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The team approach to longer living

‘Blue Zones’ author will talk about traits shared by world’s healthiest communities

In researching spots around the world where people live long and live well, National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner found that very-long-term health has little to do with dieting or trips to the gym.

Rather than running marathons, the world’s most long-lived people “moved naturally,” living in environments that “nudged” them into physical activity. They had daily rituals that reversed the effects of stress. They could articulate their sense of purpose.

In all, Buettner – working with longevity researchers Michel Poulain and Gianni Pes – identified nine traits shared by people living in communities with significantly more centenarians than other places. Buettner will talk about those traits tonight at a free event at the Spokane Convention Center. After his talk, he’ll lead a panel discussion with Spokane-area government and public-health leaders.

The researchers called the communities “blue zones” after the blue circles they drew on a map as they identified spots where people reach 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the U.S. overall.

Buettner’s report in National Geographic, “The Secrets of Long Life,” was published in 2005. He’s since written a book, “The Blue Zones,” and launched a company by the same name that aims to instill those nine traits in U.S. communities.

Also among them: People in the blue zones drank wine. They ate plant-based diets, and they had strategies to avoid overeating. They invested in family and practiced their faiths. They lived among others who support healthy behavior.

People live long and well when they live in cultures that make it easy to make healthy decisions, Buettner said.

“The wrong way is to go about it the way we’ve been doing it for the past 70 years, which is to try to get people to go on diets, exercise activity and join gyms and all that – short-term successes and long-time failures,” Buettner said. “The secret is to create environments that make the right decisions for people.”

In a phone interview before his visit, Buettner talked about his work. Some questions and answers, edited for length.

Q. What led to your interest in longevity?

A. I was a lifelong explorer and got away from the whole adventuring thing and more into expeditions that sought to unravel a scientific mystery or illuminate the human condition somehow.

I got really interested in what traditional and ancient peoples can teach us about living our lives better and stumbled onto Okinawa (Japan) in 2000.

The World Health Organization came out with a finding that Okinawa had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. I thought: Aha, now there’s a good mystery. What are they doing to live so long and stay healthy that we could be doing?

Q. How did you choose the original blue zones?

A. The idea was to reverse-engineer longevity. There’s something called the Danish twins study that establishes that only about 20 percent of how long you live is genes. The other 80 percent is lifestyle and environment. So, reasoning that people who are living the longest have the best lifestyle and environment in the world, (I thought) if I could find out what they do, or find out how they live, I’d have a de facto formula for longevity.

I started with Okinawa. About the same time Michel Poulain and Gianni Pes were finding another nexus of centenarians in the highlands of Sardinia (Italy). Digging through epidemiology studies done in the United States found these Seventh-day Adventists who were outliving Americans by 10 years. In each case you have a population that’s living longest on their continent.

Q. What did you find surprising about their shared characteristics?

A. The big aha moment for me was actually about four or five years in. I’m a little slow, I suppose. None of these centenarians – I was on Ekiria (Greece) when I realized this, this was our fifth blue zone – none of these people are trying to live to be 100. They never got on a diet or exercised. In fact, most of them don’t have any idea how they got to be 100. The bottom line is that they lived in cultures that made the right decisions for them.

That’s kind of the basis of my business, Blue Zones, now. We go to entire cities and now two states and look at all the environments that touch our life, from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed at night and engineer in the little nudges and defaults that help people eat less, move more, eat better, socialize more, live out their purpose – all these things we see in blue zones.

Q. Say your community is not trying to turn itself into a blue zone. Is there a way to apply these ideas as an individual?

A. Yes. You can pay attention to who you curate to be in your immediate social circle. Are they smokers, drinkers, people who spend their days sitting on the couch eating Doritos? Or are they people who like to bike or garden or ski?

You can buy a dog. It seems dumb, but dog owners have half the rate of obesity as non-dog owners. If you have a dog, it needs to be walked every day, and guess who else gets walked?

Simply knowing how to get to work by bus and then doing it once in a while. People who take public transportation exercise 19 minutes a day for sure. They don’t need a gym membership. They don’t have to think about it. It’s often pleasant. They have an 11 percent lower rate of cardiovascular disease. And it’s a permanent thing. It’s one of these permanent rhythms and surrounding tweaks.

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