Ever wonder what the longest-lived communities on earth know about living well into old age that the rest of us don’t? My guest today, Dan Buettner, has spent over 20 years decoding the secrets of the world’s super-agers who don’t just live longer, but also thrive with health and happiness past 100. And, what he’s discovered may surprise you, and the many scientists whose labs seem to contradict what’s actually happening on the ground, in real life.
What if the key to living longer wasn’t just about more kale, or supplements, or the required daily dose of exercise, but rather transforming your whole environment and community? After decades exploring remarkable longevity hotspots he introduced to the world as the Blue Zones, Dan discovered their secret wasn’t marathon training and spinach smoothies. Instead, their health and vitality ensues effortlessly from ecosystems promoting natural movement, plant-based eating, purpose, community and stress reduction.
These are universal human experiences that affect our ability to build deeply healthy, long, and rewarding lives. But we rarely learn from those who have mastered the art, who’ve actually lived it. Instead, we turn to labs for empirically reviewed data. Which doesn’t always, or even often, reflect what’s truly happening in the real world. Which is why I’m thrilled to share this conversation, to learn simple lessons from the world’s most vigorous centenarians on sidestepping pitfalls and infusing our lives with their wisdom.
Dan’s new book, The Blue Zones Secrets for Living Longer, transports us inside the lives of history’s most remarkable super-agers across the globe. I’m excited to glean inspiration on adding life to our years by transforming our environments and communities in simple, enjoyable ways.
So join me today for myth-busting insights on the real keys to longevity, vitality and health from explorer Dan Buettner.
If you LOVED this episode:
- You’ll also love the conversations we had with David A. Sinclair, Ph.D. offering a different and complimentary lab-based take on longevity.
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Dan Buettner (00:00:00) – Blue Zone’s health and longevity aren’t pursued. They ensue from the right environment. If you want to live longer, think about changing your social circle. Think about changing how you set up your home. And when it comes to longevity, there’s no short term fix. There’s no short term strategy of anything you can do for a month or a year. You got to think about things that you’ll do for decades or lifetime and finding that enjoyable thing. Pickleball, gardening, riding bikes. If you set up your environment so that you make it easier and unconscious and unavoidable, it’s creating an enabling environment to do the things that we know lower stress, help you eat better, help you move more, help you connect, better, help you live your purpose. That seems to be the silver buckshot.
Jonathan Fields (00:00:50) – Wouldn’t it be amazing to live into your early hundreds? Maybe longer, but not just live a long life, but be really present and engaged and well and have everything functioning at an extraordinary level. Have you ever wondered what the longest living community is on Earth know about living well into old age? That may be the rest of us don’t.
Jonathan Fields (00:01:12) – Well, my guest today, Dan Buettner, has spent over 20 years decoding the secrets of the world’s super agers who don’t just live longer, but also thrive with health and happiness past 100. And what he has discovered may surprise you and the many scientists whose labs seem to sometimes contradict what’s actually happening on the ground in real life. So what if the key to living longer wasn’t just about more kale or supplements or the required daily dose of exercise, but rather transforming your environment and community? After decades exploring these remarkable longevity hotspots he introduced to the world as the Blue Zones, Dan discovered that their secret wasn’t marathon training or spinach smoothies. Instead, their health and vitality ensues effortlessly from ecosystems promoting natural movement, plant based eating purpose, community stress reduction and more. These are the universal human experiences that affect our ability to build deeply healthy, long and rewarding lives. But we rarely learn from those who have mastered the art who’ve actually lived it. Instead, we turn to labs for, quote, empirically reviewed data which has its place, but which also doesn’t always reflect what’s truly happening in the real world.
Jonathan Fields (00:02:31) – Which is why Dan went out into the real world and has been doing this research for more than two decades and why I’m thrilled to share this conversation with Dan, to learn some of the simple yet powerful lessons from the world’s most vigorous centenarians on sidestepping pitfalls and infusing our lives with their wisdom. Dan’s new book, The Blue Zone Secrets for Living Longer. It really transports us inside the lives of history’s most remarkable super agers around the globe. I’m excited to glean inspiration on adding life to our years by transforming our environments and communities in simple and enjoyable ways. So join me today for a bit of a myth busting take on the real keys to longevity, vitality and health from Dan Buettner. So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields, and this is a Good Life project. I have been someone who’s been aware of your work for quite a long time now, and I think we’re curious about a lot of the same questions for you the exploration of the blue zones of not just how to live long or not just had a sort of like hack the years, but actually had to live well at the same time has been a big part of your orbit for, I guess, about two decades now.
Jonathan Fields (00:03:50) – Is that right?
Dan Buettner (00:03:51) – Yes, 20 years, but working mostly under the aegis of National Geographic. So I try to be evidence based and underpinned by a certain statistical certainty in every both longevity and happiness.
Jonathan Fields (00:04:08) – How does that show up in your work? Is I know part of what you know. As you said, a lot of that was under the aegis of of Nat Geo. So when you’re out there, like on the one hand, you want to be statistically oriented and science oriented, but on the other hand, you’re out there gathering the stories and a huge part of your body of work is saying, let’s actually go to the people, let’s acknowledge the data and the numbers. But what’s happening on the ground?
Dan Buettner (00:04:31) – Well, before I even get a plane to go to one of these blue zones, we spent a year and a half with demographers first parsing through worldwide census data to find places where people have the highest life expectancy in middle age or the highest centenarian rate. And then our first trip, before we even start looking into factors, we go verify ages.
Dan Buettner (00:04:55) – So especially when it comes to longevity, it’s not just anecdotal. It’s not just Dan Buettner going out and talking with a bunch of old people. We know that these populations are producing statistically longest of people in the world, and we know exactly how they’re doing that. And we verified birth certificates and baptismal certificates. So we know these people have achieved the outcome we want, which is to live a long time, largely without chronic disease and so many other longevity hotspots that have come before me, the Valley of Ecuador or the Hudson Valley of Pakistan or the caucuses in Russia, they were all anecdotal and they were debunked. They people weren’t living that long. So all of the conclusions drawn from those places are invalid. You know, it’s like going to Hoboken, New Jersey, and looking for the secret of longevity. It’s they’re not living all that long, but the blue zones, they really are. And we’ve done our homework and we feel good about it.
Jonathan Fields (00:05:54) – Yeah, I mean, it’s amazing to sort of be able to to blend those two worlds in that way.
Jonathan Fields (00:05:59) – We’ve already been using the phrase blue zones. For those who aren’t familiar with what we’re talking about when we’re talking about blue zones, deconstruct that a little bit.
Dan Buettner (00:06:07) – It’s both a geographical term and it’s an approach to longevity. So we found that the geographical terms are five areas. We found the longest admitted Sardinia, the longest of women in Okinawa, Japan. In Ikaria, Greece, we found a population of 10,000 people living eight years longer, functionally without dementia. Nicoya Peninsula, of Costa Rica, the lowest rate of middle aged mortality in the world. So guys, our age and most of the people listening right now, people in Nicoya have about a 2 or 3 fold better chance of reaching a healthy age, 95. And then the United States, among the Seventh Day Adventist population, are living about 7 or 8 years longer than Americans. But Blue Zones is also an approach. Instead of looking for secrets of longevity in a petri dish or a test tube or some sort of longevity hack, we found the longest of people where we begin with the assumption that 20% of how long people live is genes on average.
Dan Buettner (00:07:12) – The other 80% is something else. So blue zones is a search for that 80% of something else. These are real people, real populations. And we find clear correlations of these people in these blue zones that same trends, no matter where you go, whether it’s Asia or Europe or Latin America, this populations have lived a long time. We see the same things over and over. It’s those commonalities from which I draw the sort of lessons that I think we should pay attention to if we want to live longer, healthier lives.
Jonathan Fields (00:07:47) – Yeah, and I love that you’re an essential part of the body of work is that you’re looking at populations in completely different parts of the world who have this proven history of longevity and well-being within that longevity. And you’re able to see these patterns and there’s no easy way to argue, Well, one population communicated this to another, their disparate parts of the world. And yet there are these commonalities. One of the things you just shared also is that the I guess the max life expectancy for typically first world nations is around 93 these days.
Jonathan Fields (00:08:20) – But the average life expectancy in the US is substantially lower than that, which I think a lot of people would find surprising. Yeah.
Dan Buettner (00:08:28) – Under 80 right now after Covid. And by the way, it’s down two and a half years over the last well since before Covid. And while the rest of the developed world life expectancy as recuperated and continue to trend up, we lost another half a year in America, which points to the fact that our chronic disease load and the fact that 42% of us are obese, you know, another 3 or 34% of us are overweight. We’re going to continue to see life expectancy dropping in this country. Our kids have a very real chance of living shorter, unhealthier lives than even we did. And it is a catastrophe, especially given the fact that we’re spending over $4 trillion a year on health care in this country. So it’s the whole system is misguided and corrupt.
Jonathan Fields (00:09:20) – Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting and it feels like a lot of the emphasis, at least in Western culture, especially in the US, has been, okay, so how do we hack this? How do we keep living the way that we’re living? But hacking on the margins, is there a way to not have to sacrifice or change behavior or give everything up? But we can incorporate some sort of technology or some sort of supplement to try and fix the problem without really dealing with the root of how we live.
Dan Buettner (00:09:48) – Yeah, there’s two problems with a hack or some anti-aging nostrum. The first one is there’s nothing that has been proven to stop slow or reverse aging. No, that foreman, No remdesivir, no testosterone therapy, stem cells. Nothing’s proven. And even if we proved they would work, none of them would add more than a year of life expectancy. As you know, even the theoretical. Meanwhile, we know, for example, simply having four friends around you who you can count on a bad day is associated with about seven extra years of life expectancy over being lonely. We know that eating a Blue Zone’s type whole food plant based diet is worth 10 to 13 years of life expectancy. Overeating the Standard American diet. We know that if you can articulate your sense of purpose, it’s worth seven years of life expectancy over being rudderless. So if any of these were, we could put it in a capsule, would be a blockbuster drug. But these aren’t things you put in a capsule. There are things nobody can really sell you.
Dan Buettner (00:10:55) – So they’re not marketed and they’re not top of mind, but they not only work and there’s plenty of evidence underpinning them, but also these are the building blocks of a good life. It’s not an injection. It makes us feel good to live our life with friends who care about us. It makes us feel good to wake up every morning knowing there’s meaning in our lives and how we’re going to spend our day contribute something. It makes us feel good to start our day with a plant based breakfast as opposed to bacon and eggs, which make us lethargic. So once again, other than my books, I don’t have anything to sell you. So there’s not $1 billion marketing plan behind Blue zones, but it works today and it’s worked for defined populations for hundreds of years.
Jonathan Fields (00:11:44) – Yeah, And I want to go into some of the the patterns and the behaviors and some that you’ve just shared and also explore some of these different locations, because I think it’s fascinating. But before we get there and before we sort of like completely move away from the conversation around hacks or supplements or meds, I do want to ask you about one thing that has become other than I think it has been a huge focus of conversation, and that is there’s a new generation of meds, semaglutide and all sorts of variations of that.
Jonathan Fields (00:12:17) – Literally just saw an article this morning that said nobody entirely understands how or why these things actually work. And yet when you look at that, demand for these things is exploding, The mechanism isn’t entirely understood from what I know yet. A lot of people are looking at these as like, well, this is finally the thing that works that won’t have to require me to change all these different things. Do you take on that?
Dan Buettner (00:12:41) – On one hand, we’ve heard this over and over again, fen phen, for a while, and then, you know, we had this for a while when everybody believed that fat was going to make us sick. We had this artificial fats. And then when we believe that sugar was driving all kinds of health problems, we had artificial sweeteners. None of them have panned out over time. So maybe these new compounds that curb our hunger might indeed do that. But you know what? Eating is pleasurable and I can show you how to eat and be full and satiated in an enjoyable way that makes you feel good, that doesn’t cost you $1,000 a month and doesn’t require you to have a needle in your belly and doesn’t come with.
Dan Buettner (00:13:28) – Any potential side effects that we don’t know about yet. I just think if people took that effort and paid attention to these ways of living, that made people live a long time, happily by the chance. You know, I wrote a cover story for National Geographic Unhappiness. I was afforded access to world wide data on happiness, which is technically well-being and positive affect. These blue zones are in the top 10% of the happiest places to which you’re not going to get by job and a needle in your belly to curb your appetite. So there’s a smarter way, in my opinion. Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:14:05) – I mean, it’s such an interesting point that a lot of the behaviors that you’re talking about and the patterns that are shared across all these different populations, there are things that may take extra work or extra effort, but like the net effect is they actually add to your life, like there are things that make you happier and more well and that help you live that that thing we call a good life. I want to talk about Sardinia, a bit.
Jonathan Fields (00:14:28) – This is from what I what I remember, I think was one of the first places that you actually dropped into and where a lot of sort of like the early ideas around blue zones really started to take root. I know you said you do a lot of research that drew you there in the first place. When you drop in, like you start out with research that says this is what I think is happening, these are the numbers. Then you drop in. You see on a cultural level and you’re just talking to people. What were you not expecting when you showed up there that you actually experienced?
Dan Buettner (00:14:59) – I started off on blue zones 20 years ago, and I actually was kind of hoping to find a compound or some sort of diet or some kind of superfood that was explaining longevity. I didn’t know. I usually try. First of all, I pull all the available academic research around longevity. So we know the highlands of Sardinia, part of Italy. I want to know what is different about this area that may give me clues to why people are living longer.
Dan Buettner (00:15:29) – Why isn’t it the next region over? I talked to historians, I talked to geologists. I talked to climate people. I talked to nutritionists, anthropologists, a whole sort of multidisciplinary approach looking for clues. What surprised me was, you know, I didn’t know this. For one, it’s a matriarchal society. The rest of the Mediterranean is, you know, it’s the dude, the dad that sits at the head of the table and sort of issues orders runs the roost. But Sardinia, the blue zone, not all of Sardinia is a matriarchal society. It’s a Bronze Age culture that originally came from what is today the Basque region of Spain. They made their way along the southern coast of France through Corsica, arrived in Sardinia 13,000 years ago. I know this from interviewing Paolo Franco, who’s a geneticist looking at mitochondrial DNA. He can trace the origins and along with it comes a slightly different genetic makeup, but it’s a different cultural makeup. So women are taking care of the kids and and they run the garden and they fix the roof and they carry the gun for protection.
Dan Buettner (00:16:44) – And a matriarchal community probably conveys more health and safety to kids, perhaps less likely to be violent. Their women are carrying more of the stress load. And interestingly, in Sardinia, so America, for example, for every one male centenarian, there are five female centenarians. But in Sardinia, the proportion is 1 to 1. What for each male centenarians is one female. Well, why is that? Is that because the males have something special going on, or is that because the stress load of the females is greater and there’s not as many centenarians showing up because they’re, you know, doing the hard work and stressing out. We don’t know for sure, but that surprised me. The other big thing that surprised me is it was not the altitude of villages. So in other words, living in mountain villages conveys no extra life expectancy. But it was the steepness, the pitch of the streets in the village. So the steeper the streets, the more higher predictability for longevity that these people don’t eat fish.
Dan Buettner (00:17:52) – You think Sardinia, you know sardines? No. I met centenarians and only ate fish five times their lives. Because even though you can see the ocean, it’s a day’s journey away. And they didn’t have a culture of fishing. They had they were pastoralists, so they didn’t eat fish, which surprised me. I found a type of blue zones wine. You can actually Google it, a canal that had three times the levels of the antioxidants that keep your arteries from getting inflamed proceeded. So that interested me. It also interested me to find out that. The men most likely to make it to 100 had five or more daughters. Daughters were highly predictive of making it to 100. For men, sons were not. So that might be because daughters are more likely to take care of their aging fathers and sons are. Or it may be a selection bias that if you can survive five adolescent girls, making it to 100 is no problem. So there’s lots of interesting things if you’re willing to dig deep and also run the risk of digging dry.
Dan Buettner (00:19:00) – Wells. You know, a lot of experts I talked to, I spent afternoons with and nothing came of it.
Jonathan Fields (00:19:06) – The pitch of the streets is actually really interesting to me. Right, Because as you said, there’s an altitude thing that didn’t turn out to be sort of like the thing, but the fact that a lot of the streets were pitched at a steep angle. I guess the implication of that is if you’re walking up those on a regular basis, basically you’re moving your body in a much more intense way and probably getting closer to that recommended daily allowance of more vigorous exercise just by the nature of the geography of the town.
Dan Buettner (00:19:36) – You know, the other finding is nobody exercises, you know, at least in the way that we’re marketed exercise, CrossFit, run triathlons, pump iron, yoga classes, Pilates. They don’t have any of that. They just have steep streets. And you see 80 or 90 year olds. They go to church every afternoon. This forthcoming Netflix documentary. And in my book profile, a woman who every morning she gets up and she goes to the market, It occasions a quarter of a mile hike up the street to buy her food and then back down.
Dan Buettner (00:20:08) – And then at 3:00 every afternoon, she walks up to church. She doesn’t need to go to the gym, you know, And then she spends a half hour a day in her garden. And, you know, if you ask her if she exercises, it’s still saying no. But if you count her steps, probably 8000 steps a day and they’re enjoyable. She’s walking through her village. It’s it’s a beautiful town. She’s waving to her neighbors. She’s stopping to talk to the bread maker and the butcher and her friends at church. This is where we got to get in America. If we want to live longer, it’s not what we think when it comes to longevity.
Jonathan Fields (00:20:46) – I love that notion because I think we’re Americans, especially such as sort of like an exercise focused culture. Well, I mean, to the certain to the extent that people actually embrace that, you know, there’s so little focus on how do I just bring fun, engaging natural movement into my day throughout the day rather than how can I just blast out the required 30 minutes of exercise so I can check that off the box and make it like just done because that’s what I’m supposed to do to live a healthy life, which for many people is really unenjoyable the way that they end up doing it.
Jonathan Fields (00:21:20) – And also what you’re saying, there’s a much more enjoyable, just fully integrated way of finding movement in your day that has the same, if not better effect. We don’t really think about it that way.
Dan Buettner (00:21:33) – Yeah, Argue Exercise has been an unmitigated public health failure. Fewer than 24% of Americans get even the minimum amount, which is 20 minutes of equivalent of a walk a day. And if you look at the data of gym memberships, people start out with a lot of zeal, usually after the first of the year, but within about a year, 80% of people are functionally not even using their gym membership. So they say, oh, I go to the gym, but they really don’t. Two more problems. The second problem is we did not evolve sitting on our butts all day long and then a half hour burst of energy. We evolved, moving naturally all the time. You wake up in the morning and you have to go gather your food and find wood and start a fire and build our shelter and walk to the neighbor.
Dan Buettner (00:22:20) – So we’re genetically hardwired to move all the time. And it’s much better for us to keep moving every 20 minutes or so. Like people in blue zones do keep your metabolism higher all day long, so you’re burning calories even when you’re not, quote unquote, moving or exercising. The third problem with it is people who do sedentary and then a big burst of physical activity that creates inflammation. When you work out too hard the next morning, you wake up and your muscles hurt and your achy and fatigued lactic acid, that’s inflammation. It’s the same information that stress occasions or very similar, at least metabolically, wreaks havoc on our arteries, shrinks our brains, wrinkles our skins. Is it good to do it once in a while? Yes, it is. But the notion of twice a week, I’m going to go crush it in the gym and I’m going to get healthy. It’s wrong minded. There are studies that show that marathon runners have more calcification in their arteries and they’re more likely to die of a heart attack.
Dan Buettner (00:23:26) – Minnesota. Where I spend part of the year. There is a huge spike in heart attacks after the first snow. People are sedentary all the time. They go, okay, I’m gonna get some exercise or shovel my snow and boom, they dropped dead from heart attack. Big spike. So the right way to do it is regular, low intensity physical activity. Do something you love, but do it every day. And why do I say love? As you pointed out a minute ago, Jonathan, if it feels like a chore, we stop doing it all but single digit percentage of people will stop doing it over time. And when it comes to longevity, there’s no short term fix. There’s no short term strategy of anything you can do for a month or a year. You got to think about things that you’ll do for decades or lifetime and finding that enjoyable thing. Pickleball, Gardening, Riding bikes. I’m a bike fanatic. I’ve been doing it for 40 years. I love it. I did it this morning, but I love it.
Dan Buettner (00:24:22) – I don’t like CrossFit. I never do cross fiction. Every day I do something I enjoy.
Jonathan Fields (00:24:27) – Yeah, I love that. I’m in Boulder, Colorado. After 30 years in New York City. We bounced out here about three years ago and where we are actually in Boulder is I am a seven minute walk to some of the most beautiful trails and some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. And I’m basically in there for an hour and a half to two hours almost every day hiking. And if you had told me when I was living in New York City that, okay, you need to go and, quote, exercise for an hour and a half to two hours a day, absolutely rejected the idea that I could even find time for that because I was just, quote, too busy. And then the notion of actually applying myself to some exercise like that for that amount of time was almost inconceivable. And I’m somebody who’s pretty semantically oriented here. I can’t wait to get out to the mountains. Like I wake up in the morning first thing in the morning and I can’t wait to put my hiking shoes on.
Jonathan Fields (00:25:21) – And when I’m out there, I regularly see folks in their 70s and 80s out on the trail, not because they’re trying to, quote, get their exercise in. They’re just enjoying it and they’ve been doing it for decades. You strike up conversations and they are just so happy being out on the mountain. And it’s just a completely different way of thinking about movement in the context of your life and longevity. And you don’t have to move to the mountains to do this. You know, I think it’s really about finding like, what is the thing that actually is joyful movement for you? And no matter where you are.
Dan Buettner (00:25:57) – I happen to know about Boulder. I wrote a cover story for National Geographic, which included Boulder. The life expectancy in Boulder at people in Boulder is about 20 years greater than that in certain areas in Kentucky. Oh, wow. 20 years. Now, is that because people in Boulder are smarter or have more individual responsibility or are somehow better humans or better genes? No. You live in Boulder and part of it, as you correctly point out, you have easy access to mountains, but also I happen to know the streets are designed such that it’s faster to bike across Boulder than it is to drive your car.
Jonathan Fields (00:26:35) – Yeah, true. When you go.
Dan Buettner (00:26:36) – To crosswalks, when a pedestrian shows up, all the traffic is stopped so the pedestrian can walk across the street safely and quickly. So this is a city that says to its pedestrians and bikers, we’re going to prioritize you and you get more of this natural physical activity. Boulder also bought up what they call your green belt. You probably know about it where you can sit on Pearl Street for lunch or have a meeting there. If your business is there and you can walk within a few minutes, you can be walking in a green space. You don’t even have to go up in the mountains and you can be back from your 1:00 meeting. Now this is an environment that invites and nudges people into physical activity, and that’s the kind of physical activity that counts because you do it unconsciously every day. And the statistics back me up on that.
Jonathan Fields (00:27:34) – Yeah, no, completely. It’s funny. It’s really one of the running jokes when we got here was nobody meets for coffee here.
Jonathan Fields (00:27:41) – You meet for a hike. It’s just like that is sort of like the standard for if you want to hang out with friends. One of the other communities that you’ve explored, I think is interesting also because it exists within the US, but it’s also almost like its own capsule within the US, which is the Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda. Curious about your interest in that community and also your take on how it really sort of exists as almost this bubble within the culture immediately surrounding it.
Dan Buettner (00:28:13) – It is definitely a bubble. The National Institutes on Aging has been funding studies for the Adventist epidemiology studies for 30 years. They followed 100,007th Day Adventists and they look at their lifestyle and then they follow up in a series of years after to see who survives and who doesn’t. And they find that Seventh Day Adventists, who are adherent live as much as ten years longer than their California counterpart or the people. You know, this is in Loma Linda, California. You look at just one city over and they’re living a decade less.
Dan Buettner (00:28:53) – So you start saying, well, what’s going on here? So the Adventists are conservative Christians who distinguish themselves and other Christians that, you know, they tend to emphasize education, they evangelize with health, and they celebrate their Sabbath on Saturday instead of Sunday. And they take their Sabbath very seriously. So they become a little bit isolated from other people in the area because their kids aren’t playing football on Friday night or Saturday and they’re not going to dance classes and they’re not going to movies. They spend that 24 hour sanctuary and time focusing on their family. They have long church services. Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, they’re going to these potlucks where they’re meeting their friends and, you know, reinforcing those social circles. And then they take a nature walk right in their religion or their religious writings is the prescription. Take a nature walk on Saturday afternoon. And the power of this is they’re doing it for decades or a lifetime. None of this would work very well if you did it once or twice or got excited about it for a few months.
Dan Buettner (00:29:59) – But they’re doing it for a lifetime. Adventists also take their diet directly from the Bible. Genesis Chapter one, verse 26. God has provided all trees that bear fruit and plants that bear seed. And one stanza later, God talks about green plants. So nowhere in the Garden of Eden does the diet call call for, you know, sausage or hamburgers or cheese or or eggs. You know, it’s basically the diet that God hands down to humans is a plant based diet. And the Adventists actually adhere to that at higher levels. So this this you see the same patterns in all blue zones, mostly a whole food plant based diet. And sure enough, when when they’re doing it here in America, they’re living a longer time. And it provides a really good example.
Jonathan Fields (00:30:51) – Yeah, the shared food patterns I think is interesting. But one of the things that also jumps out at me is that this was one of the communities, and I think it’s the only one that I know of and tell me if I’m getting this wrong that you dropped into over the years where it is largely a faith based community rather than others, where it’s more of just a local population.
Jonathan Fields (00:31:10) – Curious what your take is on the role of whether you define it as faith, religion, spiritual devotion, a sense of participation in something bigger, whatever it may be, whether that has a central place in this conversation around well-being and longevity.
Dan Buettner (00:31:29) – Belonging to a faith based community. I do. We know that people show up to church or temple or mosque, live 4 to 14 years longer than people who have no faith. And it might be because people who belong to a faith are less likely to get involved in risky behaviors like drugs or, you know, weird sexual things where you might get a disease. It might be because they have a built in social circle. Loneliness shaves eight years off. You know, if you ever leave Saturday or Sunday, you see your church or temple buddies, you share something in common. It may be because people show up to church once a week. They can shed stress because they’re taking their focus off of their daily woes and focusing on a higher purpose. Or there might be a God treats his or her subjects favorably.
Dan Buettner (00:32:20) – I’m not particularly religious person, but it seems to work. And it works best, by the way, for inner city youth, 20 year old inner city minority, probably the most effective public health intervention is to get them involved with the faith based community. And the impact is vast and the cost is very low. And with the Adventists, it’s not just their faith, it’s the community. All blue zones are somewhat isolated and that isolation. Has kept the standard American diet and the fanaticism around electronics at bay. And it’s allowed their natural or their traditional culture to continue to exert the healthful influence on people and the Adventists. As you point out, they’re less of a geography blue zone and more of a faith based blue zone. Loma Linda was a law enabled me to claim it a blue zone because Loma Linda is almost all Adventists and it’s the highest concentration of Adventists. It’s where Ellen White, the founder of the religion, lived for most of her life, Loma Linda University. It’s really a Adventist culture.
Dan Buettner (00:33:30) – They’re great plant based eating restaurants and a great co-op. They’re associated with the university. So I called it a blue zone. Some demographers will quibble with me because it doesn’t meet the same standard or the same characteristics as other blue zone. But, you know, I invented it. So I get to call it a blue zone.
Jonathan Fields (00:33:52) – Right? The other thing that you shared is that like literally part of the daily practice or I guess the weekend practice, at least stepping into nature as nature walks. And it seems like you see this like regular immersion exposure and the embrace of nature and pretty much all of these zones as well. Even like you talk about Singapore, you write about this in your book and a lot of people think about Singapore and they probably think, well, you know, like city, you know, like just urban environment, you know, like all sorts of stuff. But as you actually write about and describe, they’ve invested very heavily for decades in really making a lot of movement within green spaces available to the population.
Dan Buettner (00:34:32) – Yeah. So I’ve named Singapore as a blue zone 2.0 because unlike the rest of the blue zones that have just had a culture that evolved over centuries, Singapore in the 1960s was a fishing village and life expectancy was about a quarter of a century lower than it is today. And the government there, led by Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Kuan Yew, gets a lot of ridicule for caning and his laws against junk gum chewing and spitting, etcetera. But I interviewed him. He was a fluent English, went to Cambridge, imbued with values, Confucian values of order, of harmony, of respect for elders, respect for authority. And he went about building a society based on these values. And health is also was a big value. And the green spaces were largely he didn’t go about putting green spaces in because, well, there’s association between green space and higher well-being. No, you know his Confucian values, you create a harmonious environment by mitigating traffic and having more parkways and parks and reservoirs and green spaces. About 40% of the island, even though it has about the highest population density in the world, is full of green spaces.
Dan Buettner (00:35:55) – Traffic became a problem very early on in the 1970s is a problem in this country. Instead of letting traffic run wild and succumbing to lobbyists or business interests like we do in the United States, he said. You know, people are healthier. It’s more harmonious if they’re walking. So he texts the heck out of a car. If you want to buy a Honda Civic, be ready to shell out about $100,000. Most of it’s taxes. You’re going to pay very high gasoline. They don’t subsidize gas. They’re pay about over $10 a gallon for gas. You’re going to pay heavy tolls to go into the in the middle of the city. And I know people listen and say, oh, my God, what a nightmare. I can’t drive. But on the other hand, nobody is more than about 300m away from a fast, efficient, safe, pleasant subway, which is cheap. Get you anywhere in the island fast. No parking, no traffic, no waiting. And on the freeway, No traffic accidents.
Dan Buettner (00:36:55) – Very little chance your kid’s going to get hurt in an accident. And instead also there’s going to be very pleasant walkways, covered walkways, tree lined walkways, walkways along beautiful rivers where you can get this unconscious physical activity. You can see your neighbors, you can enjoy the greenery. We know from our happiness research the most unhappy thing we do on a day to day basis is our motorized commute to work, and Lee Kuan Yew effectively limited that and created money in the coffers to build a beautiful built environment. That’s just one of the many facets. But it’s something that we don’t understand in America and we make the same mistake over and over and over again by prioritizing the automobile over the pedestrian.
Jonathan Fields (00:37:43) – Yeah, it’s so interesting how we make just completely opposite decisions. When you think about what I guess you would describe as as government sponsored or social programs that seem to be very intentional in addressing a lot of different things. You write about a program called Healthy 365 million mobility applications programs to help people quit certain health, deteriorating habits, programs to bring wellness into the workplace, programs to bring social support to youth.
Jonathan Fields (00:38:16) – And it seems like large scale investment in supporting the types of behaviors that would lead to not just a better day to day life, but better longevity.
Dan Buettner (00:38:28) – Well, as I mentioned before, in this country, our current health care spend per year is $4.4 trillion. To put that in perspective, the value of all farmland in America is $3.7 trillion. So we spend more than the value of all of our farms, and 96% of it is in mopping up the mess from chronic disease, from diabetes, heart disease, cancers, many of which are avoidable dementia, strokes. They’re just putting a slightly higher percentage of their health care spend in prevention. And it’s the best money you’ll spend is about a 16 fold return on the prevention dollar as opposed to the sick care dollar that we spend money on. The problem in this country is all in the health care industry. All the incentives line up behind sickness. Nobody makes money. If you stay healthy, pharmaceutical companies are going to lose money because you’re not getting a prescription.
Dan Buettner (00:39:28) – Doctors are going to lose money because you’re not coming in for procedures. Hospitals are going to lose money because you’re not renting a bed. So their lobbyists are going to be out in throngs looking for support for making sick people sick. And there’s no lobbyists out or very few lobbyists who are saying, let’s make streets more walkable. Let’s curb the access for junk food. Let’s stop subsidizing cheap grains and feedlot livestock and processed food, which we de facto do in this country. And we hope for health in this country. And we get sickness. The folly of incentives for a and hoping for be.
Jonathan Fields (00:40:09) – One of the other populations I know you’ve been studying for years is Okinawa, which is interesting because it seems like it’s also and you write about this, the generation that you originally studied, there may be, in fact, the last generation that would allow that space to be labeled as a blue zone, in no small part because of US influence.
Dan Buettner (00:40:33) – Correct. So Okinawa produced the longest people in the history of the world, and now they are the least healthy, the 47 prefectures in Japan.
Dan Buettner (00:40:42) – Well, why is that? That since I started studying that place, I first went in 1999. So it’s been 24 years I’ve been going there and I’ve seen it deteriorate largely because there’s an enormous American base there. And around that base is a forest of fast food restaurants, McDonald’s biggest root beer stand in the world. And there’s like even an American town there where it’s just pizzas and burgers and all this sickness that we’re exporting to the rest of the world through our processed food and our burgers and our junk food. You know, yes, there’s a certain romance around that food. Sure. It’s okay as a treat once in a while. But the ubiquity of it and the daily nature of it is killing us. And it is created in Okinawa, a place with one of the highest rates of obesity, one of the highest rates of type two diabetes. Increasingly, they’re making the same mistake that Los Angeles made and Miami and Tallahassee, where they’re paving over their cities with multi-lane freeways which are loud and and spew pollution and displace these peaceful walkways.
Dan Buettner (00:41:54) – It’s the wrong way. And you can look at it and say, oh, my God, this place is going to hell. And then you look at the numbers and sure enough, it is. It’s no longer a blue zone.
Jonathan Fields (00:42:04) – It’s amazing in a sad and unfortunate way to see how quickly generations of behavior and a certain outcome, many, many generations can be flipped on its head, literally in a matter of a handful of years. And one of the things I’m curious about, though, in Okinawa in particular, because this was one of the places where in your early work in the blue zones, one of the things that you identified as being a potential driver of longevity is was what seemed to be a fairly universal sense of purpose, of raison d’etre, like you use the word ikigai, right? And that is one of the things that you identify as sort of central to being qualified as a blue zone. I’m wondering if. You see a shift in that, along with more of a shift in the lifestyle behaviors in that population.
Dan Buettner (00:42:56) – So I want to make a few things clear. So along with universal purpose, there’s universal health care in all blues, by the way, which we don’t have in America here. Everybody has access to basic primary care in all blue zones, which we don’t have except for Loma Linda. They don’t. They’re Americans, too. Yes. The notion of ikigai was, for sure prevalent among the last generation. And before that, There’s no word for retirement in Okinawa and the Okinawa. Instead, this sense of purpose and views their entire life. People say lifestyle all the time. And none of these blue zones do people have a better lifestyle when it comes to better discipline or better diets or better exercise and better individual responsibility. They don’t pursue health at all. They don’t take supplements. They don’t go to CrossFit. They just live their lives. And the big universal insight, the big idea that I hope Blue Zones conveys that if you want to get healthier, get happier or live longer, don’t try to change your behavior.
Dan Buettner (00:44:06) – You’ll fail in the long run. If you look at the recidivism curves of diets, of exercise, programs, of even pharmaceutical adherence, people can pay attention for a number of months, but within a year or two, you lose about 90% of people who try to change their behavior. Well, behavioral change is a great business plan. It’s a great way to sell diets and pills and so forth. Doesn’t work in blue zones. Health and longevity aren’t pursued. They ensue from the right environment, which goes back to when I was talking about walkability. People in Okinawa never exercised. They lived in walkable communities. Now you displace that walkable community with a superhighway boom. You’ve just taken away their major source of physical activity paved over their garden or whatever. It used to be the food environment in Okinawa. You ate largely from your garden sweet potatoes, tofu, bitter melon, wonderful stir fries. And a lot of people had small industrial garden that was big enough that it produced food for the local farmer’s market.
Dan Buettner (00:45:13) – So every little neighborhood had a farmer’s market. That was the food environment. Now you displace that with a KFC and a McDonald’s, and all of a sudden people are naturally buying burgers instead of sweet potatoes and their health spirals down. It’s not because the Okinawans all of a sudden lost their sense of purpose or they somehow became lesser people. It’s their environment change. And in America. Anybody listening here, If you want to live longer, think about changing your social circle. Think about changing how you set up your home. Blue Zones has lots of strategies for optimizing your social network, your home, your workplace. And, you know, my main business, my daytime job since 2009, we have a team of over 200 people. We get hired by cities and insurance companies to go into cities and lower the BMI, not by trying to convince everybody in that city to eat more vegetables and walk more, but by changing their environment so it becomes easy or unavoidable. So far, 71 cities have hired us.
Dan Buettner (00:46:20) – And take Fort Worth, Texas. That was Cowtown. We’ve helped make it more plant based, more walkable, more purpose driven, more connected. And in the five years we were there, we saw the obesity rate dropped by 3% while the rest of Texas got heavier. We didn’t try to change people’s minds. We changed their environment. And that’s the big idea I want to leave people with.
Jonathan Fields (00:46:43) – Yeah, and that’s huge. I mean, if you go into it accepting the fact that just sort of like in general, we’re horrible at sustained self regulation, but if we literally change the environment that we’re in so that the only choices are really just better choices, then it sort of takes the whole notion of willpower out of the equation, which makes it better and easier for everything and everyone. You know, one of the things that we haven’t talked about that I’m really curious about is stress. We live in a day and age where most people report being under some level of sustained stress and like and of course, the last three years were a super high level stress for everyone.
Jonathan Fields (00:47:23) – But even before that and now as we emerge from it, what’s your take? And this is actually I know you included this in sort of like the nine critical Things list that you write about is downshifting stress. But when we think about behavior change in stress versus environment change and stress, like how do these things all work so that we feel like we effectively really can reduce stress? Because I think a lot of people think, okay, I’m under stress, I feel it. I know it’s doing harm to me, but I don’t really see a way out of it.
Dan Buettner (00:47:53) – Well, there’s not a silver bullet, but it is silver buckshot. We know driving and traffic is stressful. We know it. It’s stress inducing. So if you figure out how to walk, to work, bike to work, or even take public transportation, you take that stress out. We know that socially interacting with people lowers stress. So making time to reshape your social circle so you have 4 or 5 people who care about you, who live nearby and who meet with you regularly, that takes that stress out of.
Dan Buettner (00:48:26) – We know eating meat and smoking contribute to stress producing chemicals, so taking those out of the diet. So living in a healthy food and tobacco environment is going to risk that. We know people take the time to know their sense of purpose, wake up in the morning, they know exactly what they’re going to do. They take the existential stress out of their day like, Oh my God, what am I here on earth for? What am I going to do today? That becomes much clearer. Taking a nap lowers cortisol. So having a place at work or at home where you can go up and take a nap, all of these things incrementally work when it comes. Taking the electronics out of your kitchen will lower stress, lower cortisol levels when you’re eating, once again being a little disruptive by saying the answer is only changing your environment. There’s a behavioral component and, you know, single digit percentage of people can get by on raw discipline and presence of mind. But some folding, some mix of the right education, the right intention is good.
Dan Buettner (00:49:26) – But if you set up your environment so that it you make it easier and unconscious than unavoidable, it’s sort of creating an enabling environment to do the things that we know lower stress, help you eat better, help you move more, help you connect, better, help you live your purpose. That seems to be the silver buckshot.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:50) – Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. Rather than looking for that one big thing, like what are all the little things that are probably a lot more accessible also to a lot more people? So if you have a list of 20 different little things that you could do, a lot of people could look at that and say, Yeah, I could do this or I could do that, or I could make this shift or change this in my environment rather than saying what’s the one thing that’s just going to completely turn everything around, which for a lot of people probably doesn’t exist? We’re having this conversation. You’ve got a new book coming out, by the way, like the photography in the book is stunning.
Jonathan Fields (00:50:22) – I and for those who are thinking, what are the things that I can do? What about eating? You offer a lot of great roadmaps, advice, ingredients, things to eat. We’re having this conversation on the verge of a four part Netflix special coming out. Curious. You’ve been doing this work for so long. When you say yes to something like this, what’s the incentive for you? Like, what do you want to convey by taking people on a visual journey that is different than the story that you’ve been telling for the last two decades?
Dan Buettner (00:50:56) – Well, 2005, when I wrote the cover story for National Geographic, we had 40 million readers down to about 1 million readers. Now, when I wrote my first book in 2008, a lot of people read books. I sold a million books. Now, the way people are consuming stories is through Netflix and social media. So I’ve switched to these mediums. I mean, the forthcoming book This Secrets of Living Longer represents 20 years of work, and it looks and reads like a very long National Geographic article.
Dan Buettner (00:51:26) – It’s full of our best. National Geographic photography brings up to date all five blue zones and reads like a manual for taking this wisdom and putting it to work in your life. But at the end of the day, you know, if I sell 100,000 copies these days, it’ll be big. Netflix is it has about 300 million subscribers worldwide. It’s translated into 40 languages. We got the same crew that did chef’s tables, so it’s visually gorgeous to shoot it. They have low rent talent leading it. That was me. But other than that, it’s a phenomenal, phenomenal show that takes people on the journey that I take. The last 20 years reveals the secrets and shows how to put those secrets to work in your life in a way where you can sit down with a bowl of popcorn. Please don’t put butter on it. But popcorn and, you know, have four enjoyable evenings and pretty much download what took me 20 years to find.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:26) – Yeah. Curious for you, just on a personal level, what it was like for you to travel to these different places, sort of like rather than on your own sort of personal quest and inquiry and more of a journalistic approach literally with a whole crew and capturing this whole thing.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:42) – I’m curious what that experience was like just for you personally and how it was different.
Dan Buettner (00:52:46) – Well, I took some satisfaction in being able to shine the light on these these cultures that deserve attention and celebrate them and they enjoy it. You know, I find that most people have lived 80, 90, 100 years. They love it telling their story to interested people. But I did learn it’s a it’s a hell of a lot harder to make TV than it is to watch it. It was a fairly grueling five months, 12 hour days, but ultimately very satisfying. And I learned a new way to tell stories, which is, you know, through TV. But yeah, I’m proud of it. I hope people watch.
Jonathan Fields (00:53:25) – Yeah, I’m excited for that, to meet the world as well. So it feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation in this Container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Dan Buettner (00:53:38) – Wake up knowing your place in your community.
Dan Buettner (00:53:42) – Being able to contribute it to it, to be able to walk, to go get your cup of coffee, to do something active that you enjoy, to have time with your best friends every day, to be nurturing of your family and of those friends and to to eat good food. Plant-based have all those that you’re not only enjoy life, you’ll have a lot of life. I want to just mention that if if any of your listeners have more questions, they can direct message me at Dan Buettner on Instagram. I answer all my all questions people ask. And I just want to you know, I know, Jonathan, you and I feel like the two of us have had this conversation together, but I know a lot of people out there took an hour or however long to pay attention. And I take it as a real honor that they would take this time out of their day and spend it with us and learn about the blue zones. So thank you. Thank you all.
Jonathan Fields (00:54:43) – Thanks. Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode, say, but you’ll also love the conversation that we had with David Sinclair offering our different and I think, complementary lab based take on longevity.
Jonathan Fields (00:54:55) – You’ll find a link to David’s episode in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person. Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action. That’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.