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Can 'Blue Zones' Help Turn Back the Biological Clock?

Jun 8, 2008 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Sardinian sheepherders, Japanese grandmothers and Seventh-Day Adventists in Los Angeles don't seem to have that much in common. But within these groups there are some of the longest-lived people in the world.

Author Dan Buettner has scoured the Earth — not for the fabled Fountain of Youth — but for the key to a happy old age. He spent five years visiting areas of the world where people tend to live longer, healthier lives, areas he calls "Blue Zones." Buettner talks about these hot spots and how he found them in a new book titled The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest.

In researching the book, Buettner partnered with National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging. Several demographers used census data to pinpoint countries with the longest life expectancy.

The team then zeroed in on particular regions to locate Blue Zones around the world.

Buettner says one such zone, the Italian island of Sardinia, has the highest number of male centenarians in the world, while another, Okinawa, Japan, has the longest disability-free life expectancy. In Loma Linda, Calif., a community of Seventh Day Adventists has a life expectancy that's nine to 11 years greater than that of other Americans. And middle-age mortality is lowest on Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula — where Buettner says middle-aged residents have about a four-fold greater chance of reaching age 90 than people in the United States do.

One of the most striking people he met during his travels was 104-year-old Giovanni Sannai of Sardinia. "He was out chopping wood at 9 in the morning," Buettner tells guest host Audie Cornish. "He started his day with a glass of wine and there was a steady parade of people coming by to ask his advice. That's one of the characteristics of the Sardinian Blue Zone — the older you get, the more celebrated you are."

Buettner says that just for fun, he challenged him to arm wrestle. "And he beat me."

In the United States, there's at least one Blue Zone, a small area about 60 miles outside of Los Angeles. Buettner describes the Loma Linda zone as more of a cultural Blue Zone than a geographical one, and says it has the highest concentration of Adventists anywhere.

He says their plant-based diet is inspired directly from the Bible — the book of Genesis tells of God providing his people with grains and seeds — and that every week, they take a Sabbath Saturday they call the "sanctuary in time."

"No matter how busy, no matter how stressed out they are, they'll take that 24 hours and focus on their God," Buettner says. He also points out that most of the Adventists he interviewed said 90 percent of their immediate friends are also Adventists, so their social circle is very much supportive of their cultural habits.

Although the aging process isn't fully understood, scientists do know that there's a complex interplay of genetics and the environment that factors into health and longevity. And Buettner says he was able to identify shared patterns among people who live in Blue Zones.

"They didn't take any supplements or pills or wine extracts," he says. "They tended to live in houses and environments that nudged them into bursts of physical activity in kind of an effortless way.

"Okinawans sat on the floor; Sardinians lived in vertical houses; the Costa Ricans had gardens. So they were doing little things all day long that added up significantly over the years and the decades," Buettner says.

But, he says, the research also produced some unexpected findings.

"One of the idiosyncrasies we discovered is that people who eat nuts four to five times a week, 2 ounces at a time, tend to live two to three years longer than people who don't eat nuts. That was a big surprise for us," Buettner says.

Some may think the secret to longevity lies in strenuous physical activity, such as running marathons or triathlons or pumping iron. But Buettner says he has identified four things people can do that can potentially increase life expectancy: Create an environment that encourages physical activity, set up your kitchen in such a way that you're not overeating, cultivate a sense of purpose and surround yourself with the right people.

"These are long-term fixes that have been shown over and over to add not only more years of life, but better years of life," Buettner says.

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