Dan Buettner is a longevity researcher. The Blue Zones is a book about areas of the world that have an unusually high concentration of centenarians, and Buettner’s search for what makes them live so much longer than average. The book is light-hearted, even funny in places. For instance, an elderly Costa Rican woman describes how she caught a man watching her take a bath, chased him down, and beat him with a stick. Her age at the time? Seventy. The centenarians and super-centenarians (people over 110) come across as lively, friendly people who enjoy their social circles and daily routines.
There are some very intriguing findings from this research. For one, the Blue Zones appeared across multiple continents. Out of the five areas studied, two were in North America, two in Europe, and one in Asia. When the researchers got down to the particulars, there were comparatively few things the various cultures had in common. I noticed this before, anecdotally, in reading What Makes Olga Run?. Elderly people in that book attributed their long life to completely different factors and ate completely different foods. Clearly, there is no one single element of lifestyle that can build a 100-year lifespan. Just because someone is healthy at a ripe old age does not necessarily mean that person understands why. That’s where the research comes in.
Buettner identifies nine points that the centenarians of the Blue Zones do have in common. Only three of them have anything to do with food. Buettner says he began his research in hope of finding some superfoods that could be made into a supplement. Most of the longevity factors seem to have more to do with social network, having a purpose in life, being close to family, and having a relaxed, stress-free attitude. I felt a pang when I kept reading how many of these ancient people had family, friends, and neighbors dropping by the house throughout the day. They certainly seem to have a better social life than I do!
There were, of course, some important lifestyle elements having to do with health and fitness. None of the centenarians were obese. None of them had diabetes, heart disease, or dementia. All of them walked regularly and bustled around doing chores throughout their lives – including heavy labor like chopping firewood. One woman, in earlier days, would routinely walk an 18-mile round trip to buy salt. None of them smoked. They all ate a fairly low-calorie diet based around garden vegetables that they grew and cooked at home. They ate a traditional diet, not liking modern junk food or soda. They ate at least two vegetables at every meal. They ate meat no more than five times a month, in servings of no more than two ounces. The Okinawan group ate soy every day, and the Costa Rican group ate corn every day, although for skeptics, take note that these were processed at home, not industrially. The other interesting thing was that, while income wasn’t mentioned, it seems like at least most of the centenarians were financially poor.
One of the factors behind longevity seems to be a belief that one will live to be old. I always thought I would. In my family, we seem to live to at least 75, and it seems prudent to me to assume I’ll live at least that long. That motivates me to save money and take care of myself, especially my teeth! The elderly folk in The Blue Zones remind me of my own elderly relatives, playing dominoes and poker (cards and Scrabble in our case), laughing and joking. It takes a picture of extreme old age that includes plenty of friends, plenty of things to do, and the ability to stay healthy and active. Very old people seem better able to take the hassles of life in stride. Even if we don’t learn what they do to live so long, we can try to learn from their attitude, one informed by extra decades of experience.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.