In 2000, based on a WHO report that showed that Okinawans have the longest-disease free life expectancy in the world, explorer Dan Buettner led an expedition to the Japanese island.
A year later, with funding from the NIA and on assignment from National Geographic, he set out to find other longevity hot spots, and soon met Dr Giovanni Pes, who had identified an area in Sardinia with extraordinary longevity, and had coined the term 'Blue Zone' to describe it. Dr Pes had hypothesised that he would find a genetic variant supporting longevity in Sardinia, but instead found that close family and social bonds, daily physical activity and a plant-based diet seemed to be key to living a long life.
Buettner expanded the term Blue Zones into a concept – a method of identifying the world's longest-lived people and distilling their common denominators – and in addition to Okinawa, discovered three other areas where people live the longest: Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and the Seventh-Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California.
With a team of medical researchers, anthropologists and demographers, Buettner spent eight years studying these Blue Zone populations in an attempt to further discover why they lived so much longer – at least 12 years more than the 71-year global average – and were so much happier.
His work has earned him celebrity status in the wellness world. He's had a National Geographic cover story and written four best-selling books. Buettner gets over 300 requests for speaking engagements every year and most recently addressed spa professionals at the Global Wellness Summit in Italy (see p78).
He feels hotels – and by extension spas – are the perfect places to incorporate the lessons of these Blue Zones, by offering some recommendations of the lifestyle characteristics that have produced the world's longest-lived people. By doing this, they could make a real difference. He also says spas should be measuring the life expectancy of their clients as an "uber-measure of wellbeing".
So, what are the lessons? Buettner identified what he calls the 'Power 9' – shared lifestyle behaviours that keep people thriving to the age of 100. These include moderate regular physical activity in the form of natural movement, life purpose, moderate caloric intake, plant-heavy diets, stress reduction, moderate alcohol consumption, social engagement, a strong family life, and engagement in spirituality or religion.
On the back of this, Buettner founded the Blue Zone Projects, which takes lessons from Blue Zone regions and applies them to communities looking to improve the health and wellbeing of their residents. Blue Zone Project developers work with governments, employers, health insurance companies, schools, grocery stores, restaurants and engineers to help people naturally move more, eat wisely and connect with others.
Since 2010, the organisation has worked with 26 communities – from US states to cities – with impressive results. In Albert Lea, Minnesota, for instance, after five years, the smoking rate plummeted 17 per cent; the average BMI was down 15 per cent; stress was down 9 per cent; exercise was up 9 per cent; and life satisfaction was up 12 per cent.
Buettner has achieved these remarkable numbers by applying things he's seen in the Blue Zones. In Okinawa, for example, women are born with a moai – a committed social network of friends who support each other throughout their lives. With loneliness shaving eight years off life expectancy, these connections are vital for longevity. In Buettner's Blue Zone Projects, he creates 'moais' for residents around shared interests.
It's these small things that help change a community, along with larger ones, like creating pedestrian-friendly roads and riverfront parks where people can walk and see friends, or working with restaurants to create smaller portion sizes and offer fruit – rather than fries – as the default side item.
The key, says Buettner, is to focus on long-term system changes. "When it comes to longevity, there's no pill, there's no supplement, there's no magic serum that's going to reverse, stop or slow ageing," he explains. "The best shot is shifting the focus from trying to change people's behaviour to trying to change their environment."
In the US, Buettner reports that a staggering 84 per cent of all medical costs are explained by physical inactivity, food choices and portion size, tobacco and unmanaged stress – all preventable and changeable factors.
"For the first time in human history, people are not dying of overwork and hunger. In fact, over two-thirds of the world population will likely die from largely avoidable chronic disease brought on because we've engineered physical activity out of our lives, and we consume too many of the wrong kind of calories," says Buettner. "The key to improving world health – and living longer lives – is reshaping our environment to make the healthy choice the default for people everywhere."