Dan Buettner has spent the last several years trying “to reverse-engineer longevity,” he said in a keynote address at the Global Brain Health and Performance Summit in Columbus presented by The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. During his talk, the National Geographic fellow and best-selling author of The Blue Zones explained how the diets, social structures, lifestyles and traditions of the world’s longest-living communities can be used to produce radical improvements in public health here in the US.
In his talk, Buettner described Blue Zones around the world including Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica, and Loma Linda, California ― areas that produce a dramatically above-average proportion of people who remain healthy and active into their 90s and 100s. Inspired by his book, Buettner’s Blue Zone Project now works with municipal governments that have volunteered to make Blue Zone-inspired public policy changes in their own towns and cities. Even small changes, like encouraging social interaction through volunteerism or creating new public recreation options, can have a major and almost immediate effect on life expectancy and overall population health.
The crux of Buettner’s argument on is that the path toward longevity is much more difficult if approached through individual behavior. Instead, Buettner argues that it is more effective to shape the environment. “You make it so the healthy choice isn’t the easy choice—it’s the unavoidable choice,” Buettner says.
We spoke to Buettner about what it takes to create Blue Zones, and what his project reveals about how individuals and policymakers can improve public health.
AR: Your work emphasizes the impact of the physical and social environment on individual health. What can you do if you don’t already live in a place that resembles a Blue Zone? What if you live in a place where the environment really is structured against healthy habits and healthy living?
DB: In my book The Blue Zones Solution I outline a number of things individuals can do. But I think that is about a third of the equation. You can optimize your home, you can optimize your social network, but if all of your friends are barbequing burgers and baby-back ribs and they meet at McDonald’s for breakfast, you’re not going to be able to overcome an unhealthy environment by being mindful every day for decades to eat right and exercise...In my view, the focus has to shift from individual responsibility to optimizing environments.
AR: What are some of the the connections between your work and brain health?
DB: In every Blue Zone they suffer a fraction of the rate of dementia that we do. I talk about this Greek island, Ikaria, that has virtually no dementia. This is a place where 50% of the 85-year-olds would be suffering from dementia if they were in the United States, and there is no dementia there. The same things they’re doing to reach a healthy age 95 are also keeping them sharp to the very end.
AR: It’s very encouraging that there are these cities that contact you about becoming Blue Zones, and that have the will to take this on. But how do you win the political battle on this overall?
DB: First of all, you be completely honest and disclose what you’re doing. You’re limiting unhealthy behaviors, and you go into the towns that signed up for that. And we’re not necessarily ramrodding policies down their throat. Our team shows up with 30 or so food policies and built environmental policies that are evidence-based in order to create a healthier outcome. To to be Blue Zone-certified you just have to pick 10 of them. If you convene the cities’ leaders together, they’ll pick 10, and then you’re not accused of ramrodding an agenda.
And then once you create a success around a city the surrounding cities start saying, “we want that.” Americans know they’re overweight. Americans know they’re sick. When they see their neighbors are not sick, then the battlefield tilts in your favor.
AR: There’s a widespread sense that being healthy takes personal sacrifice, and means taking things away from people—unhealthy foods, for instance. Your statistics say that not only are people changing their behaviors to turn more healthy, but their happiness is also increasing quite a bit along the way. What is that connection between this behavioral change and happiness?
DB: Well, healthier people are happier, and many of the same things that get you healthy get you happy as well. For example, there’s a strong association between fruit consumption and happiness. If you’re eating five servings of fruit a day, chances are you’re much happier than average. The same goes for people who have strong social connections. The happiest americans are doing face-to-face conversations like we’re doing right now five to six hour a day. So it turns out that good social connections aren’t just good for your health, they’re also good for your happiness.
This piece is part of a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit The Huffington Post’s Brain Health page.