Want to Live Longer? Interview with Dan Buettner

Dan Buettner and a centenarian in Costa Rica (Photo credit: David McLain, Special to the Star Tribune)

Dan Buettner and a centenarian in Costa Rica (Photo credit: David McLain, Special to the Star Tribune)

Dan Buettner has uncovered the secrets to longevity. A Minnesota-based explorer and National Geographic fellow, Buettner is credited with discovering the five longest-lived places in the world: Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, Calif.; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Nicoya, Costa Rica.

Dubbed Blue Zones, these longevity hot spots have more centenarians than anywhere else. He talked with us about how Minnesotans can eat and live like these folks — and what Twin Cities neighborhoods you can move into to maximize your chances of hitting age 100 in good health. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do people in the Blue Zones eat?

The Blue Zones diet is mostly plant-based and low-caloric density.

Does that mean you always have to be a little bit hungry in order to be healthy?

No, not at all. Take an Okinawan meal, for example, which will have celery, onion, garlic, daikon and tofu, and it is beautifully spiced. It has five times the volume of a hamburger, but it is nutrient dense and low in calories. It’s like sitting down to a delicious compost pile, and when you’re done you are completely full. You never feel hungry.

By the way, on plant-based diets you can get all the nutrients you need, including protein, consuming half the calories.

What about contemporary diet fads, like intermittent fasting?

If something is too complex for people to remember and if they have to have discipline for it, it won’t work. People have discipline for a few weeks, but they aren’t going to stay disciplined for years or decades.

The Blue Zones diet is sustainable because people know how to make the food delicious and, for the most part, it is cheap and easy to make. You put those three things together and you have the sustainability to [eat that way for the long run]. The reason people in Blue Zones are living to age 100 is because they are doing the right things, and avoiding the wrong things, not just for a few months while they are excited about it, but for years or decades.

What role do relationships and connectivity play in longevity?

The general rule is to have three to five really good friends who meet the three following criteria: One, you have to have regular contact with them. Two, you have to be able to have meaningful conversations with them. I’m not talking celebrities and sports. I’m talking emotional connection. And three, these have to be friends — and this is the litmus test — that are good enough that you can call them on a bad day and they will care. And then among those five, some should be vegetarian friends. If you don’t have any vegetarian friends, you should make some.

I know this sounds flippant, and [you might be thinking], “I’m not going to do that,” but I guarantee having a vegetarian friend is gonna do more to improve your diet than any diet or any bull crap online program — Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers — none of which work in the long run. Friends work in the long run.

And your friend’s idea of fun and recreation should be active — not sitting around watching football or reruns of “Gossip Girl.” You want good friends whose idea of fun is playing tennis or, during winter, ice skating or walking or cross-country skiing. Healthy behaviors are as contagious as catching a cold.

If you are reading this right now and you are 50, you can probably get between six and seven extra good years of life right now by [optimizing your lifestyle in this way]. If you are younger, you can get 10 years. And it is not just more years, you are going to feel better every year, you’re gonna look better, you are going to be biologically younger every decade. And you’re far less likely to develop a chronic disease.

In Blue Zones, people live a long time and then die quickly instead of having a long, protracted illness. They are living a long time and they go to sleep one night, sometimes after sex, and just don’t wake up.

What about internal qualities — things like optimism and outlook — and their effect on longevity?

Let me tell you something that took me eight years to figure out, and it is consistent through all five blue zones: these people are no different from the rest of us. They don’t have more individual responsibility, they are not more disciplined, they don’t have better genes. The only thing they have that we don’t is that they live in environments where the healthy choice is either the easy choice or the unavoidable choice.

I’d say the only internal thing they have — and again this is largely because of their environment — is vocabularies for purpose. They are not waking up rudderless.

You might have heard the term ikigai, which is a quality in Okinowans, a blend between purpose and responsibility that almost all older people have. In Costa Rica, they have plan de vida or a reason to live. In Ikaria and Sardinia, it is clear that people are fiercely loyal to their families and their villages and their communities, and that these are things that come with being born there.

If you are born in Roseville or Cottage Grove, you have to fight like hell to find out what your place is in this world and in the universe. It doesn’t come easy for us. But it is worth about eight extra years of life expectancy if you have a clear sense of your purpose.

Are there places in Minnesota where people live longer?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation did a life expectancy scan of the Twin Cities and found about a 13-year discrepancy between Uptown and Frogtown, where people in Frogtown live 13 years less. Uptown has lots of Blue Zones qualities and so does Seward.

If you drive around Seward, you have Seward Cafe and Seward Co-op, where it is very easy to find affordable fresh foods and vegetables. You have Seward park. And there is a great effort put on bikeability. Public transportation is very easy there.

In Uptown, it is walkable. You not only have the lakes, which is good for recreational walking, but if you live in Uptown it is very easy to get to Kowalski’s for healthy food. It has nice cafes and you see people sitting on Hennepin on rooftop cafes socializing. Socializing is vastly under-celebrated when it comes to health and well-being. And you also have easy access to nature. In Uptown, nobody lives more than four blocks from a park. The amount of physical activity you get is directly correlated with your access to nature.

We are going to get a lot more physical activity in the kind of quotidian or daily activities than we are sitting in our office all day long and then going to the gym afterward, which most of us never do anyway. Moreover, we evolved as a species to move constantly, not just a half an hour at the end of the day.

Is winter detrimental to longer life?

You know, it probably is. I wish I had some cute answer to say it wasn’t, but the sad reality is that there are three things winter goes against when it comes to longevity: number one, most people tend to stay in more and get less physical activity. Number two, in Blue Zones they typically have two to three growing seasons per year and having a garden in your backyard is hugely important, not only because it is a source of fresh vegetables, but also because it is a nudge for daily activity — weeding and watering and so forth. And the third thing: there is a little spike in heart attacks during the winter because when people step out in the cold, their arteries are already restricted and then they will do a burst of physical activity they might not be used to.

It is not huge, and by no means should it dissuade people from loving and living in Minnesota. But it is a little disadvantage, one that is made up for by the fact that we are America’s number one bicycling city the rest of the year.

And more than any hospital system, more than a great insurance plan, and more than any diet you go on or any gym you think you will join, living in Minneapolis proper or St. Paul proper, where it is walkable and bikeable with easy access to parks and easy access to good food, that right there is Blue Zone living.

Laine Bergeson