Presenter: Dan Buettner, Fellow at National Geographic
Despite the general global increase in life expectancy, the ever-present discrepancies between different populations’ longevity rates has puzzled scientists for decades. What exactly are the factors that affect how long a person will live? Recent studies reveal that contrary to popular belief, only 20% of these factors are determined by genetics, while an astounding 80% of longevity factors are influenced by a person’s environment. Even more surprising, research has found that areas with high levels of health and longevity also tend to have higher reported levels of happiness.
Life expectancy has been rigorously studied across the globe. Dan Buettner and his team have studied countries around the world in an effort to find what they call “blue zones,” or specific areas where longevity seems to flourish. These areas tend to share many similarities, such as plant-centered diets, healthy social interactions, and relative rural isolation. Some of these areas include:
Sardinia, Italy. This island off the coast of Italy consists of the largest concentration of male centenarians in the world. With a pastoral culture made up of regular, low-intensity exercise and a plant-based diet, many of Sardinia’s citizens can expect to live well past general aging trends. Additionally, Sardinia’s culture of celebrating their elders has helped not only the older generation, but the younger generation as well with many citizens 80 years and older sitting on city councils and assisting with food and agricultural pursuits.
Okinawa, Japan. With a plant-based diet consisting of mainly tofu, Okinawa is home to the largest population of female centenarians in the world. This is accomplished not only through diet and exercise, but also a social concept known as “moai,” where every citizen belongs to a social circle consisting of similar-aged friends who support each other throughout life.
Loma Linda, California. With a population mostly comprised of Seventh-day Adventists, this conservative area has the longest life expectancy rates in the US. On average, women in the US live until 80, with men living until 76 – however, Loma Linda women can expect to live until 89 while men in the area have a life expectancy of 87. This longevity can be contributed to their strong ties to religion, which bans drinking and smoking and encourages a vegetarian diet.
Nicoya, Costa Rica. The population of Nicoya has the lowest rate of middle-aged mortality in the world, with many expected to reach at least 92 years of age. Even more surprising, citizens of Nicoya spend only 1/15 the amount of money on healthcare as North America does.
Ikaria, Greece. The people of Ikaria not only have half the rate of heart disease as Americans do, they also have a life expectancy that is 8 years longer than a US citizen’s and are 40% less likely to experience dementia than most other countries. One man, Stamatis Moraitis, contracted lung cancer after a long life spent in the United States; at the age of 66, he immigrated back to his home island of Ikaria in order to spend his final days with family and friends. He is still alive today at the age of 102.
“The key insight was that longevity just happened to those who live long. It was not something they pursued.” – Dan Buettner
Life expectancy is based heavily on environment. When we think of health, we often think of health as being pursuable; however, studies have shown that longevity is a byproduct of a person’s environment and not necessarily their efforts. In order to change a person’s health, therefore, it is important to change their environment. In order to accurately determine what environmental causes shape longevity, Dan Buettner and his team researched populations with high rates of longevity and found several common denominators:
They move naturally. Rather than making a conscious effort to exercise, those with longevity have spent most of their lives walking to friends’ houses, kneading bread, and other such activities where exercise is integrated into daily routine.
They move slower. Rather than always being on the go, it is important to create time for reflection, such as meditating, praying, taking naps, or simply enjoying the present moment.
They created a vocabulary for purpose. Those who live longer lives can articulate the reason why they get out of bed in the morning. In Japan, this concept is referred to as “ikigai,” or “the reason for which I wake up in the morning.” Creating purpose in one’s life can add up to 7 years to life expectancy.
They eat wisely. Populations with long lives tend to consume a predominantly plant-based diet full of carbohydrates, vegetables, and beans. They often eat meat less than 5 times per month, and avoid most dairy products.
They keep their family close. Strong families that stay together can take care of grandparents who can in turn take care of their children, thereby benefiting several generations at once.
They belong to a religion. Studies have shown that people who show up to a place of worship at least four times a month live 4-14 years longer than those who don’t. Religious people also tend to report more happiness than their non-religious counterparts.
They keep a good social circle. Because those you spend the most time with affect your well-being the greatest, it is important to keep good friends with healthy habits. Habits such as smoking, drinking, unhappiness, and even obesity have been shown to be contagious.
Most areas are going about health the wrong way. While most societies do tend to value health, they often address health issues in ineffective – and even detrimental – ways.
Billions of dollars are spent on solutions that don’t work. With $20.3 billion spent on health clubs, $28.1 billion spent on supplements, and a whopping $60.9 billion spent on diets per year, it is crucial that these industries’ products produce results for their clients. Despite the tremendous amount of money spent in this industry, however, health-related issues continue to plague the general population.
Dieting and exercising in their current form do not work. If you were to put 100% of people on the best diet possible starting today, you would lose 10% after three months; 90% after seven months; and almost all original participants after two years.
“Even if I come back from blue zones with a pill guaranteed to reverse aging, most people wouldn’t take it long enough to make a difference.” – Dan Buettner
Blue Zones can be created anywhere in the world. The first area to successfully transition from an unhealthy lifestyle to a healthy way of living was North Karelia, Finland. In 1972, North Karelia had the highest rate of cardiovascular disease in the world. After an epidemiologist began to work with local cooperatives to provide fruit year round as well as alter the recipe for popular meat dishes to include more vegetables, North Karelia saw an 80% drop in coronary mortality in middle-aged men over a 30-year span.
Dan Buettner and his team began a project to replicate Blue Zones in America. Beginning in Albert Lea, Minnesota and expanding to over 31 cities across the United States, Dan and his team have influenced the environment of these areas to create an effortless road to health. Beginning in Albert Lea, they began working closely with the local government to create policies to limit the number of fast food restaurants in the city, collaborated with city planners to improve sidewalks and trails, and worked with local restaurants to provide healthier options for customers. After 18 months, Albert Lea’s average life expectancy had risen 3.2 years, the city collectively had lost 7,280 pounds, and city workers’ health care cost dropped by 40%.
Dan and his team also created a Blue Zone in Los Angeles, California. By introducing meditation to schools, creating a variety of bike and walking paths, and prohibiting smoking on beaches, Gallup found that in a span of 5 years, smoking rates dropped 17%, above-normal weight decreased 15%, daily stress decreased 9%, exercise increased 9%, and reports of happiness increased by 12%.
Rigorous measuring is key to tracking and understanding longevity. In order to understand the health, happiness, and longevity of any given population, it is crucial to measure all aspects of their life, including food, exercise, and rest time. Not only does this assist in carefully tracking change, it also provides investors with measurable results.
Offer evidence-based policy options. Rather than trying to force local governments to adhere to an outsider’s perspective, policy makers should make sure to offer a variety of options and assistance while allowing local officials to have the final word.
“If you want to make a community, city, or country healthier, your most cost-effective way is to focus on policy.” – Dan Buettner
Editor’s Note: The preceding is an essay from a special print report produced by Diplomatic Courier after the 2017 World Government Summit in Dubai, UAE. To read the full report download our free app on your device or view the digital edition here.