The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest

The Blue Zones Dan Buettner

Summary of The Blue Zones: Dan Buettner has traveled the world in search of the Blue Zones: those places of the world where people live longer than elsewhere, and who are above all healthy. Discover the secrets of these communities and apply them to your lifestyle to extend your existence for several years.

By Dan Buettner, 2008, 277 pages.

Note: This is a guest post written by Régis from the Auxois Nature blog, in which he shares his passion for nature and nature photography. He has recently posted a collection of tips from top wildlife photographers as well as a beginner’s guide to photography.

Review and Summary of “The Blue Zones”:

Prepare to Change Your Life

Dan Buettner has many strings to his bow. He is a researcher, teacher, producer, explorer, and writer. From the first pages of his book, we quickly learn that his authorship is not one of his lesser activities. The twelve pages that make the introduction are enough to make you want, and I mean really want, to discover the rest. My French teacher always told me “to know if you’re going to like a book, you read the back cover, if it still interests you, you flip through the first ten pages, and if you still want to turn the pages, it’s good, you can take it!” I have not forgotten this advice and I applied it for this book: By the end of the preface, mission accomplished for Dan Buettner, I was determined to find out what happens next!

So, what is in the introduction that sparks such a desire? It’s very simple, and yet terribly effective, he writes a story. That’s what the world is passionate about after all, right? Dan Buettner tells us about a meeting between three people: him, Sayoko Ogata and Ushi. The last two are completely unknown to you, that’s normal, but they won’t be for very long. Sayoko Ogata and Ushi are two Japanese women, the first is a dynamic young woman from Tokyo with a very promising future in a large company, and the second, Ushi, a centenarian living on the island of Okinawa. The centenarian will change the life of the younger Sayoko.

The author, as part of his scientific work on longevity, visited this island of Japan in the early 2000s. He surrounded himself with many Japanese experts, including Sayoko, a translation specialist. The team thus formed sets out to meet the Okinawans of canonical age to reveal the secrets of their longevity. It is during this project that Sayoko finds herself interviewing Ushi, the 104-year-old woman, impressed by her vitality. This meeting of a few hours will be enough to turn Sayoko’s life upside down. As soon as she returns to Tokyo, she resigns, abandons her hectic but oh so stressful life as a young dynamic executive to model her lifestyle after that of Ushi. Her simplicity, her way of exuding happiness and taking care of everyone is revolutionizing for Sayoko.

The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner

The Blue Zones provides this extraordinary opportunity to meet all those like Ushi who manage to live well beyond 100 years. The author called on renowned demographers and scientists to understand the secrets of these longevity champions, which you will discover in chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5. The first chapter gives the main principles of aging, an essential prerequisite for assimilating the rest of the book. The last chapter is an overview of all of Dan Buettner’s findings and observations to help you build your own Blue Zone…and who knows, to do as Sayoko did, change your life!

Chapter 1: The Truth about Living Longer

“The brutal reality about aging is that it has only an accelerator pedal. We have yet to discover whether a brake exists for people. At present, we can only take our foot off the pedal which speeds up the process.”

This very telling image enables us to understand the current state of our relationship with the aging process. But what is this process? What transformations is our body going through? In short, what exactly is aging? It is terrible how difficult it is to answer such a simple question! Dan Buettner understood this well and solicited a handpicked panel of American scientists. Each of them provides a satisfactory answer that is accurate and, above all, easy for the reader to understand.

Here is the summary of their answers (I do not mention the name of the experts because it does not add anything more to this article. Of course, in the book, they are all named with their CVs, very impressive indeed!):

What exactly is aging?

It is the progressive loss of mental and physical capacities; in other words, one does not do at the age of 60 what one did at the age of 20! This degradation begins according to some from the age of 45, and one theory explains it by the accumulation of toxins in the body.

What is the life expectancy of an average American?

Life expectancy is 80 years on average; a little more for women, and a little less for men. Women can therefore hope to live a few more years, men a little less. Don’t try to figure it out, that’s how it is!

What are the odds of reaching 100?

Don’t be disappointed, but you have less than a 1% chance of getting to that age. And again, it all depends on your age at the time you read these lines. If you’re 80 in 2011, you’re probably less likely to get there than if you’re 20.

Is there a drug capable of extending lifespan?

Do you remember the growth hormone DHEA and other products believed to extend life? They were in the news for a while, only to disappear and not be heard about again. The reason is simple: their effectiveness is highly questionable. The only thing that is certain are the negative side effects they cause! The answer to this question is a firm no.

What are food supplements used for?

You have to meet your daily needs in vitamins and minerals. The problem is that our Western way of life does not always enable us to achieve this. Food supplements are aptly named because they will supplement what we are unable to absorb during meals. It’s a good thing but be careful not to overdo it! More vitamins don’t do more good than the recommended dose!

What is the right diet for living longer?

The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner

Sorry to disappoint you, but the author and his experts do not provide a miracle recipe. The key word for your diet is moderation in all things. The best diet is therefore a moderate diet. Vegetarian or not, with meat or without, that is not the point. You just have to know how to stay reasonable.

What to do for living longer in shape?

First thing, integrate as much as possible one or more physical activities in your daily life. The second…stop smoking!

Do I have to sign up to a gym?

Each sport makes it possible to improve different skills, or to prevent different types of pathologies. It’s up to you to choose what suits you best by having a specific objective. Statistics show that practicing a sport seems beneficial to your health.

Live longer, very well, but how to live better?

Living to the age of 100 while being dependent from the age of 80, is that worth it? The real question is: How to delay the loss of autonomy as much as possible?  Scientists offer some answers: cultivate social ties, practice a rewarding and exciting activity for example.

Chapter 2 : The Sardinian Blue Zone

“Where women are strong, family comes first, and health springs from the rugged hills.”

It was following an international conference on longevity in Montpellier that Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer known for his work on islands of longevity, heard about the case of Sardinia for the first time. He learns in particular that there are 7 centenarians listed in a small Sardinian village of 2,500 souls, while in the USA the rate of centenarians is 1 per 5,000; here the rate is 1 in 360! Obviously, this incredible statistic arouses the interest of the Belgian researcher. So, in January 2000, he flies to Sardinia; it will be the first of his ten trips there. Four years later, he would publish an article in the very serious magazine Experimental Gerontology and officially affirms that it is in Sardinia where people live to be the oldest (or almost) in the world.

It is following this article that Dan Buettner in turn goes to the Italian island in the company of the famous National Geographic photographer David McLain. His objective is simple: To try to unravel the mystery of the Sardinian blue zone.

The author then invites us to follow him through his numerous encounters, to understand the investigation with him, and finally to discover why the Sardinians live longer and in better health than anywhere else. His story is fascinating, interspersed with anecdotes and simple but essential scientific contributions.

Here are the results of his discoveries of the Sardinian blue zone:

  • Eat a lean diet of fruits and vegetables, supplemented with a little meat
  • Put your family first
  • Drink goat’s milk (like Asterix and Obelix)
  • Long live the elders!
  • Take walks
  • Drink one glass of red wine per day
  • Have fun with friends

Important clarification: these 7 points are much more developed in the book.

Chapter 3 : The Okinawa Blue Zone

“Sunshine, spirituality, and sweet potato”

This time, it is February 2005, a few months after Dan’s trip to Sardinia and his first discoveries. The destination of his next trip is an island 1,500 kilometers from Tokyo: Okinawa. You are not unfamiliar with it since you have already come across the name in the preface, the island and its famous inhabitants. You remember Ushi, right?

The author uses the same recipe as in the previous chapter, he recounts his activity as a journalist for the prestigious National Geographic magazine almost day by day. Rest assured; the style used by Dan Buettner is easy to read; it is definitely not some nonsensical, random series of events. On the contrary, it absorbs the reader, and you will find yourself reading the book like a thriller.

An example: For the first pages of the chapter, the journalist and his team wonder if they will even manage to meet just one centenarian! In Sardinia, they sometimes interviewed as many as 3 elders in one morning without any difficulty, but here in Japan, administrative red tape slows down or even prevents these kinds of encounters. The reader is not fooled: We know very well that Dan will ultimately be able to conduct his investigation, but this helps us to understand the Japanese mentality on this aspect.

The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner

The island of Okinawa presents many paradoxes, but the one that commands the most attention is this: Okinawa has the highest number of fast-food restaurants per capita in Japan with one of the largest in the world! And yet, less than 50 kilometers from this concentration of American restaurants, is Kamada, a centenarian with incredible health! What is her secret and that of many other people in the area? Dan Buettner’s talents as a journalist and especially his empathy for the people he meets enable him to raise the many questions concerning Okinawa’s centenarians.

Here are the results of his discoveries of the Okinawa Blue Zone:

  • Find an Ikigaithat is to say always have a purpose in life, even at 100 years old
  • Eat vegetarian
  • Get into gardening
  • Discover soybeans
  • Create a Moai, in other words a comforting social network, but in real life, not on Facebook or on Twitter!
  • Enjoy the sun
  • Stay active
  • Cultivate a garden of medicinal plants
  • Adopt a good state of mind

Important clarification: These 10 points are much more developed in the book.

Olivier’s note: For further reading, you can check out the article of Okinawa, a global program for better living

Chapter 4 : America’s Blue Zone

“Longevity oasis in Southeast California”

Something unexpected with this book is that we travel! It’s almost a world tour that the author offers. For this fourth chapter, we are in Loma Linda, a town of 20,000 inhabitants in California. The particularity of this place is that a large community of Adventists lives here. I very humbly admit that, before reading this passage, I had never heard of Adventists. I imagine it is very likely that this is also the case for you! Without going into details, just know that this large religious community is waiting for the return of Christ (hence the Adventist name from the Latin adventus which means arrival, coming). That was your one minute of culture. But what is the relationship between this religious movement and a blue zone in the USA?

Adventists do not just wait for the coming of Christ, they also have the distinction of having a lifestyle compatible with a true blue zone. Their religion forbids them to consume tobacco, alcohol and other foods considered unclean by the Bible: all meats, caffeinated drinks, spices in particular. It is obviously very strict, and it is thanks to this hygienic religious life that Loma Linda prides itself on having a real oasis in the middle of the megalopolis of Los Angeles filled with fast food restaurants.

Let’s look beyond all religious considerations and just remember that the eating habits and pace of life of Adventists has a real influence on life expectancy. Dan Buettner relies upon numerous studies, documented at length in the book; the scientific community very quickly looked into the superior longevity of Adventists compared to the surrounding so-called traditional population.

So, no need to convert to this religion to apply some of its principles! Moreover, the author is clear on this subject by asserting that he will never be one of them. On the other hand, it is clear that such a rigorous lifestyle is only required by the motivating religious aspect. For an Adventist, maintaining his/her health is an act of faith.

This chapter is no exception to the rule. The story is a kind of walk through which we meet doctors, researchers, centenarians, and many other people. It’s dynamic, interesting and with each page you turn, you wonder who you are going to discover this time! We finally reach the conclusion of the chapter, which ends like the previous ones, with an overview of the discoveries of the blue zone.

Here are the results of his discoveries of the blue zone in the United States:

  • Find a timeless sanctuary
  • Monitor your body mass index (BMI)
  • Regularly engage in moderate physical activity
  • Spend time with people like you
  • Snack on dried fruits
  • Take care of others
  • Don’t eat too much meat
  • Dine early and light
  • Eat fruits and vegetables
  • Drink plenty of water

Important clarification: These 10 points are much more developed in the book.

Chapter 5 : Uncovering Costa Rica’s Blue Zone

“Tortillas and beans, hard work, and something in the water…”

The journey continues! After Sardinia, Japan, and the USA, it’s in Costa Rica that Dan Buettner unpacks his suitcases. There is another interest in reading this book that I find: We learn a lot about the habits and customs of the countries visited. Remember, reaching out to centenarians in the United States and Sardinia posed no difficulty for the author. Conversely, carrying out such an investigation was very complicated in Japan because of the administration, at least at the beginning. In Costa Rica, Dan finds the same difficulties in interviewing the very elderly. The fault this time is with the archives very badly preserved, even non-existent from a certain age. We learn that this is the case in most developing countries.

How then to go about proving the existence of a concentration of centenarians greater here than elsewhere? The address book! When you’re a top reporter publishing at National Geographic, your address book is more than provided, and if that’s not enough, your business card does the rest. This is exactly the case with Dan Buettner, he knows how to pull strings, and that’s good for us! One of the reasons that makes The Blue Zones exciting is the author’s ability to lead us through the whole discovery process…and the setbacks encountered in Costa Rica is the perfect example.

I won’t hide from you that the suspense does not last long! Very quickly, the obstacles are removed, and we go on to discover the incredible blue zone of this Central American country. It’s like following an adventurer in the middle of the jungle coming face to face with a village populated by centenarians! Rafael Leon 100 years old, Ofelia Gomez 102 years old, Francesca Castillo 99 years old, Don Faustino 101 years old, and many more. Dan Buettner and his scientists are definite, the blue zone of Costa Rica is one of the regions of the world where people live the longest. It now remains to discover the reasons why.

Sociological studies, numerous testimonies from centenarians and their relatives, surveys on lifestyle and hygiene, in-depth investigations put to the test of the scientific approach, Dan Buettner’s team leaves nothing to chance. We understand them; their detractors would not hesitate to point out the slightest flaw in their reasoning. It seems worthwhile since it’s no less than 8 longevity lessons that are updated.

Here are the results of his discoveries of Costa Rica’s Blue Zone:

  • Build a life plan
  • Drink hard water
  • Focus on family life
  • Dine light
  • Maintain your social networks
  • Work hard
  • Sunshine, yes; too much sunshine, no
  • Take responsibility for your historical heritage

Important clarification: These 8 points are much more developed in the book.

Chapter 6 : Your Personal Blue Zone

“Incorporate the lessons learned from the blue zones into your lifestyle”

Now is the time to cut short the journey. There are other areas on the globe that have a higher number of centenarians than the average, but to a lesser degree.

It is also time to review and to summarize all these fabulous discoveries.

It is time, finally, to allow everyone to appropriate the recipes of longevity champions as Dan Buettner likes to call them.

This is the objective of this last chapter, to enable you, as the reader of the book, to set up an action plan in nine lessons, each of which constitutes a theme. And rest assured, it’s not about reviewing your way of life from A to Z! The author is categorical on this point: “(…) we offer nine strategic axes located at the intersection of your current lifestyle and the habits of the longevity champions of the world. By making a little effort now, you are establishing the context of your new choice of life (…)”

Ah, and last thing before discovering your ready-to-use program: for a new behavior to become sustainable, it must be maintained for at least 5 weeks…afterwards, it’s almost for sure!

Lesson No. 1 : Introduce action in your personal Blue Zone

Understand by action the fact of practicing a gentle and regular physical activity. It would be a mistake to prepare for the 6-month marathon, do it and then stop everything!

Lesson No. 2 : Apply the 80% rule

Our eating habits in France are largely influenced by advertising and the front displays at supermarkets. We eat too much because we are constantly asked to. Here is a very simple rule: Only fill your stomach 80% and get in the habit of not leaving the table saying to yourself “I ate too much; I can’t take anymore!” There are excellent tips in the book to achieve this.

Lesson No. 3 : Tip the scales of your vegetarian diet

This will not please many people, but the fact is, all the centenarians encountered eat very little, if any, meat. By religious conviction (the Adventists) or by lack of means (the Sardinians), the result is the same. So, remember this: Limit or avoid meat and processed foods (such as smoked ham). Warning: meat provides protein that the body needs, if you stop eating meat, make sure to get protein intake from other sources such as tofu.

Lesson No. 4 : Add a glass of red wine to your daily menu…but no more than that!

This is self-explanatory: You can indulge yourself in this little pleasure every day. On the other hand, beware of alcohol abuse because its toxic effect on the liver, brain, and other organs is well established. Beyond one drink a day, you would lose all the positive effects.

Lesson No. 5 : Make your personal project a reality

The longevity champions we have seen all have a reason to get up in the morning. It can range from visiting one’s grandchildren to the most ambitious project. You must build a life plan for yourself at any age in life.

Lesson No. 6 : Make room for a relaxation area in your blue zone

We westerners spend a great deal of time in achieving social success and material comfort. Although some of us do not have a choice, we must be able to spare ourselves moments of rest and of relieving tension. One tip, among others, that I hastened to apply in my daily life and which did me a lot of good: Leaving 15 minutes early to eliminate the fear of arriving late and the stress that goes with it!

Lesson No. 7 : Strengthen the spiritual aspect of your blue zone

The centenarians we met all belong to a strong religious community. Studies have even shown that those who attend a church service once a month have better life expectancies.

Lesson No. 8 : Create a family blue zone

A focus on the family. This notion has, it seems to me, been undermined in France for several decades. Reconstituted families, separations, retirement homes, professional transfers, everything is done so that the nuclear family is broken up. This is the exact opposite of the lifestyle of healthy seniors. The Sardinians, for example, spend a lot of time with their families. This is what we had in our French countryside with the hamlets.

Lesson No. 9 : Strengthen the hard core of your blue zone

This just means surrounding yourself with people who share your values. Are you determined to apply some of these lessons? Good, but it will be more difficult if you know your loved ones are reluctant. You can then identify people who are likely to comfort you in your new way of life.

Each of these lessons is developed at length in the book. You have before you a simple overview of all the possibilities offered by The Blue Zones.

Conclusion of “The Blue Zones”

For this article, I planned to summarize each chapter as I read. I failed to do that. Why? Because from the first page I read, I wanted to discover the next one…until the last page. This is the amazing feat achieved by the author: to make this book read like a fascinating novel. That’s rhetorical, you may have guessed, but I find it to be quite good.

Basically, the only question to ask after reading is the following: Will this book change my life? My answer is yes. Of course, that just goes for me personally. You won’t come back and check to see if this is the case! I have already applied two techniques, filling my stomach to 80% and leaving 15 minutes early to go to work. Two little things, next to nothing, and yet I can feel the positive effects. This helps me to go further. I don’t know if I will be a hundred years old, but I am sure that I will live better, and that is already life-changing!

Note from Olivier: You can see a presentation by author Dan Buettner at TED summarizing his findings here:

Strong points:

  • Dan Buettner’s writing style, which is precise and pleasant, brilliantly combines anecdotes, stories, and scientific references
  • The segmentation into chapters, then into large, titled paragraphs make it easier to read
  • Inserts like “did you know?” are regularly found in the pages
  • Black and white photos effectively illustrate the book
  • The great effort to synthesize throughout the book
  • The endorsement of the National Geographicand Ca m’interesse magazines
  • The presence of an index at the end of the book is very useful for finding information.

Weak points:

  • Chapter 3 on the Okinawa blue zone is a little too long, which doesn’t add anything more than the others
  • Lesson no. 7, which quite frankly encourages the reader to join a religious community. The reader who is not religious may be surprised
  • Some American references that do not have much meaning for the French reader

My rating : The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner The Blue Zones by Dan BuettnerThe Blue Zones by Dan BuettnerThe Blue Zones by Dan BuettnerThe Blue Zones by Dan BuettnerThe Blue Zones by Dan BuettnerThe Blue Zones by Dan BuettnerThe Blue Zones by Dan Buettner

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