“Blue Zones”

If you could live a healthful, active life into your nineties or even beyond, would you want to know how? Creating a formula for a successful trajectory into the later years seems more than taking a magic pill. It would seem to make sense to talk to as many people as possible who have had success in living a full life into their later years. Even more so, if there was some geographical cluster of such people, it would make sense that this cultural cohort was doing something successfully as a collective. Maybe there was even something in the water.

Legend says that sixteenth century explorer Ponce de Leon went to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth. In his book, “Blue Zones”, journalist Dan Buettner has recreated this myth into a real-life modern journey. In his travels, he visits geographical zones known for having a disproportionate number of centenarians living full active lives. The research that he uncovered proposes that there are geographical zones where people live an extraordinary long time, and do it well.

“Blue Zones” is not a typical travel narrative where somebody goes somewhere just to see the sights and wax poetic about the natives. Part anthropology, part journalism, and part lifestyle how-to, Buettner’s findings chronicle the lifestyle of seemingly four different cultures that all have the commonality of adding up to a healthy and long existence. None of his zones feature entire countries, but all the places are advanced enough that they have public records for verification purposes and modern health care. One is the Barbagia region in Sardinia, Italy. The second is Okinawa, Japan. Next comes the Seventh Day Adventist hot spot of Loma Linda, California. Finally, the only region which is not classified as “first world”: the Nicoya Peninsula located in Costa Rica.

Buettner is an active participant in his travels, showing himself as a character touched by the lives of strangers. Though his narrative attempts to remain objective, the journalist can’t help but be moved by the subjects he meets. The portraits of these individuals are the main strength of this book, and are what sets it aside from the usual eat-your-veggies-to-be-healthy treatise. Which also may help the premise. A picture of a feisty centenarian Okinawan priestess may give more incentive to a person to live healthfully, more so than a dry admonition to lay of trans fat.

One criticism that came to mind is the role genetics play in healthy longevity. Early in his book, Buettner cites a study of Danish twins, which determined that heredity played only a twenty-five percent role in how a person ages. This makes sense on the face of it, but at least one, if not two, of the blue zones that Buettner investigated had strong genetics associated with their good fortune. In the Sardinian blue zone, Buettner talks with geneticists who determine that this cohort of people have a genetic anomaly that aids in their longevity. While not as genetically heterogeneous as Barbagia, the Okinawans are a race distinctive from the Japanese. The emphasis on the Sardinians’ gene pool and the Okinawans’ homogeneity seemed to contradict the whole premise that common lifestyle has more to do with aging well than genetics.

However, Buettner does focus a great deal on the lifestyles of these cohorts, and does come up with tentative conclusions as to why these Blue Zones outlive the rest of us. Buettner summarizes his findings after investigating each blue zone, and gives some general suggestions to the reader to find his or her Blue Zone fountain of youth. His memorable portraits of enthusiastic seasoned citizens is an antidote to anyone who thinks that getting old is something to be dreaded and feared. Personable in tone, Buettner’s book is intelligent without compromising on the anthropology that goes with observing disparate cultures.

Anyone interested in advice for living better, or who would just enjoy hearing about people in other parts of the world would enjoy this book.