What Are The Secrets of Centenarians?

What Are The Secrets of Centenarians?

1:45pm May 22, 2015
National Geographic writer and explorer Dan Buettner studies the world's longest-lived peoples and their lifestyles.
National Geographic writer and explorer Dan Buettner studies the world's longest-lived peoples and their lifestyles.
Courtesy TEDxTC
  • National Geographic writer and explorer Dan Buettner studies the world's longest-lived peoples and their lifestyles.

    National Geographic writer and explorer Dan Buettner studies the world's longest-lived peoples and their lifestyles.

    Courtesy TEDxTC

  • Author Dan Buettner has traveled the globe visiting "blue zones," where people tend to live longer and lead healthier lives.

    Author Dan Buettner has traveled the globe visiting "blue zones," where people tend to live longer and lead healthier lives.

    National Geographic Books

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Fountain Of Youth

About Dan Buettner's TED Talk

To find the path to long life and health, Dan Buettner studies the world's "Blue Zones," communities whose elders live longer than anyone else on the planet.

About Dan Buettner

National Geographic writer and explorer Dan Buettner studies the world's longest-lived peoples, distilling their secrets into a single plan for health and long life. He is the founder of Quest Network, and has set three world records for endurance cycling.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. About a decade ago, writer Dan Buettner went on a quest, a quest for something as old as human history - the fountain of youth. And after traveling all over the world, researching people who live longer than anyone on the planet, often well into their hundreds, Dan may have found it.

DAN BUETTNER: Beans - the cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world is beans.

RAZ: Beans - wow, that's the secret.

BUETTNER: I argue that if Americans could eat about a cup of beans a day, we'd see a life expectancy of our country go up from two to four years.

RAZ: Wow.

BUETTNER: Ounce for ounce is as much protein as meat...

RAZ: Yeah.

BUETTNER: ...Full of antioxidants, fiber. And they actually set up your gut flora so that healthy bacteria can thrive instead of the bacteria that causes inflammation and obesity.

RAZ: Wow.

BUETTNER: They're amazing.

RAZ: Yeah. I make a great vegan chili with, like, five different beans and soy chorizo. It's awesome.

BUETTNER: I'm coming over (laughter).

RAZ: Yeah. I'm going to make it tonight, actually. I got navy beans, pinto beans. I got - OK, so to be clear, beans alone won't do much for you, but they happen to be one of the common things that people in very specific places around the world tend to eat, places Dan Buettner calls Blue Zones.

BUETTNER: Okinawa, Japan, the highlands of Sardinia, a small island off the coast of Turkey called Icaria, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and in the United States, the Seventh-day Adventist in Loma Linda, Calif.

RAZ: People in all these places live longer on average than anyone else on the planet. And so for most of the past decade, Dan's been working with physicians, demographers and psychologists to try to understand why. Here's Dan's answer from the TED stage.


BUETTNER: The real secret, I think, lies more in the way that they organize their society. And one of the most salient elements is how they treat older people. You ever notice here in America, social equity seems to peak at about age 24? Here in Sardinia, the older you get, the more equity you have, the more wisdom you're celebrated for. You go into the bars in Sardinia. Instead of seeing the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit calendar, you see the Centenarian of the Month calendar.

Typically in America, we've divided our adult life up into two sections. There is our work life where we're productive, and then one day, boom, we retire. And typically, that has meant retiring to the easy chair or going down to Arizona to play golf. In the Okinawan language, there's not even a word for retirement. Instead, there's one word that infuse your entire life, and that word is ikigai. And roughly translated, it means the reason for which you wake up in the morning.


RAZ: Now, imagine how that idea, that waking up with purpose could be the secret to a longer life, would've sounded just a century ago when even in the developed world, you were lucky to make it past 50. But since 1900, global life expectancy has doubled, and researchers like Dan Buettner are just beginning to uncover how to push it further. So today on the show, the scientific breakthroughs and the ideas behind how we might all live longer and even better lives, how, in some ways, we're getting closer to the fountain of youth.


RAZ: But the first thing to know is that how long you live, in some ways, says Dan Buettner, is within your control.


BUETTNER: But if you ask the average American what the optimal formula of longevity is, they probably couldn't tell you. The fact of the matter's there's a lot of confusion around what really helps us live longer better. Should you be running marathons or doing yoga? Should you eat organic meats, or should you be eating tofu? When it comes to supplements, should you be taking them? How about these hormones or resveratrol? And does purpose play into it - spirituality? And how about how we socialize?

Well, the fact of the matter is, the best science tells us that the capacity of the human body - my body, your body - is about 90 years. But life expectancy in this country is only 78, so somewhere along the line, we're leaving about 12 good years on the table. These are years that we could get, and they - research shows that they would be years largely free of chronic disease, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. We think the best way to get these missing years is to look at the cultures around the world that are actually experiencing them, areas where people are living to age 100 at rates up to 10 times greater than we are, areas where the life expectancy is an extra dozen years and the rate of middle aged mortality is a fraction of what it is in this country.


RAZ: So tell me how you began this process. Like, you sort of started to collect data from around the world and crunch numbers and then honed in on these specific places.

BUETTNER: Well, I'm an explorer, and I was doing an expedition in Okinawa in 2000. And there was this little-known set of islands in South Pacific that had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. And I thought, well, there is an interesting mystery to explore.

RAZ: Yeah.

BUETTNER: And I did a real facile exploration, and...

RAZ: What'd you find when you got there?

BUETTNER: Essentially, a population that's eating mostly a plant-based diet, really strong social networks from an early age. They call them moais - committed social networks. But this was a great discovery. As an explorer, to be relevant today, I believe you can't just climb Mount Everest again or make it up to the North Pole on cross-country skis or something. You have to find something that adds to the body of knowledge. And this discovery in Okinawa, I just knew it mattered to people, most of whom do want to live longer, at least add the most years to their life.


BUETTNER: We found our second Blue Zone about 125 miles off the coast of Italy on the island of Sardinia but only up in the highlands, an area called the Nuoro Province. And this is a place where people not only reach age 100. They do so with extraordinary vigor. Their history actually goes back to about the time of Christ. It's actually a Bronze Age culture that's been isolated because the land is so infertile.

They're largely shepherds, which occasions regular, low-intensity physical activity. Their diet is mostly plant-based, accentuated with foods that they can carry into the fields. They came up with an unleavened whole-wheat bread called nota musica, made out of durum wheat, a type of cheese made from grass-fed animals, so it's high in omega-3 fatty acids instead of omega-6 fatty acids from corn-fed animals and a type of wine that has three times the level of polyphenols than any known wine in the world. It's called Cannonau. The Sardinians live in vertical houses up and down the stairs. Every trip to the store or to church or to the friend's house occasions a walk. When they do do intentional physical activity, it's things they enjoy. They tend to walk, and they all tend to have a garden.


RAZ: So this is common in all the Blue Zones you studied actually, right? I mean, even the oldest people are still really active, and retirement is just, like, not a thing.

BUETTNER: That's right. There's never this sort of artificial punctuation between your useful life and then your life of repose like we see in this country. So grandpa may still work with city council, advising the mayor on city patrol. Grandma almost always lives with the granddaughter or the daughter, where she helps cook the food and take care of the kids and grow the gardens. And because grandma has seen a century of famines and economic downturns and tragedies, she is resilient, and she passes that resiliency down to younger generations and betters their chances of survival.

RAZ: So what your research suggests is that a lot of this has to do with social life, not just, like, the food you eat or, like, working out like crazy every day. Actually, it doesn't really have much to do with that at all.

BUETTNER: Not working out like crazy - the lesson from the Blue Zone tell us that the ideal amount of physical activity is a little more than an hour a day, and some of that strenuous, but for the most part, gentle, low-intensity physical activity. We know that loneliness shaves about five years off of your life expectancy. But most of the things we chase after - supplements and diets, et cetera and foods that are enriched - they don't do much at all for you when it comes to adding good years of life.


BUETTNER: So what are the common denominators in these cultures? What are the things that they all do? None of them exercise, at least the way we think of exercise. Instead, they set up their lives so that they're constantly nudged into physical activity. Hundred-year-old Okinawan women are getting up and down off the ground. They sit on the floor 30 or 40 times a day. They don't have any conveniences. There's not a button to push to do yard work or housework. If they want to mix up a cake, they're doing it by hand.

They know how to set up their life in the right way so they have the right outlook. Each of these cultures take time to downshift. The Sardinians pray. The Seventh-day Adventist pray. The Okinawans have this ancestor veneration. There's no longevity diet. Instead, these people drink a little bit every day, not a hard sell to the American population.


BUETTNER: They tend to eat a plant-based diet. It doesn't mean they don't eat meat but lots of beans and nuts. And then the foundation of all this is how they connect. They put their families first, take care of their children and their aging parents. And the biggest thing here is they also belong to the right tribe. They were either born into or they proactively surrounded themselves with the right people.

We know from the Framingham studies that if your three best friends are obese, there's a 50 percent better chance that you'll be overweight. Instead, if your friends' idea of recreation is physical activity, if your friends drink a little but not too much and they eat right and they're engaged and they're trusting and trustworthy, that is going to have the biggest impact over time.


RAZ: How do the people who live in the Blue Zones think about their lives differently 'cause they don't - like, they didn't know that they lived in Blue Zones until you told them that, right? Like, they didn't...


RAZ: They were just, like, living their lives. They're like, hey, what're you doing here? And we're like - you're like, I'm - you're in a Blue Zone. They're like, what? I'm living in Sardinia.

BUETTNER: None of them ever tried to live to be a hundred. They have no idea how they're living so long. None of them said at age 50, well, God, darn it, I'm going to get on that longevity diet.

RAZ: Yeah.

BUETTNER: Or none of them started doing pushups or getting supplements. Longevity happened to them. It was a residue of their culture.

RAZ: Dan Buettner is now helping communities around the U.S. come up with their own Blue Zone projects like building more sidewalks and bike lanes in LA. He's planting 46 community gardens in Minnesota. He's even helped towns in Iowa restrict convenience stores around schools.

BUETTNER: So that they don't have easy access to junk food. So the whole state of Iowa, the pork state, is becoming a Blue Zone.

RAZ: Well, you can always make pork and beans.

BUETTNER: (Laughter). That's the best one I've heard in a long time.


RAZ: Coming up, a man who thinks of aging as a disease, a disease that could be cured. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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