We interviewed Dan Beuttner, author of Blue Zones, about the research he did for this examination of longevity and its causes.
Q.Tell us about the origins of your research.
A. Blue Zones was originally an assignment from National Geographic to identify demographically confirmed areas where people are living immeasurably longer. It became an article in November 2005 cover story for National Geographic. Shortly after the article was published a number of big talk shows throughout America booked me to come talk about it. It was clear that baby boomers were interested in this idea of getting more good years out of life and learning from the populations that are getting those years.
The Blue Zones book is in its third printing. It's been a New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback, and it’s sold throughout the country and received lots of great reviews.
Q. What exactly were you trying to discover?
A. The criteria for Blue Zones was that all data needed to be demographically confirmed. We wanted to find a higher life expectancy, a higher rate of centenarians or the lowest rate of middle-age mortality, and we had to confirm the ages. We had to make sure people were as old as they said they were. And we were able to identify three blue zones for the original story. We found two more since, but the three original zones were Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and the Adventists in and around Loma Linda California.
Q. Why did you call them blue zones?
I wish there was a profound answer for that, but the demographers we were working with were drawing concentric circles on a map of Sardinia, closing in on this area where there 30 times more centenarians. They were using blue ink. And they just got in the habit of calling the area inside those blue-ink circles the blue zone. And so the original blue zone was in Sardinia, and we just co-opted the name to apply to any measurably longer-lived area that we could confirm.
Q. Did you do all this research by yourself?
A. I was in collaboration with the National Institute on Aging and some scientists out of Harvard. They put us in touch with people who run the Adventists Health Study, which is the gold standard, NIH-funded epidemiology study that follows tens of thousands of people for decades. And that study revealed that the Adventists who most strictly followed the suggestions of the church are living about a decade longer than their American counterparts. So there we have a geographically defined area that's living significantly and measurably longer.
Q. Why do you think they are living longer?
A. I actually think the Adventists’ notion of Sabbath is very powerful. And its powerful because of the ritualization of a period of 24 hours - from midnight on Friday night until midnight on Saturday night - they enjoy what they call a sanctuary in time, where they focus on their God, and they focus on their community. You have these casserole potluck dinners, and then they tend to take nature walks. And the fact that they're done week after week, month after month, and year after year is powerful - reducing stress, building that social community, getting some exercise every single week. And we know that each of those are associated with longevity - associated with lower BMI, lower rates of heart disease, lower rates of cancer.
Q. What did you find most striking about your research with the Adventists?
A. What really captured my interest about Adventists is they take their inspiration for their diet directly from the Bible. In Genesis, chapter 1, verse 26, God talks about nuts and grains and legumes and one stanza later talks about green plants. And it turns out that now medical research is showing that's what we should be eating. And here it's been in the Old Testament. Also the Adventists Health Study that nut-eaters live 2 to 3 year years longer than non-nut eaters. They don't know if that's because there's something magical in nuts - some omega-3 fatty acid - or if it's because people are eating nuts and therefore not eating salty chips. But at the end of the day, one of my favorite takeaways from the Adventists is, “Keep a can of nuts around your house.”