April 10, 2008 -- Dan Buettner gets off the phone with people by saying, "live large."
It's a motto he's followed. A writer and adventurer, he has bicycled around the world, started several ventures to teach young people about different cultures and is now traveling to different countries with a team of doctors and demographers, pinpointing the places where people live longest.
"I just became obsessed with finding out what it is that helps these people," he said as he made plans for another trip.
Find out how you can follow Dan and his team on their quest to the next Blue Zone, visit www.bluezones.com.
Buettner's newest expedition is to the Nicoyan Peninsula, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
For reasons doctors are striving to understand, men in Nicoya live to age 100 four times as often as men in the United States -- even though their medical care costs only about 7 percent as much.
Hot Spots for Longevity
Buettner labels Nicoya a "blue zone," a place where many factors combine to allow people to live longer and better.
"There's no one silver bullet," he says, "but there are about eight things people can do, and each can give them six to 18 additional good months of life."
Buettner has already profiled three other blue zones:
The mountainous Italian island of Sardinia, where farmers work hard in the fields, drink red wine, eat fruits and vegetables they grew themselves, and are taught to respect their elders.
The Japanese island of Okinawa. Here, there is no word for "retirement" -- but there is another word, Ikigai, which translates roughly to "purpose" or "that which makes one's life worth living." Men there have a fifth as much cancer as Americans, and a quarter as much heart disease.
Loma Linda, Calif., about an hour's drive east of Los Angeles. Why should one city stand out amid the sprawl of Southern California? Perhaps, said researchers, because the Seventh Day Adventist Church there gives people a powerful sense of community.
What Makes for a Long Life?
Many of the things people do in those widely dispersed places probably sound familiar. People there are active throughout their lives. They eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, but little meat. They don't get fat. They put a premium on family, friends and religion to give them emotional support.
And, as other researchers have reported, people who drink a glass or two of red wine a day tend to live longer than teetotalers.
Along the way, Buettner says he also found surprises.
It appears, for instance, that high altitude is good for you. Thinner air actually lowers one's blood pressure, and more exposure to the sun means more vitamin D.
People who eat nuts seem to live two or three years more than average -- although, as Buettner said, "is that because the nuts are good for you, or because you're not eating potato chips?"
There are probably many factors people cannot control; genetics clearly play a significant role in people's longevity. But Buettner is trying to communicate his findings to schoolchildren, in the belief that if they adopt healthy lifestyles early, they will benefit for a long time.
With help from the University of Minnesota, the National Geographic Society and the Allianz life insurance company, he's put together a computer program that estimates for people, based on their lifestyle and behavior, how long they're likely to live, and suggests how they can improve their odds.
"People who just concentrate on diet and exercise are missing three-quarters of the picture," he said. "There's a whole a la carte menu that will help you live longer and better."