As droves of baby boomers retire or prepare to do so, the generation that never settles is now focused on maximizing health, fulfillment, and longevity. And the quest for a fountain of youth is getting a renewed surge of interest replete with its own cadre of titles and television shows meant to inspire and guide seekers on the journey to long, "well" lives. In keeping with the trend, Dan Buettner—writer, holder of three Guinness world records in long-distance cycling, and leader of multiple international adventures—brings us The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest, which hits bookstore shelves today. His book is the culmination of a project that began in 2000 and included a 2005 National Geographic cover story, "The Secrets of Living Longer." (The term "blue zone" was coined after a demographer used a blue marker to note the areas on a map where the eldest, healthiest people resided.) U.S. News caught up with the author-explorer to discuss his book and the "Power 9," a set of principles we can live by to add extra healthy years to our lives.
These "blue zones" are places where the world's masters of longevity reside. How did you locate the four such places you write about—Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, Calif.; and the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica?
In 2000, the World Health Organization came out with the finding that Okinawa had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world—the longest, healthiest lives. And that's what we want, us 77 million baby boomers. So the National Institute on Aging partnered with me and National Geographic, and we came up with what we think was a very responsible methodology for looking at what things work at extending our healthy life expectancy. We found parts of the world where people lived the longest by two measures: middle-aged mortality rates, which factors out death at birth, and the centenarian rate.
And how does the health of the world's healthiest elders—those living in the "blue zones"—compare with that of Americans?
Life expectancy is as much as 10 years greater. There was as much as a sixth the rate of cardiovascular disease and a fifth the rate of the big cancers like colon and breast. That's huge, because cardiovascular disease and these cancers kill about 80 percent of people over 65 in our country. And diabetes isn't really an issue with this group.
You make the observation in the book that long-lived people tend to be likable. What's important about that?
We know that if you're likable, you're going to get better care from your caregivers. You also tend to not be abandoned by your family and friends. They've walked this planet for a century and have had an extra number of decades to observe the fact that being compassionate, giving, interested, and interesting is important.
So if you're a younger person—younger than 100, that is—who isn't particularly likable now, are you doomed?
These centenarians weren't always likable. In fact, a lot of them were cantankerous. You talk to their kids, and they say, 'I hated my mother when I was younger, and now I love her.' They evolved. You make a huge evolutionary leap between 80 and 100.
Part of this project has been identifying what you're calling the "Power 9," based on observation of the lives of the well and the long-lived. They're changes we can make to emulate them.
It's not just Dan Buettner jotting them down in his notebook. These are characteristics of the culture that have been thoroughly researched [by academics]. They look like nine simple things, but they have years of research behind them.
One of the "Power 9" is having a sense of purpose. What's yours, and why does it matter?
I happen to be curious. I happen to be family oriented. A component of me wants to do some good. The next thing is figuring out how I put those things to work in my life. That formula is different for everybody. Purpose becomes really crucial in middle age because when your kids grow up and your job sort of wanes, it's like, "What do I do now?"
Many people in the United States seem to be living the antithesis of the way these long-lived people in the Blue Zones do. Considering it has taken millenniums for these four cultures to yield lifestyles aligned with long, healthy lives, can we in America realistically change?
Yes. One of the happy coincidences is most of these "Power 9" are not hard, and a subtle shift of energy can yield an enormous benefit. For example, the idea that having happy hour could more powerfully impact your life than going to the gym seems so flippant, but it's not. In the Blue Zones, these spry centenarians never signed up for diets or belonged to gyms, but they hung out with groups of people who supported the same behaviors. We know that the power of moderate drinking is probably worth three to five good years of life if you can pick up that habit and not make it immoderate.
Did you learn anything about physical activity from this long-lived group?
The big "aha" in all of this is that the things that will help me add a dozen or so years to life—or help me stay younger—are not things that are expensive or even require a lot of effort. I hate going to the gym; I quit doing it. I used to be a world-record cyclist; now I bike for fun. Right now, the key for me is not running marathons or doing triathlons, though I've done that in my life. The key is low-intensity physical activity. Moving does not have to hurt. I think that's a mistake a lot of Americans make.
What about eating habits?
The centenarians had little strategies to keep from stuffing themselves, whether it was eating off smaller plates [or] murmuring a Confucian adage before their meal to remind themselves to stop eating before their stomach was 80 percent full. They eat a big breakfast; we've now discovered that people who consume a big breakfast eat fewer calories throughout the day. They never eat in front of a TV; you tend to eat mindlessly in front of the TV. They eat with family.
What have you personally learned from long-lived people in the Blue Zones?
No. 1, I've identified things I like to do. For example, my dad and I just got a garden plot in Roseville, Minn., and he and I garden once a week. I spend a lot more time and energy on my kids. Two, when I go to the grocery store, I do not buy meat. The longest-lived people of the world eat meat less than one time per week. Three, I've gone back to church. I just sort of forced myself because of what I saw. People who go to church or temple or mosque, say, are less likely to engage in risky behaviors, have lower rates of depression, lower rates of suicide, and tend to have a support group. Once a week, they have scheduled stress reduction, either prayer or just taking their mind off the insanity of everyday living.
Did you learn anything about death?
The longest-lived parts of the world venerate elders. As you approach death, you actually become more respected, whereas I think social capital peaks at about age 24 in America—just look at a billboard or flip through a magazine to see what people we most respect. They tend to be young, good-looking people.
Along with this book, you've created a website called bluezones.com, which offers a place for a like-minded community of people interested in attaining long, healthy lives. What's this "vitality compass" on the site?
I've worked three years with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health to create this life expectancy calculator, a distillation of 337 studies. It'll calculate your life expectancy, your healthy life expectancy, your biological age, the number of years you could add if you optimize your lifestyle. It'll also give you up to eight suggestions, customized to you. The first step in changing behaviors is knowing how you're doing. You need an assessment tool.
According to this tool, how long can you expect to live?
The vitality compass gives me to 99.