Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Live Long and Prosper in the Blue Zones (book review)

The Blue Zones
by Dan Buettner
Published by the National Geographic Society
Book Website: http://www.bluezones.com

Is there, on our vast and wondrous planet, an antidote for old age, a magical elixir that fixes everything, or a bubbling fountain of youth? ... Dan Buettner’s new book ( The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Lived the Longest ) is a fountain of sensible, and scientifically verified, advice. A “blue zone” is defined as “a culture that contains many healthy persons aged 90 or 100.”. This book profiles dozens of these venerable nonagenarians and centenarians around the world, in four pockets of longevity: the Barbagia region of Sardinia; the island of Okinawa; Loma Linda, California (headquarters of the Seventh Day Adventists); and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. Unlike the Shangri-La in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, or the evanescent Brigadoon featuring the vigorously dancing Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse — these places actually exist. And the 90-year-olds and 100-year-olds who inhabit them are physically active and mentally alert.

Fortunately, you won’t need to relocate to achieve optimum health. The theme of this book is how to create your own personal “blue zone” wherever you are. The book’s final chapter provides nine strategies for better health and longer lives. These are all simple habits that almost anyone can do: eat less, exercise more, connect with people, be cheerful, and so on. According to Buettner, your genes influence your lifespan by a factor of only 25 percent. What we do with our lives matters more than what we were born with.

The book is entertaining as well as inspiring. In the Sardinian language, the word “Akea!” is greeting that means: “May you live 100 years.” On Okinawa people say “hara hachi bu” — “eat until you are 80 percent full”; and “ikigai” — “the reason for waking up in the morning.”

Caring for our bodies is one facet of a long healthy life; the other aspect revolves around the life within. All these people interviewed in the book are cheerful and thankful, and have a strong sense of purpose. Kamada, a woman of 102 years, summarizes her life-wisdom with these words: “Eat your vegetables, have a positive outlook, be kind to people, and smile.” And a 107-year-old woman in Loma Linda (which means “Beautiful Hills”) advises: “Life is short. Don’t run so fast that you miss it.”

I’ll try to remember that the next time I break into a run.