust workplace wellness program with employees regularly monitored for high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol
Have you been to one of the Blue Zones? Join the conversation below