Book Review: The Blue Zones Solution by Dan Buettner

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Have you ever wondered why people in some cultures live longer than others?

Dan Buettner was intrugued by this too, so along with his team of experts he has spent an inordinate amount of time researching and reporting just why they think it is. The result: The Blue Zones Solution.

I received this book for Christmas just after I had my second child. I had no idea when exactly I was going to have the time to read it. However, once I started it, I couldn’t put it down! It was a great way for me to stay awake and alert during those frequent night feeding sessions that come with a newborn baby.

So what exactly are Blue Zones? Interestingly the name ‘Blue Zones’ came from the fact that researchers circled target regions during their study with blue ink! They are actually a select few places around the world where the people live long and healthy lives. Because its not just about how long your live, its about how well you live. Modern medicine and technologies are allowing people to live longer these days but is it really with the quality that we so desire?

Blue Zones contain a higher proportion of people that live to be 100 years old without the diseases that plague us today: diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer.

So where are they? There are only five that meet the criteria and even though they are geographically diverse they are actually very similar.

You may have heard of some of them:

  • Ikaria, Greece: Situated in the Aegean see off the coast of Turkey. It has the world’s lowest rate of middle age mortality and lowest rates of dementia
  • Okinawa, Japan: The largest island in a subtropical archipelago. Its home to the worlds longest lived women
  • Ogliastra Region, Sardinia: In the highlands of an Italian island, this region has the world’s highest concentration of men over the age of 100.
  • Loma Linda, California: The community has the highest concentration of Seventh Day Adventists in the United States. People here live approximately 10 more ‘healthy’ years than the average American.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. Residents in this South American country have the world’s second highest concentration of males over the age of 100 and the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality.

Dan and his team of leading medical researchers, anthropologists, dieticians, demographers and epidemiologists then spent the time working out exactly what it was that contributed to the longevity in these five places. The book has some fascinating excerpts on some of the interviews that were undertaken with the residents. It’s like you were there with them!

Interestingly, all had very similar habits and practices despite their geographical locations and the fact that many would have never heard of the other ‘blue zones’. These practices are coined as the ‘Power Nine.’ You can read more about them here. In summary though, here they are:

  1. Move naturally. The world’s longest-lived people don’t run marathons or join gyms. They live in environments that constantly get them moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
  2. Purpose. The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida.” This translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
  3. Downshift. Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t, are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.
  4. 80 per cent rule. “Hara hachi bu”  – the Okinawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the Blue Zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.
  5. Plant Slant. Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month.  Serving sizes are about the size of a deck of cards.
  6. Wine @ 5. People in all Blue Zones (except the Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly.  Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day with friends and/or with food. And it doesn’t work if you save up all week and have 14 drinks on a Saturday.
  7. Right Tribe. The world’s longest lived people chose (or were born into) social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais.” Theses are groups of five friends that are committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. Social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.
  8. Community. All but five of the 263 centenarians interviewed as part of the Blue Zones research belonged to some faith-based community.  Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.
  9. Loved Ones First. Successful centenarians in the Blue Zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.) They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (they’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).

How many of these can we, in our everyday lives say we practice? Maybe the Wine @ 5 (if you’ve been home with kids all day!) But seriously, probably not many.

Buettner and his team then used this knowledge to create some ‘man made’ blue zones in a few selected American communities with some positive results. The book details the massive effort that went into selecting these communities and then the work done for the transformation. I guess only time will tell if this worked but in the interim these communities are happier and healthier than ever!

The book also has a section devoted to how you can ‘blue zone’ your own food rituals, meals and home. And this includes some of the the traditional recipes enjoyed by many of the blue zone communities for decades.

I don’t necessarily agree with all the information provided in this book. There are some sections about diet and food that don’t sit well with me given my knowledge in this area. Particularly the support of the low fat diet and the work done by Ancel Keys that started the whole low fat revolution. Evidence is now starting to emerge that saturated fat isn’t the problem with many of our modern diseases. It’s the excess sugar consumption that is to blame. I also don’t agree with one of the strategies in the man made communities to replace butter with vegetable oils. If you want to know why just read this! Essentially vegetable oils are high in omega 6 fats and low in omega 3 fats which fuels inflammatory processes in the body. And inflammation is linked to many diseases we suffer from in our modern society.

Regardless of this, it’s a great read and really gets your mind thinking about what you can do better to improve both the quality and quantity of live for yourself and your family. It seems the key to a long and healthy life is to eat well, stress less, move more and love more. It’s simple really!

Oh and my greatest disappointment about this book? In order to ‘move more’ and strengthen your hands and arms, it is recommended you only use hand operated kitchen tools. So the Thermomix would be out! I can’t do this one unfortunately.

If you are interested, more information can be found on the Blue Zones website. Or better still buy the book and read it for yourself!

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