AUDIE CORNISH, host:
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 living people in the world.
Author Dan Buettner scoured the Earth - not for the Fountain of Youth - but for the key to a happy old age. He spent five years visiting areas of the world where people live longest and are the healthiest. And he's tagged these hot spots Blue Zones.
Dan Buettner joins us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Dan, welcome to the show.
Mr. DAN BUETTNER (Author): I'm delighted.
CORNISH: So, you were traveling the world looking for these pockets of people who were living into long age, and I was wondering if you could just give us a sense of what came to define what a blue zone was, and how did you find them?
Mr. BUETTNER: Well, we partner with National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging and then a number of demographers, mainly in Europe, and these demographers use census data. And they look, first of all, for countries that have the longest life expectancy and then we'd look for the particular regions.
One place - Sardinia, for example - has the highest number of male centenarians in the world; Okinawa has the longest disability-free life expectancy; the Adventists in Loma Linda, California have a life expectancy of nine to eleven years greater than their American counterparts; the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica is a place where middle-aged mortality is lowest. In other words, middle-aged people have about a fourfold better chance of reaching age 90 than we do here in America.
CORNISH: One of the most striking parts of the book is hearing the voices of the people interviewed. And tell us who's the most sort of, say, striking centenarian you might have met.
Mr. BUETTNER: Giovanni Lannai in Sardinia is an 104-year-old man. When we came to see him at 9 o'clock in the morning, he was chopping wood. He poured us a glass of Cannonau wine for breakfast. He's not an alcoholic or anything. That's just the way he started his day. And over the hour or so that we interviewed him we saw a steady parade of people who came in for his advice. It was one of the characteristics of the Sardinian blue zone - the older you get, the more celebrated you are.
CORNISH: And so looking in the U.S., where there was at least one blue zone - it's a small area, surprisingly outside of L.A. - about 60 miles outside of L.A. What are the things there that you think they are doing differently?
Mr. BUETTNER: The blue zone we've chosen in the United States we found amongst Seven Day Adventists, and it was more a cultural blue zone than it was a geographical one. Loma Linda, California has the highest concentration of Adventists anywhere. They take their diet inspired directly from the Bible - Genesis chapter 1, where God says he's provided his people brains, nuts and seeds. And so they have a plant-based diet.
Every week they take their Sabbath, Saturday, very seriously. They call it the sanctuary in time. And no matter how busy, no matter how stressed they are, they'll take that 24 hours and focus on their God.
And then the other interesting thing about their culture is they tend to hang out with each other. At least the Adventists I interviewed, most of them would say that 90 percent of their immediate friends are also Adventists. So, their social circle is very much supportive of the right habits.
CORNISH: Now, the science of aging is certainly in its early days in a lot of ways. And although we do know that there is a sort of complex interplay between your genes and the environment that factor into someone's health and longevity, what are the things that you can tell us about the people you spoke to in terms of shared patterns?
Mr. BUETTNER: Well, I can tell you they didn't take any vitamin supplements or pills or wine extracts. 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.
CORNISH: What are some of the things you heard from these folks that went against the grain, went against the obvious stuff you should do if you want to live a long life?
Mr. BUETTNER: One of the idiosyncrasies we discovered is that people who eat nuts four to five times a week, two ounces a time, tend to live two to three years longer than people who don't eat nuts. That was a big surprise for us.
CORNISH: So, you're justifying my pistachio habit.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BUETTNER: You can dig into those, yes. I think we think the paragon of physical activity is running marathons and triathlons and pumping iron and looking really good. I think the four biggest things you can do is create an environment where you're nudged into physical activity, set up your kitchen in such a way that you're not overeating, cultivate the sense of purpose, and then take the time to 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.
CORNISH: Explorer and writer Dan Buettner is the author of "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People who Live the Longest." He joined us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.
Mr. BUETTNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Author Dan Buettner's new book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest identifies parts of the world where pockets of people tend to live longer than the rest of us.
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.