How to live to 100: Author Dan Buettner on Blue Zones

'The Blue Zones Solution'
'The Blue Zones Solution' by Dan Buettner
Book cover courtesy of publisher

Author Dan Buettner's new book, "The Blue Zones Solution," aims to help people improve their diet and lifestyles to live like the world's healthiest people.

Buettner joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to talk about his research.

Interview highlights

Look at your environment defaults

"If you drive to the mall or walk through a pharmacy here in America or walk through an airport, you're besieged by salty snacks and sodas and candy bars," Buettner said. "In a Blue Zone, the healthiest food is cheap and accessible, kitchens are set up so it's easy to make it, there are time-honored recipes to make things like beans and greens actually taste good."

What makes a Blue Zone?

The Blue Zones—located in Japan, Italy, Costa Rica, Greece and Loma Linda, Calif.—have avoided the intrusion of the standard American diet and haven't engineered physical activity out of their lives, he said.

"Loneliness, which shaves about eight years off your life expectancy, is nearly impossible in these cultures because if you don't show up out of your house, the local village or the church or someone is pounding on the door to get you," Buettner said. "There's dozens of nudges that keep you moving more, eating better, socializing better and living a sense of purpose that is often lost in our world."

To identify Blue Zones, Buettner looked at the highest centenarian rate, the highest life expectancy and lowest rate of middle-age mortality. It's not just about existing to 100, but thriving, he said.

"The average American suffers between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half years of morbidity," Buettner said. "Those are the disabled years at the end of your life where you're spending about 90 percent of your lifelong healthcare dollars. In Blue Zones, that morbidity period is compressed to under a year. So they're not only living a long time, they tend to die more peacefully, more quickly, with less pain and less expense. They're largely alluding the chronic diseases that make our life miserable and are also bankrupting our healthcare system: heart disease, cancer, diabetes and many forms of dementia."

5 things we can learn from Blue Zones

It's not about discipline or signing up for a program to live a better life. These Blue Zones have all kinds of subtle characteristics of their environment that are influencing their daily lives.

1) Move more throughout the day

"The average American burns fewer than 100 calories a day engaged in exercise," he said. "Fewer than 20 percent of Americans actually exercise. It's a good idea, but it's a failure in practice."

Buettner said it's important to think about more movement, rather than compartmentalizing exercise into a set part of your day. After 75 minutes of sitting, your body goes into a hibernating state that changes your metabolism, he said. Another motivating statistic: Every hour you spend sitting shaves 22 minutes off your life.

2) Live in a walkable neighborhood

If you live in a neighborhood that's walkable, bike friendly and bus-accessible, the total physical activity of the community is 30 percent higher, he said. No gyms needed.

3) Take the bus to work

People who take the bus to work get an average of 19 minutes of physical activity a day and have an 11 percent lower chance of heart disease, he said.

4) Stop smoking

It's the No. 1 modifiable health change you can make, he said.

5) Make simple changes to your diet

Buettner suggests adding a cup of beans a day to your diet along with greens and other healthier foods like sweet potatoes.