Is it Something in the Water?

ByDAN BUETTNER

NICOYA, Costa Rica, Feb. 8, 2007 Ni— -- In 1521, Ponce de Leon landed on -- what is today -- Florida, in search of a fountain of youth. Historians no longer believe that he was foolish enough to be searching for a spring of water that gave everlasting life, but rather, spiritual rejuvenation after Christopher Columbus' son, Diego, ousted him as governor of Cuba.

Never mind -- the damage was done. De Leon paved the way for four centuries of charlatans and fools, who continue the quest for a magic source of longevity. But, today, there are also serious researchers looking into "blue zone" areas of the world where, it's believed, many factors combine to allow people to have longer and healthier lives.

In 2002, 51 of the world's top longevity experts -- led by S. Jay Olshansky from the University of Illinois center on aging -- came together to put the matter to rest for good, or at least they tried.

"Our language on this matter must be unambiguous," they said. "There are no lifestyle changes, surgical procedures, vitamins, antioxidants, hormones or techniques of genetic engineering available today that have been demonstrated to influence the processes of aging."

Which brings me to the irony of today's blue zone dispatch. One of our working hypotheses is that the water, here in the Costa Rican province of Nicoya, may be part of the explanation as to why people are living longer here. Could Nicoyan water be a fountain of youth? Sort of.

Let me explain. There's a difference between slowing down the aging process and increasing life expectancy. Aging has to do with our body's wear and tear and the genetic programming that tells our 30 trillion cells slowly to deteriorate over time.

How do you control 30 trillion processes? Increasing life expectancy, or adding more years to what we can expect to live at any given age is what we focus on at www.bluezones.com. We're most interested in behaviors and characteristics that keep us from dying sooner than we should.

Most of us should be able to reach a healthy age of 90 if we optimize our lifestyles. And in Nicoya, we believe that people are living one of the most optimal longevity lifestyles on Earth. Part of that lifestyle includes a very special kind of drinking water.

Last week, deep in the University of San Jose's archives, we found a map showing water hardness (calcium and magnesium content) in different regions of Costa Rica. We noticed that here in Nicoya, water is the hardest.

To confirm this, we tested the drinking water in 20 different areas throughout Nicoya. The result: The water is off-the-charts hard in this area. So, if you are a Nicoyan, just by drinking or cooking with five liters of water a day, you get the daily requirement of calcium (one gram per day).

And how does calcium-rich water explain longevity? According to a 2004 World Health Organization paper that looked at a host of studies over the past 50 years, populations with hard water have up to 25 percent fewer deaths from heart disease than populations with soft water.

The heart is a muscle, and all muscle contractions depend on calcium. Inadequate calcium means weak muscles -- including the heart. Old people often have too little calcium in their bodies. So, having extra-hard water may help keep Nicoyans' hearts strong, and longer.

Also, calcium is important for bones. Our bones are constantly losing bone mass and building it back up. When we are young, our bones build faster than they deteriorate. After we are about 40, we lose bone more quickly than we build it. Calcium may help slow down that loss.

Loss of bone strength can also make older people more susceptible to hip fractures, which is the leading cause of death for older people. Adequate levels of calcium might explain why Nicoyans avoid risks that kill other populations.

But before we proclaim that the fountain of youth flows from Nicoyan kitchen faucets, remember, the secret to longevity has many ingredients that interact with each other in complex ways. Moreover, as our team doctor Gianni Pes warns, "Too much hard water can cause kidney stones, and it can clog your kitchen pipes."

Live Large,

Dan Buettner

NOTE: Dan Buettner is a writer, adventurer and entrepreneur who is working to identify 'longevity Blue Zones' -- places in the world where people live longer and in better health than most of the population around them.

His goal: to understand what's in these people's lifestyles that protects them against the diseases of old age, so that others may learn from them.

We reported on his work as he prepared to leave with a team of scientists to go to Costa Rica, and invited him to tell us what he was finding.

Buettner has written for National Geographic and is the founder of Blue Zones.com, where he posts more details.

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