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Don’t Live in a Blue Zone? Here Are Six Ways to Live Like You Do

Netflix’s ‘Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones’ explores the lifestyles of the centenarians

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Dan Buettner, 63, has spent decades investigating the longevity hot spots he calls blue zones — the places with more centenarians than anywhere else — and reports his findings in best-selling books, and now in a smash-hit Netflix series, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. Buettner interviews fascinatingly age-resistant people in exotic locales, sharing their meals and stories, and pretty soon the viewer feels like a local.

Back in 2008, AARP helped put the life-extending tactics Buettner deduced from his studies to a test. In the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project in Albert Lea, Minnesota, participants collectively lost thousands of pounds and, he calculated, increased their average life expectancy by 2.9 years. In an article for AARP, Buettner wrote, “All say they feel healthier — physically and emotionally.” Walter Willett, M.D., a Harvard School of Public Health epidemiology and nutrition professor, calls the results “stunning.”

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On his 2023 Netflix show, Buettner says, “By traveling throughout the blue zones, I now knew what the longest-lived people did to live a long time. They ate wisely, they move naturally, they had the right outlook and they knew how to connect.”

Buettner’s series is as entertaining as Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown — but he brings news you can use for more than tourism. He’s out to make you live longer by showing you how the centenarians manage to do so.

Here’s what he learned from some of the oldest, wisest people in the world.

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Don’t want to die? Fix your diet

People ate smart in all of the blue zones he found: Ikaria, Greece, eight miles off Turkey’s coast; Okinawa, Japan; the Ogliastra region in Sardinia, Italy; Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula; Singapore; and Loma Linda, California. Most of them are isolated from modern, unhealthy lifestyles, but what’s a California town doing on the list?

Loma Linda’s secret is that it has the highest population of Seventh-Day Adventists in America. More than a third are vegan or vegetarian, with only about 5 percent of their calories coming from meat, poultry and fish. For the average American, Buettner says, it’s at least triple that. The Adventists try to follow Adam and Eve’s menu in the Bible: grains, greens, vegetables, nuts. Buettner says about a cup of beans a day is associated with an extra four years of life expectancy. And the Adventist Health Study, which followed 103,000 Adventists for 30 years, showed that they’re living about seven years longer than the rest of us. They also weigh about 20 pounds less than meat eaters do.

One pro tip, says Buettner: “The Okinawans have this ingenious saying, ‘Hara hachi bu,’ which reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full.”

Loma Linda’s Ernest Zane, 95, told Buettner he’s outlived his dad by 30 years. “He had no idea about health, drank, smoked. If I followed in my dad’s footsteps, my lifestyle and things, I would be gone.”

You gotta have faith

It wasn’t just the Adventists whose religion gave them an advantage. The long-lived Sardinians and Costa Ricans are mostly Catholics, and in Okinawa ancestors are venerated and prayed to. “People who attend spiritual services more than once weekly can get an extra seven years of life expectancy,” Buettner says. “It doesn’t matter what religion you are. What matters is that you’re part of a faith-based community and that you show up.”

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Be sure to find your tribe

Social cohesion keeps blue zoners keeping on. In Okinawa, it’s not just their diet, it’s the fact that they eat with family, they express gratitude before their meal and they’re slowing down because they’re having conversation along with their healthy food. Being around people who live healthily, Buettner has found, makes you healthier.

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In Costa Rica, Buettner met a 109-year-old woman whose son, 85, biked to her house daily, and children came by to help her with her chickens. In the U.S., he says, the statistics on loneliness are grim: One hundred years ago, 70 percent of widows and widowers moved in with their families; now almost 70 percent live alone — and when a spouse dies, one’s chances of dying in the next three months go up by something like two-thirds. Also, he says, “When you put an older parent in a retirement home, their life expectancy drops between two and six years.”

Don’t miss this: 6 Ways Loneliness Can Harm Your Health — and How to Cut Your Risks

In Singapore, the government’s Proximity Housing Grant pays people to buy older relatives apartments near them. “So there’s a genius in this idea that you’re not forcing Mom and Dad to live with you, but you incent them to live nearby, which is not only good for the family. It adds life expectancy,” Buettner says.

Blue zoners also tend to volunteer to help others they’re not even related to, expanding their tribe. “People who volunteer have lower rates of heart disease,” says Buettner. “They weigh less and they have measurably lower health care costs.”

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Get exercise — but don’t make it a chore

Buettner says the big problem with health interventions is that people don’t stick with good habits, often because it’s no fun. But he meets people who have parties where folks from 14 to 94 dance all night long. “An hour of running or an hour of dancing are about equal when it comes to caloric burn,” he says, “but an hour of dancing is a blast. We’ve tended to associate exercise with suffering — no pain, no gain. But physical activity can be joyful, they’re laughing the whole time. Laughter is good for arteries! I think what blue zones teach us is that longevity can be joyous.”

The Costa Ricans he met don’t have gym memberships, but exercise is just part of life. “They do everything by hand. They don't have the mechanical conveniences to do their housework and their yard work. They use a machete to cut their grass. Keeping the house clean, gathering and preparing food involves unconscious movement — almost a more physical activity than quote-unquote exercise.” Costa Ricans have the world’s lowest rate of middle-age mortality and the second-highest concentration of male centenarians, and a Stanford study found that their biological age is about 10 years younger than what their chronological age would suggest.

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Maybe you can get away with drinking a little after all — as long as your whole life is healthy

Buettner is very aware of the new research showing that every drop of alcohol is bad for you, but he believes that people who drink moderately in the context of a healthy lifestyle do better than average American drinkers do.

Don’t miss this: Is Alcohol Really Good for Your Health?

He says, “People in Korea have been drinking this same wine for over 100 generations, and they’re living the longest, about seven years longer than Americans.” He says they’ve got half the rate of cardiovascular disease, and he never met anyone there in their 60s or 70s with dementia.

When he visited blue zoners in the place where Greek mythology says the god of wine was born, he found similar results. “For me that’s enough of a connection to allow me to enjoy my glass of wine at the end of the night.” But it’s likely that a bigger factor in Greek longevity is the Mediterranean diet.

Don’t miss this: What Is the Mediterranean diet?

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It’s never too late to get healthy

Buettner met a Greek American who got a terminal lung cancer diagnosis at 66, so he moved home to Ikaria, Greece, to die.

“But over that next six months he starts breathing in the air, drinking the Ikaria wine. He reconnects with his friends. He plants a vineyard. And he thinks to himself, Well, I’m not going to be alive to see these grapes. But my wife will. At 102, he’s not only still alive, he’s harvesting all these grapes.

“Being a journalist. I asked him, ‘What’s your secret?’ And he just kind of shrugs his shoulders and goes, ‘I don't know. I guess I just forgot to die.’”

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