Extreme longevity has always been a quirky thing, happening in isolated mountain villages few people visit. Until recent years, no one asked this question: Could we create those same conditions in the United States so that most people would celebrate their 100th birthday—healthy, happy, and without the aches and pains we usually associate with aging?
Absolutely, says Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones: 9 Power Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, the second edition to be released in November. Not only is extreme longevity possible here, it’s already being achieved in communities across the U.S.—and, in a few instances, Blue Zones principles have been adopted by individual companies, aiming to become Blue Zones Certified Workplaces.
Blue Zones are places where people live longer and healthier than anywhere else on the planet, passing their centennial years at a rate 10 times greater than most Americans. For the first edition of his book, Buettner led a team of National Geographic researchers in studying a collection of “longevity hot spots” across the globe. Their work was prompted by a 1999 Danish study of nearly 4,000 twins older than age 75; scientists found that only 25 percent of their hospitalizations were caused by genetic factors and that most of their health profiles were “most likely due to nonfamilial environment.”
So Buettner’s team set out to study long-living peoples, including those in Nicoya, Costa Rica, where residents boast the lowest middle-age mortality on earth; Sardinia, Italy, where men generally outlive women; and Loma Linda, California, where a community of Seventh-Day Adventists enjoy a life expectancy nine to 11 years longer than the average American. Much of the book’s updating focuses on Ikaria, Greece, the most recently discovered and, Buettner says, the “most extraordinary” Blue Zone.
“In America, once we hit 85, there’s about a 50 percent chance you’ll suffer from dementia,” Buettner says. “In Ikaria, the rate is about one-fourth ours. They stay sharp to the end.” But it’s not only their mental health that remains intact; four times as many Ikarian men and two-and-a-half times as many women, reach the age of 90, compared to Americans. What’s more, they stay healthier along the way, living eight to 10 years longer before contracting cancers and heart disease.
And they do it with a smile, Buettner writes in a recent article in The New York Times Magazine. In a survey of Ikarian men aged 65 to 100, some 80 percent had sex regularly—and, they reported, they did the deed with “good duration” and “achievement.” The islanders’ secret, Buettner believes, is a “gold standard” variant of the Mediterranean diet, including diuretic teas—such as rosemary, sage, and dandelion—that help to lower blood pressure and inflammation, plenty of indigenous honey instead of refined sugar, bread made of stone-ground wheat, and two to four glasses of wine each day.
Since his longevity studies began, one of Buettner’s aims has been to adapt the same principles into “Blue Zones Projects” in the U.S. The first city to enact a Blue Zones plan for initiating healthy environmental, social, and policy changes was Albert Lea, Minnesota. They called their effort the “Vitality Project,” and the results were remarkable. Life expectancy of participants increased by 3.1 years, and their healthcare costs were slashed by nearly half.
Last May, Governor Terry Branstad announced that Iowa would launch the first Healthiest State Initiative, with the towns of Cedar Falls, Mason City, Spencer and Waterloo selected as the state’s first Blue Zones Project Demonstration Sites, with six additional communities to join in early 2013.
As Buettner and his team studied the Blue Zones, they identified nine common traits shared by those communities where people live longer. He was surprised that it wasn’t only food and lifestyle, but also creating a most beneficial environment. Here’s a look at these longevity-boosting traits, known as the “Power of 9.:
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