Photo: Blue Zones
Dan Buettner is a happy person. “On a scale one to 10, I’m a 9,” he says confidently. “I’m more apt to knock off work early and go to happy hour because I know that hour of socializing is quite literally going to yield more happiness than that extra hour of work.” This is not the rationale of a slacker. It’s an argument based on Buettner’s decade-long research on places around the world where people live remarkably long, healthy and happy lives, which he calls “Blue Zones.”
After studying longevity hotspots in Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Costa Rica; the Seventh-day Adventists in California; and the island of Ikaria in Greece, Buettner devised a formula for living beyond 100. The findings were published in his book “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest
,” released in 2008.
In Blue Zones, people reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States. This is thanks, in large part, to their faith-based communities (worth between 4 and 14 years of life expectancy), plant-based diets, walkable environments, and rituals that force them to slow down every day like meditation, naps and prayer. Buettner’s challenge today is crafting ways to get Americans to adopt these lifestyle habits.
The nation could use the author’s help.
When it comes to life expectancy, America is ranked 38th in the world, a poor showing for the biggest and most powerful economy on Earth.
“We’re not doing nearly as well as we should. You look at a country like Spain currently in an economic crisis and they’re number eight. That’s 30 notches up on the longevity scale. Why is that? There are some big lesson we can take away from other countries,” Buettner said.
The state of Iowa recently called on Buettner and the Blue Zone team as part of its quest to become the healthiest state in the nation. The goal is to move Iowa from its current 16th place rank under the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index to number one by 2016. The five-year program is sponsored by a $25 million investment from Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield and could save Iowans up to $16 billion in health care costs if successful.
But not just any Iowan city can participate in the challenge.
“We created the health equivalent of ‘American Idol’ down there,” Buettner said. “90-three cities auditioned. And I don’t mean song and dance. They had to show us that their leadership was on board and that they had a critical mass of citizens who would sign our pledge.”
That pledge is a list of strategies that have been shown to improve health. It includes everything from adding bike lanes and providing volunteer opportunities to making unhealthy foods like soda and French fries a little more expensive, so they’re a less attractive option.
In May, four Iowa cities — Mason City, Waterlook, Cedar Falls and Spencer — were selected to become the first “Blue Zone Communities.”
The idea of “Blue Zones” developed in 2000. Buettner was doing a series of educational expeditions when he stumbled upon an unusual phenomenon in Okinawa, Japan. The population had the highest level of disability-free life expectancy in the world. In other words, these were people who were living a long time completely free of chronic disease. This set off a longer-term investigation.
With the help of demographers who analysed birth and death records, Buettner initially identified three Blue Zones: Okinawa, Sardinia, and the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Lida, California. In 2005, these regions were the subject of a National Geographic cover story. It became the third best-selling cover issue in the magazine’s history, spiraling into several books, and eventually, a partnership with Gallup Healthways. Which brings the author to his latest project.
“In Iowa about 70 per cent of people are overweight or obese. And nobody likes to be overweight. So we come in with a time-honored strategy that we know has worked around the world, and it’s actually very easy to get people to sign on. We don’t ask them to pay money or take on an onerous diet or go to the gym. We just ask them to make a couple dozen small changes to their surroundings and then it works for them mindlessly.”
Some policies make it harder to smoke or less costly to buy healthy food in grocery stores, schools and restaurants. Others implement building designs that make it easier for people to socialize or move around.
People who live in these cities can have about 30 per cent better health, which equates roughly to 30 per cent lower health care costs, says Buettner.
But reduced health care costs aren’t the only benefits. Recruiting and retaining talent is another by-product of the Blue Zone project. “It’s a lot easier to recruit people into a healthy city than it is an unhealthy city,” Buettner said. “So there’s an enormous benefit to employers to either help create one of these Blue Zone communities or have their businesses located in them. “
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