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Nicole Abendroth

Long Live You

Award-winning author Dan Buettner wants to help you add years to your life — and life to your years.

You are what you eat. And you're also the company you keep. Dan Buettner — the New York Times– bestselling author of the Blue Zones book series – has the evidence to prove both.

A primarily plant-based diet and a strong sense of community were two keys to longevity Buettner observed in what are known as the “Blue Zones.” They're the five areas of the world where people live the longest: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California.

Buettner recently sat down with us to discuss his latest work, what keeps him motivated, and his latest addition to the Blue Zones series.

Q: You published the first edition of Blue Zones in 2008. Any new findings you'd like to share?

A: Something significant that came out of Costa Rica since our original research was the measurement of telomeres, or the sections of DNA at the ends of our chromosomes. Your telomeres shorten as you get older. But at any given age, the telomeres of people in the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica were longer than those of people anywhere else, confirming it as a Blue Zone.

In the U.S., we're generally of the mind that you need to be wealthy to have good health. But money isn't necessarily a driver of health. For this community, it's more about staying with your family. Loneliness is corrosive not only to your life expectancy, but also to your genetic age.

Q: You discuss purpose in your publications and talks. What's yours?

A: It's going into the world and interacting and exploring with others who are doing work related to mine. Distilling wisdom from others. And on a personal level, I’m working on enjoying the art of life — how to be productive in it and how to preserve it.

Q: What's the first step you'd recommend to someone who wants to live a longer, better life?

A: Add more plants to your diet. The science is there. And while some fad diets tell you to cut carbs or eat more fats, plant-based diets have stood the test of time. That means upping your intake of beans and legumes like fava beans, black beans, and lentils. People in the Blue Zones favor these proteins over meats, which they only eat about five times each month.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I recently released a cookbook, The Blue Zones American Kitchen: 100 Recipes to Live to 100. We took the plant slant and other findings from the Blue Zones and worked with talented cooks and chefs to bring the diet to life. The best part is that it's optimized for the American palette, so there's something for everyone to enjoy.

Six healthy habits of the world's longest-living people

As Buettner explains, you don't have to live in a Blue Zone to add years to your own life. And while genetics play a big part in life expectancy, you can still benefit from embracing some findings from the Blue Zone communities.

  1. Move naturally
    You don't need a gym membership or fancy equipment. People who live in Blue Zones get much of their exercise from gardening, working, traveling on foot, and other natural movements.
  2. Pursue your purpose
    What's the reason you wake up in the morning? Knowing the answer can be more than positive motivation. It can add up to seven years to your life.
  3. Choose loved ones first
    Keeping your family close can lengthen your life. That includes parents, grandparents, life partners, children, and grandchildren.
  4. Downshift
    Stress does more than trouble your mind. It can cause inflammation, which contributes to age-related diseases. Taking time to pray, nap, or reflect can help ease that tension.
  5. Use the 80% rule
    Maintaining a healthy weight is something many of us strive for. People in the Blue Zones do it by eating until they're only 80% full and eating progressively smaller meals throughout the day.
  6. Find the right tribe
    Maintaining a supportive social circle is crucial to living a long and meaningful life. Surround yourself with others who also practice healthy habits — and who'll encourage you to do the same.

Nicole Abendroth is a De Pere, Wis.-based freelance writer.