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The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner

Blue Zones

RATING: 8/10…READ: February 21, 2012

A book that documents populations with high densities of people living to a hundred or older. This book chronicles their lifestyle and how you can incorporate similar habits to promote longevity and happiness. A book that stands out amongst the cagillion diet/wellness books for approaching the issue holistically and within context.

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If wisdom is the sum knowledge plus experience, then these individuals possess more wisdom than anyone else.

Scientific studies suggest that only about 25 percent of how long we live is dictated by genes, according to famous studies of Danish twins. The other 75 percent is determined by our lifestyles and the everyday choices we make. It follows that if we optimize our lifestyles, we can maximize our life expectancies within our biological limits.

We can think of aging as a loss of coping mechanism, a failure to be able to maintain internal control and balance.

I would define aging as the gradual loss of physical capabilities, whether you’re talking about the ability to run, to think, all those things.

The best way to think about reaching 100 is: “The older you get, the healthier you’ve been.”

Is there a pill that can extend life? There are a lot of nostrums out there. None of them has credibility. None of them has been even close to rigorously tested, everything from to human growth hormone to antioxidants. Every time anyone has studied them with any degree of rigor, they do not pan out.

People use to think if a multivitamin was good for them, then more of it would be even better, but that’s just not true.

Most vitamin requirements are best achieved by eating six to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Very few people do that, so probably the cheapest, least expensive multivitamin you can buy is not a bad idea to help achieve them.

The data suggest that a moderate level of sustained exercise is quite helpful. There are studies that show that people who run marathons tend to have much better cardiovascular systems than people who don’t. You could say that that says more is better, but those exercises generally take a toll on your joints. So marathoners have good cardiovascular systems, but they will probably have to have their joints replaced.

People talk about workaholics as being at higher risk for stress-related illness. But there is no evidence that workaholics are necessarily a higher risk if they really are enjoying what they’re doing. If they are driven by some externality and feel like they have to earn more money, it creates stress in their lives, which is probably not very healthy. So it’s very individual when it comes to what people want to do.

You can’t just say family support is good, because some family support is good for some people, and some isn’t for others. There are people who derive great satisfaction from being with their families. And then there are those who become very anxious and upset when they are with their families. It is a complex model, which is also very interactive.

SARDINIA, ITALY

The laws of evolution dictate that a species will not evolve in a comfortable, isolated environment where reproduction is easy. By contrast, a species will evolve quickly in a tough environment where individuals of different backgrounds and conditions interact. Similarly, in a place like Sardinian Blue Zones, there is less pressure to adapt. The people there maintained not only their genetic features, but also their economic isolation and traditional social values, such as the respect for elders as a source of experience, the importance of the family clan, and the presence of unwritten laws—all of which proved to be effective means for avoiding foreign domination over the centuries.

Environment and lifestyle might be more important factors than genetics to explain the longevity of Sardinians…I suspect that the characteristics of the environment, the lifestyle, and the food are by far more important for a healthy life.

Most centenarianss, we discovered, spent their time somewhere between their bed and their favorite sitting chair. Their days were punctuated by meals with their families and perhaps a stroll to meet friends. As a rule, they had worked hard their whole lives as farmers or shepherds. Their lives unfolded with daily and seasonal routines. They raised families who were now caring for them. Their lived were extraordinary ordinary.

Some 95 percent of those who live to 100 in Barbagia do so because they have a daughter or granddaughter to care for them. Grandparents provide love, childcare, financial help, wisdom, expectations, and motivation to perpetuate traditions and push children to succeed. This may add up to healthier, better adjusted, and longer-lived children, and it seems to certainly give the population a healthy bump in longevity.

Is there a connection between respecting elders and longevity? Absolutely. Seniors who live at home are more likely to get better care and remain engaged. In Sardinia, they are expected to help with childcare and contribute to the functioning of the household. They have strong self-esteem and a clear purpose. They love, and they are loved.

OKINAWA, JAPAN

In traditional Asian thought, the highest, most honored form of medicine was prevention, and the lowest was treatment.

The Okinawan culture of longevity was beginning to disappear with the encroaching American food culture. KFC and McDonald’s were the last calamity to befall Okinawa; the fast-food invasion has threatened many of the positive behaviors that led to Okinanwan longevity. It really rests with women over 70, he told me. “Men under 55 in Okinawa are now among the most obese, and do not live much longer than the Japanese average.

The idea of retirement never occurred to the Okinawan peasant. To this day there’s not a word for it in their language.

So what’s the secret to living to age 102? –“I used to be very beautiful,” Kamada replied. “I had hair that came down to my waist. It took me a long time to realize that beauty is within. It comes from not worry so much about your own problems. Sometimes you can best take care of yourself by taking care of others.” –“Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, and be kind to people, and smile.”

Okinawans are just born into a lifestyle that promotes health. They have been blessed by access to year-round fresh, organic vegetables, strong social support, and these amazing herbs that amount to preventive medicines.

Vitamin D in our bodies controls key elements of the immune system, blood pressure, and cell growth, and is important for cancer regulation. And in the test tube, vitamin D kills the cancers that most often kill Americans.

We see that people over 40 tend to get less happy with age, until about age 80, he said, drawing a U-shaped curve on a piece of paper. That’s when their well-being begins to curve upward again. By the time a woman reaches 100, she is happier than a 40-year-old, even though she’s probably functioning poorly. This is due to our favorable social environment. Americans emphasize biological aging. You tend to age alone. In Japan we focus on social, environmental aging. We think about aging in the context of a family or community.

Centenarians also tend to be decisive. They know what they want and then stay on course. But when life circumstances force them to adapt, they become flexible thinkers, able to embrace the change. Almost always, they are very likable people too.

After being starved for so many centuries, Okinawans seized this new food culture…they quickly developed a taste for canned meat…Okinawa now has Japan’s highest rate of obesity, and, among middle-aged men, one of the highest rates of premature deaths from cardiovascular diseases.

Older Okinawans can readily articulate the reason they get up in the morning. Their purpose-imbued lives gives them clear roles of responsibility and feelings of being needed well into their 100s.

LOMA LINDA, CALIFORNIA

Women who consumed tomatoes at least three or four times a week reduced their chances of getting ovarian cancer by 70 percent over those who ate tomatoes less often. Something like that gives you pretty good evidence that there is protection, but because of our limited sample size, knowing the degree of protection may be more up for grabs. Eating a lot of tomatoes also seemed to have an effect on reducing prostate cancer for men.

If you look at the AHS-1 (Adventist health survey), it is very clear that men who drank five or six glasses of water a day had a substantial reduction in the risk of fatal heart attack—60, 70 percent less—compared to those who drank considerably less water.

It took me a year to realize that the world wasn’t going to come to me, Marge said. That’s when I started volunteering again, and it was the best thing to ever happen to me. I found that when you are depressed, that’s when you do something for somebody else.

A stranger is a friend who we haven’t met yet.

For quite a few years, I read the concerns about vegans not getting enough vitamin B12 or protein or calcium; you know how it goes he said. They said even the amino acids in vegetables were not adequate. But we began to find out that much of these were old wives’ tales. With the exception of lack of B12 being of some concern, you aren’t going to become deficient in protein and all these things. I use soymilk, and as far as eggs are concerned, my wife knows suitable substitutes.

Snack on nuts: Adventists who consume nuts at least five times a week have about half the risk of heart disease and live about two years longer than those who don’t. As least four major studies have confirmed that eating nuts has an impact on health and life expectancy.

Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.

NICOYA, COSTA RICA

Like the people in most other Blue Zones, Nicoyans ate the emblematic low-calorie, low-fat, plant-based diet, rich in legumes. But unlike other Blue Zones, the Nicoyan diet featured portions of corn tortillas at almost every meal and huge quantities of tropical fruit. Sweet lemon, orange, and a banana variety are the most common fruits throughout most of the year in Nicoya.

Successful centenarians here were religious, family oriented, unconcerned with money, flexible but ultimately decisive, and consummately likable.

When Gianni and I were doing our interviews, we noticed that when you ask the most highly functioning seniors how they are, they always say, “I feel good thanks to God.” Yet they may be blind, deaf, and their bones hurt. Psychologist call this an external locus of control. In other words, they tend to relinquish control of their lives to God. The fact that God is in control of their lives relieves any economic, spiritual, or well-being anxiety they might otherwise have. They go through life with the peaceful certitude that someone is looking out for them.”

“We don’t need much. We’re satisfied. You have to keep busy. When people have too much time they get involved with vices. Here we have enough to do. We stay busy enough to keep the Devil away, but not so much that we get stressed. It’s a clean, pure life.”

–But don’t you ever get bored. There is no TV, no radio, or electronic entertainment of any sort. What do you do to entertain yourself? “I find a patch of shade and eat an orange,” she answered, not skipping a beat.

YOUR PERSONAL BLUE ZONE

Stop eating when you are 80% full. Okinanwan elders average daily intake is only about 1,900 calories (Sardinians traditionally ate a similarly lean diet of about 2,000 calories a day).

In the Blue Zones, the biggest meal of the day is typically eaten during the first half of the day. Nicoyans, Okinawans, and Sardinians eat their biggest meal at midday, while Adventists consume many of their calories before breakfast. All Blue Zone residents eat their smallest meal of the day in late afternoon or early evening.

Those of us over 19 years of age need only 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of our weight, which for most of us would amount to only 50 to 80 grams of protein daily.

Our bodies can’t store protein. Extra protein gets converted to calories, and if not needed for activity or to maintain our bodies, it eventually becomes fat. While we don’t need a lot of protein in our diets, we should eat some protein at every meal. Protein helps us feel fuller, and helps us avoid peaks and valleys in our blood sugar levels that make us feel hungry.

Beans, whole grains, and garden vegetables are the cornerstones of all these longevity diets.

Tofu (bean curd), a daily feature in Okinawan diet, has been compared to bread in France or potatoes in Eastern Europe, the difference being that while one cannot live by bread of potatoes alone, tofu is an almost uniquely perfect food: low in calories, high in protein, rich in minerals, devoid of cholesterol, eco-friendly, and complete in the amino acids necessary for human sustenance.

In Okinawa, meat is only eaten a few times a month.

We don’t know if there’s something magical about nuts or if it’s that people who are eating nuts are not eating junk food. But the positive effects are clear from the data. Nuts are rich in monounsaturated fat and soluble fiber, both of which tend to lower LDL cholesterol. They are also relatively good sources of vitamin E and other possibly heart-protective nutrients.

The best nuts are almonds, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts, and some pine nuts. Brazil nuts, cashews, and macadamias have a little more saturated fats and are less desirable. But all nuts are good.

A serving or two per day of red wine is the most you need to drink to take advantage of the health benefits. Overdoing it negates any benefits you might enjoy, so drink in moderation.

A sense of purpose may come from something as simple as seeing that children and grandchildren grow up well. Purpose can come from a job or a hobby, especially if you can immerse yourself completely in it.

Down shift: Sardinians pout into the streets at 5 p.m., while Nicoyans take a break every afternoon to rest and socialize with friends. Okinawa they gather every evening before supper to socialize.

A study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior followed 3,617 people for seven and half years and found that those who attended religious services at least once a month reduced their risk of death by about a third. As a group, the attendees had a longer life expectancy, with an impact about as great as their of moderate physical activity.

By the time centenarians become centenarians, their lifelong devotion has produced returns: their children reciprocate their love and care. Their children check up on their parents, and in three of the four Blue Zones, the younger generation welcomes the older generation into their homes.

Social connectedness is ingrained into the world’s Blue Zones. Okinawans have moais, groups of people who stick together their whole lives. Originally created out of financial necessity, moais have endured as mutual support networks. Similarly, Sardinians finish their day in the local bar where they meet with friends. The annual grape harvest and village festivals require the whole community to pitch in.