Dan Buettner ’83, The New York Times-bestselling author, National Geographic fellow and founder of Blue Zones, an organization that researches longevity, spoke on “Blue Zones City: Living Like the World’s Healthiest People” over the lunch hour Friday, Oct. 2, to a packed sanctuary at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. From a podium in the pulpit, Buettner gave a short but memorable talk on his ongoing mission to help Americans live longer, more vital lives.
Here are five observations from his presentation.
Buettner is clearly following his own advice.
Other than the few gray hairs that have sprouted on his head since he was profiled for St. Thomas magazine in 2008, there’s little evidence to prove he has aged at all in the past seven years. At 55, he’s a sprite picture of health – trim without being sinewy or bulky, tan without appearing leathered. To say he’s radiant wouldn’t be an exaggeration. During the Q&A period following his talk, someone asked him to describe his personal prescription for longevity. Among Buettner’s nuggets of wisdom: He socializes, he figures, around six hours per day. He also exercises daily, but only in activities he enjoys, such as hiking and biking.
Individual responsibility is only half the battle in the quest to age well.
The secret to a long life lies not in “beating the horse of individual responsibility,” Buettner said. “Discipline is a muscle, and muscles fatigue.” We need to look at environmental components and incorporate Blue Zones principles into cultures at large. This, in part, means changing food policy so that eating healthfully is “an unavoidable choice.” This is one of the reasons why he gears his efforts on local policy-making versus federal: “I like to see things happen this year,” not deep into the future, he said.
Minneapolis is good, Blue Zones-wise, but it can do better.
He gave Minneapolis an A/A-, not an A+ as one attendee guessed. His suggestions for improvement were to make the city more walkable and bikeable, citing that people who bike or take the bus to work are 11 percent less likely to develop a cardiovascular disease. He also noted that city officials and citizens should “keep an eye on food policy” and make it harder for people to access fast food.
The influence of Blue Zones shows no signs of slowing down.
Buettner has continued to expand on his blueprint since the publication of Blue Zones in 2008. National Geographic continues to sponsor his work, which currently is conducting research tying Blue Zones to happiness, specifically the policies that are most likely to yield happiness in nations. One of his discoveries? Equality (namely gender and economic equality) generates more happiness per dollar than any industry. So far the project has resulted in a book, Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way.
Want to live longer? Stop trying.
In Buettner’s global search for the world’s healthiest centenarians, he discovered that “longevity was not pursued, it ensued.” They didn’t make a point, for example, of following a strict Paleo diet or committing to spending five hours per week on a treadmill. Longevity was something that “happened to them,” he noted. To this end, he told the story of a Detroit man, Stamatis Moraitis, who, at 66, was diagnosed with lung cancer and given several months to live. Moraitis refused chemotherapy and, with his wife, moved back to Ikaria, Greece, to spend his last months with his parents. There “he breathes the air, reconnects with religion, eats a Mediterranean diet … drinks lots of wine … starts a garden” which he later turned into a vineyard, Buettner told. Long story short, Moraitis outlived all of his doctors. At 102, he told his tale to Buettner, who chronicled it for The New York Times in 2012 in “The Island Where People Forget to Die.”