Dr. Nick Buettner | Blue zones that keep the secret of longevity
National Geographic

Dr. Nick Buettner | Blue zones that keep the secret of longevity

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Dr. Nick Buettner

Community and Corporate Program Director

Blue Zones (United States)

Thank you so much. [IN SPANISH] Thank you. I have to speak in English because my Spanish is slightly bad.

What I would like to do today is take you to the places in the world where people are living the longest life and to show you some lessons as to how they are doing it, not only as individuals, but I think more importantly, how they are doing it as a community.

There’s research out there that said that 80% of how long we live, 80% of how long you live, how long I live, is determined by lifestyle factors and our habits. Only 20% is genetics or health care. Well, if that's true well we at Blue Zones... (I don’t know if you can put the presentation), if that’s true, what we at Blue Zones wanted to do was travel the world to see if we could find the places in the world where people are living the longest life, where they have the lowest rates of middle aged mortality, places where reaching 100 rates are 10 times higher than they’re doing anywhere else, and more importantly’ they do with a fraction of the disease; because if you ask me it is more about the quality of life at times than the quantity.

So our premise was that we could go to these communities and really kind of integrate ourselves into the cultures, really talk to the people who are doing it; really create a de-facto recipe for longevity.

And together we were able to find the 5 demographically confirmed places around the world, we actually go there with demographers that are looking at birth and death rates, we go with physicians that are looking at birth and death records, demographers that have kind of followed these people through 20 to 100 years of their lives as well as physicians; and together what we were able to find were the 9 commonalities, these 9 lifestyle traits that flew through all the regions we traveled. We call them the “Power 9” and I want to share with you what they are, but before I do, I want to take you to the places that we traveled.

We found our first blue zone in Sardinia, Italy, and it wasn’t the whole island of Sardinia, but this high region, 14 villages, 40,000 people, and the highest rates of [AUDIO CUT] it is a place when you grew old you were surrounded by love, you are brought into the home. But they expect you to do more, they expect you still contribute, to help raise the kids, feed the kids. Its a place where in your 80s, 90s, even 100, you are still active members of society.

There's also something happening here, it's called the grandmother effect. Research shows that in households where one or more grandparents are living with the next generation, those that care of their aging parents, and just by their presence the next generation is healthier.

[AUDIO CUT] ...at the end. There’s a term compression of mortality, the time between… [AUDIO CUT] ...cultivate these relationships, so when they reach 20 they have a foundation that lasts a lifetime.

Now the reason I’m showing this picture, these five women have belonged to the same [AUDIO CUT] for 97 years [AUDIO CUT] the lady on the right, I asked her what does the …   and she told me, “The first thing I do when I get up in the morning, I slide open my front door and I look out to see whether or not my friends’ doors are open, and if they’re not I actually go out and check on them.”

This is a culture that is growing old without the need of long term carers, because they have this port network built into the community that can help them when they’re having a bad day. They have a strong sense of purpose embodied in the  

[AUDIO CUT] ...he was a karate instructor passing down the traditions that he’s had for, that he's practiced for the past 90 years.

See as… [AUDIO CUT] what gets him off his couch is to catch food for his extended family, 97 years old and if you don’t think it keeps him in shape, you’re nuts. And this is is her great, great, great granddaughter. These two women are separated in age by 101 and a half years. Now I got a chance for myself what does it feel like to hold someone over a century [AUDIO CUT] and she said: “It feels like leaping into heaven, leaping into heaven.”

We found our third Blue Zone, this one, in America, in Loma Linda, California, its right near LA. As it turns out it home to the highest percentage of Seventh-day Adventists. These are people that evangelitize health, they evengelitize the healthcare system, they celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, rather than on Sunday. But as it turns out on average they are living ten more years of life than anyone else in America.

Now, how are these people doing this? These people that are living next to McDonalds, living next to all these unhealthy chains, how are they gaining 10 years of life than the average person in America? Is it their diet? Or their genetics? No, its not their genetics. If you look at an Adventists’ congregation, its like a congregational melting pot: You have people from Hispanic descent, from European descent, from African American descent, Asian descent; its not their genetics. What is it?

Well, for starters I talked about how they keep holy the Sabbath, from sundown on Friday from sundown on Saturday, doesn’t matter where the kid needs to be driven, or what they need to do.

These guys check out; they focus on going to church in the morning, in the afternoon they spend time with the rest of their congregation. In the afternoon they take a break from their scriptures to do a nature walk. The definition of nature walk is not the same anymore but they still spend time to let the stress of the week go, and focus on what’s important, focus on their family, they focus on their friends.

It’s the home of Ellsworth Wareham. Ellsworth Wareham was 95 years old.  [AUDIO CUT] When I met him he wanted to build a privacy fence, so he started building it, and he spent three days shoveling holes and pounding in stakes; 95 years old… and three days later, perhaps predictably, Ellsworth he can be seen in the operating room.

He’s actually the surgeon, not the patient; 95 years old and still did multiple open heart surgeries every month.

This is Ed Rollings. He’s 106 years old, active cowboy. He gets up in the morning, does his swim every morning, and on the weekends he goes water skiing; he’s 106.

Marge Voutton: Marge, 104 years old, she gets up in the morning, she [AUDIO CUT] she reads her bible, eats the same breakfast she’s had for years, oatmeal nuts and raisins. She chases it down with what she calls a “prune juice shooter.” (I’ll let you guys think about what that is and put that in a jot in your mind). She lifts weights, jumps on her exercise bike for 20 min every day; before getting on her car to go volunteer for 7 different organizations in her community, including (in her words, not mine) the elderly home. 

Now, Marge told me two things to always remember, there are two things about Marge I want to be clear about. I traveled the world and I have to tell you the most terrified I’ve ever been in my life was driving with Marge. And, the second thing is, we got to a stop sign one day, and Marge kind of slid over next to me and she said Nick, I actually feel sexier at 104 than I did at 103.

Think about that. Is that what 104 is, that was you imagine 104 feels like? Is that what it should feel like?

We… my brother Dan wrote this story for National Geographic and we found that after that the two last remaining Blue Zones, we’ve been able to find one of them in the Nicoya peninsula of Costa Rica.

I think one of the interesting things about Costa Rica is public health and their system of public health where every year three, a doctors, nurse, and researcher, will sit down with the people in these communities and they’ll actually do a physical, they’ll do a mental  health examination and they will go through your home to see if you have stuff in your refrigerator that causes diabetes, they’ll look at your backyard to see if you have a standing water which is a common carrier of the Zika virus. That’s the way that they have that.

Ikaria, Greece; it is off the coast of Turkey. It is a place where I think western civilization kind of passed on by, but it adhered to the Mediterranean diet, in higher percentages than anywhere else.

So it was here where I had my “Aha” moment and I think you guys are probably already ahead of me, and it is this: I never met anybody on my travels that woke up at the age of 50 and said: “I want to go on a diet so I can make it to 100.” I never met anybody at the age of 50 who said: “I want to go to a health club so I can make it to 100.” Longevity wasn’t something that these people pursued; rather it was intrinsic because of their environment.

So I talked earlier about the 9 commonalities that we found throughout all of our travels and it’s that these lifestyle traits and integrated into your life can help you live longer, help you be happier, and in some ways...

The first one was: They move naturally. These are people who walk to school, they walk to their friends house, they walk to their communities. They don't have food processors when they made corn tortillas; instead they make them by hand. These are people who walked an hour, getting up and off the ground every day; you’re getting that natural moment all the way through your life.

The second tear is a positive attitude. I've traveled the world and I can tell you right now: No matter where you go in the world, they have the same worries that you and I have. They worry about money, they worry about their kids’ health, and they worry about their kids and they worry about their health. The difference is in the Blue Zone communities, they’d have these simple techniques to help reduce stress.

Stress causes inflammation that is tied to most age related diseases. And these are simple techniques. Whether it was… [AUDIO CUT] ...or even doing a little nap.

The next one is a strong sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. Research shows, people who have a strong sense of purpose and can articulate that purpose actually live 7 years longer than people who can't.

Next one is they had a little bit of wine in their diet, they lived off a plant based diet, 90% to 100% plant based; legumes, beans, and veggies and fruit. They ate meat only about… less than 5 times a month and fish less than 3 times a week on average in those communities.

And the next one is they ate less calories than we need. And the bottom line is I think everything that holds everything else: They are focused on their family, as you grew old you are surrounded by love, invested in their kids, which is probably not a bad thing as we’re growing older. They tended to stay married; they had a strong sense of faith, all but two people that we met had a strong sense of faith.

Two universities talked about how people who have a strong sense of faith [AUDIO CUT] naturally live 4 to 13 years longer. Those universities were Duke and Harvard.

And the last one is: Our friends matter. According to [AUDIO CUT] … if your 3 best friends smoke or drink or are overweight, there's a 150% chance that you are as well. That [AUDIO CUT] ...flows through a community in the same way a virus does. Now think about that: Are you healthier with that person who likes to go for walks and eat plant based or healthier with that friend that drinks a lot and smoke? Our friends matter. But before you start thinking about what friends you are going to cancel out of your life, you also have to remember that you need those friends that you can pick up the phone on a bad day and call and they will listen to you and they’ll support you.

There are another couple of things I want to mention. In America and I think in a lot of places around the world, what we focus on is diet, we focus on individual at this point, we say: “You need to lose weight.” We say: “You need to lose weight, you need to exercise more.” We try to focus on the individual. We try to find this in the individual.

What we find out that these … if you’re trying to get a public health program, these don’t work; 3% of the population can stick with diets and only a small part can do, “I can work out,” [AUDIO CUT] medicine.”

So what we at blue zones are doing now, is what we try to focus on is the fact that 80% of what you do is within a 10 mile radius where you work, and where you live, and if you can optimize that environment to make the healthy choice the easy choice, then longevity isn’t something you pursue, rather it intuitively occurs because of the environment.

Now what we do at our work is that we focus on the individual, we focus on creating social relationships that break down isolation in the communities. We focus on trying to get people a sense of purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. We focus on trying to look at the places where we work, live, play, and pray to create a healthier environment where the healthy choice is the easy choice. We try to look at policy and cultural norms around foods, what we eat, healthy access, food skills, affordability; tobacco, smoking.

And our environment is setup so that it’s easier to walk, the same places where we can come together as a community, that give us a sense of purpose, a challenge to take to the next level.

Then if we can layer on those Power 9 principles in there, we have a recipe for longevity. We don't go into communities saying, “This is what needs to happen,” instead these are community based initiatives. We will go in and we will listen to the community, we will try to understand what are their strengths, what are the real challenges that community has… and we will bring evidence based solutions to try to change those environments to make that healthy choice an easy choice.

We’re in 45 communities around the United States where we’re seeing some [AUDIO CUT]. We’re seeing, for example, in one community in California, childhood obesity has dropped by 65% in 6 years. Now, what that means is that our kids are growing up healthier.

In other communities what we’re seen is smoking rates going down by 40% [AUDIO CUT] ...so we partnered with *** to be able to measure this so that its quantitative as well as qualitative, all our metrics with both processed and qualitative outcome data, to be able to do this. Again, what we’re seeing right now in America is, in one of our communities we’re predicting to save the community about $125 billion dollars in hospital costs as well as in productivity in the work site.

One last thing I wanted to say is a couple of things that we learned through our work was, there’s four things that I think you need in order to really impact health: Number one, you need to have strong leadership in the community that has strong vision around health. Second thing you need is resources, both financial resources as well as human resources in order to be successful.

The third thing you need is a plan, you need a natural vision for the work that everyone can get around and a plan that's based on evidence, not just based on things people want, but based on evidence that's going to drive what we need.

The last thing you need is accountability, you need a way to be able to measure it so that you understand how, are you having an impact that you want and the success, and you have to be able to hold everybody accountable to that work.

So, if you got anything out of my talk today, the heart of what I'm trying to say is that no matter what your community is our environment has a huge impact on the how long we live [AUDIO CUT] and our environments need to be set up to make that default choice the healthy choice. It’s important.

Right now, across the world, obesity rates are skyrocketing at scary rates. We’re spending trillions and trillions of dollars, being spent on treating diseases that are preventable. I know in America, for the first time in history, and this one scares me, the life expectancy of our kids is less than own, and the reason is our environment has changed.

You can’t go to a grocery store; you can’t sit around your community without being bombarded by all those unhealthy choices. Individual discipline is good but discipline is and fatigue; you break down and you grab that candy bar or that unhealthy action.

The answer lies, in my mind, not with large governments and large NGOs, it lies with our communities, coming together to honor a community, honor who we are, to be able to use evidence based practices from the people around the world that they emulate, and integrate them into their lives so they can wake up that morning and look at that person lying next to them and say: “You know what I kind of feel sexier at 104 than I did at 103.”

Thank you so much.


Thank you Dr. Nick Buettner. And now we’re going to invite Mr. Ulises Antonio Piche, Nahuat Pipil Dancer, representative of the Tepectunal Spiritual Group from El Salvador. Thank you, a round of applause.