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Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones

“Imagine roads that are not just built for cars but are built for humans… where people are putting their purpose to work every day. These are things that blue zones tell us are attainable. We have a new lens on how to generate health and well-being for our country. A legitimate recipe for longevity. But, at the end of the day, the big epiphany is that the same things that help us live a long, healthy life, are the same things that make life worth living.”

In this four-part limited series, Dan Buettner explores several communities where people have been living much longer than the rest of us, and asks if we can apply their lessons and habits to our own lives. This seems especially relevant to those residing in the United States, where life expectancy has been going down, and not just because of Covid, despite boasting (?!) the most expensive health care system in the world.

This review contains spoilers, but that’s because people may want the lessons without committing to watching the series. However, I think you’ll get more by watching the entire thing. I easily watched all four episodes, each less than an hour, in one day. However, for me, documentaries are easier to binge than dramas, because there’s less emotion. Your watching experience may be different.

The host, Dan Buettner, is a National Geographic guy who has been exploring the world many decades, originally by biking everywhere. I guess he’s been looking for the Fountain of Youth? Anyway, some time ago, he started researching the blue zones. The regions covered in the series include patches in Okinawa, Sardinia, Ikaria, Loma Linda, and Costa Rica. Then, in the last episode tries to take principles learned and apply them to other communities.

The four principles Buettner found in all the zones included: eating wisely, moving naturally, connecting with others and having a purpose or outlook. Let’s look at each of these:

Eating wisely. Diets are not the same in these different places, but they are generally plant-based and the foods are not processed, and always, always, eat your beans! Ikaria is a bit funny because it’s an island without a decent port, and so they learned to be self-reliant, with emphasis on their local honey and local herbal teas. In Okinawa they eat lots of purple sweet potatoes.

Moving naturally. In Okinawa, partly because nearly everyone has a garden, they are always weeding and moving about. But this is also a place where people tend to sit on the floor, so, to get about, they’re always getting up off the floor, which helps strengthen muscles and balance. In Sardinia, the village in question is on a steep mountain, and so they’re always going uphill and downhill.

Connecting with others. This is something they do especially well in Loma Linda, California, which is apparently a large Seventh-Day Adventist enclave.

Having a purpose or outlook. Having something you want to do each day is important. Many of these centenarians don’t retire, and if they do, they still have plans every day. Not big plans, but little plans, keeping them going, happy and useful. There’s lots of volunteer work, helping others, tutoring kids with reading and math, or just getting together for fun and games. There’s a certain logic: if you actually like your life, then you will want to live longer.

But these are places that were isolated, where their environments encouraged, often without people thinking about it, habits that are healthy. Many environments make good habits hard to maintain. Many people join gyms just to stop going because it's too much trouble.

Is it possible to turn things around? In the last episode, Dan Buettner examines two test cases. He goes first to Albert Lea, Minnesota, where people joined groups and the town actually created better places where people could walk. Here’s what Wikipedia says on the community project:

In 2008, inspired by Finland’s North Karelia Project, Buettner designed a plan to apply his Blue Zones principles to an American town. He auditioned five cities and chose Albert Lea, Minnesota, for the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project, where he believed the key to success involved focusing on the ecology of health—creating a healthy environment rather than relying on individual behavior.

Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, found the results "stunning." As a whole, the community showed an 80% increase in walking and biking; 49% decrease in city worker’s healthcare claims, and 4% reduction in smoking. The community shed 12,000 pounds, walked 75 million steps, and added three years to their average life expectancy, City officials reported a 40% drop in health care costs.

Singapore is another success story and instructive because the density is so much greater than Albert Lea’s. A few decades ago, the life expectancy in Singapore was a mere 50.7 years, but now it’s 83.8 years. Buettner claims they have the longest “healthy life expectancy”, a term they didn’t define precisely in the documentary, but which I assume includes being able to get around and not being afflicted with dementia. Now, Singapore is a place with extremely strict rules, but they have to manage a large population in a really tiny area. The acceptance of rules means that it’s easier to require zones where people can walk and exercise, and it’s easier to require companies to comply with regulations such as much less sugar in the sodas. Thus, some of what they are doing might be a challenge to replicate in other areas. On the other hand, many of their goals are worthy.

Bits and pieces

These are called the blue zones because an original researcher happened to be using a blue pen when noting areas with greater life expectancy, and noticed that there were clumps of blue.

I checked the herbal teas advertised from Ikaria, Greece. The ingredients were not especially unusual: rosemary, sage, fennel.

In Ikaria, they recommend you put honey and not sugar in your tea, and that you wait until the tea is not so hot because that preserves the good molecules in the honey.

Before they eat in Okinawa, they remind themselves to stop when their tummies are 80% full. That’s not so easy to do, but it would probably help many of us.

Purple sweet potatoes are now considered by some to be a superfood.

Beans are highly recommended in all the blue zones. Sardinia likes them in minestrone, while Costa Rica often combines the three sisters (beans, corn, squash). Okinawa does lots of tofu, and Ikaria and Loma Linda are also really into their legumes.

I often combine a can of beans (rinsed) with veggies and a pasta sauce (sometimes with pasta). Eaten with toast, it’s easy, inexpensive, and apparently pretty healthy.

Costa Rica has a much more cost-effective health care system than the US, where the people live longer and the health care costs much less, and the doctors actually make house calls. Wow.

Overall rating

This documentary tackles a huge problem. In the US, despite spending gazillions on health care, we humans are experiencing shorter and less healthy lives. Moreover, the documentary is easy to watch and to understand and there are plenty of nuggets to take out and adapt to our own lives. I can’t say it moved me emotionally, but it is encouraging me to move more, and could have a huge impact on people's health and happiness. Four out of four purple sweet potatoes.

Victoria Grossack loves math, birds, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

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