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Netflix series travels the world's 'blue zones' where longevity rules

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

What's the secret to living to 100? National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner has been probing that question for decades now. For a new book and a documentary series on Netflix, Buettner traveled to so-called longevity hotspots all over the world and met people who are living longer without really trying. One of those places is in Okinawa, Japan. That's where, as Buettner told me, avoiding loneliness is crucial.

DAN BUETTNER: When you're a little kid in Okinawa, your parents put you into a circle with three or four other friends, and you're expected to travel through life. It originated actually as sort of an alternative to a bank. You pooled money, and then when things got tough, the person who needed the money got the pool. But now it's evolved into a really strong, committed social circle, usually four or five friends who they can count on on a bad day. And, you know, we have this loneliness epidemic here in the United States. About 25% of us are lonely, which means we don't have three friends we can count on on a bad day. And loneliness is as bad as a cigarette habit. And here we have an entire culture that just doesn't have to worry about that. Friendship comes with mother's milk.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Dan in Sardinia, there were people eating pasta and drinking wine. And maybe for a lot of people in America, they may think, well, that's not supposed to be a good recipe for living a long life. So what about pasta and alcohol? How was that working for them?

BUETTNER: Sardinia has produced the longest-lived men in the history of the world, about 10 times more male centenarians there. They're clearly living longer than we are with a fraction of the rates of cardiovascular disease, fraction of the rate of Type 2 diabetes. And they're enjoying pasta. And when it comes to alcohol, you know, I just saw a survey of 90-year-olds in Icaria, and over 80% of them drank a little bit of red wine every day of their adult life. And I'm very familiar with all the recent research on the dangers of alcohol, and I wouldn't tell you to start drinking if you're not drinking now. But I'll also tell you, there's a lot of really successful agers who are enjoying a glass or two of wine at the end of the day with their friends and with a meal.

MARTÍNEZ: It seems, Dan, that all of these blue zones - you know, that they're in some faraway place, that there is no possible way that in America a blue zone could exist. But you actually went to a blue zone in the U.S. Tell us about Loma Linda.

BUETTNER: East of Los Angeles, down the crowded San Bernardino Freeway, you get off the exit, and the first thing you see is a wiener hut and a Del Taco. But you go inland, and you have the highest concentration of Seventh Day Adventists in the world. The Adventist Health Study has followed 103,000 Adventists for 30 years, and sure enough, they're living about seven years longer than the rest of us. But here we have Americans living by fast-food restaurants that still seem to live longer by the same principles we're seeing in the other blue zones around the world.

MARTÍNEZ: So how are these Americans able to be immune, so to speak, from all of the other things that shorten the lives of other Americans?

BUETTNER: The other blue zones were geographically remote, and these people are a little bit cultural remote. They celebrate their Sabbath on Saturday from Friday night till Saturday night, so no football games or dances. Saturday morning, it's their religious services. They downshift - shed some of that stress. They tend to have a communal lunch. And then right in their sort of religious readings they're told to take a nature walk every Saturday afternoon, and they actually do it. They also take their diet directly from the Bible. Genesis Chapter 1, God unpacks the diet of Eden, basically, and says it's every plant that bears seed and every tree that bears fruit. And then a stanza later she talks about green plants, and that's the core of the Adventist diet.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you find generally with the people that you went to speak to in all of these longevity hotspots that they are actually trying, actively trying to live longer? Is that something that they think about? How can I live as long as possible?

BUETTNER: Not a one of them. Nobody in blue zones are pumping iron or going to CrossFit or on a fad diet or taking superfoods or supplements. They don't do anything to try to live longer. They just wake up and live their day. And the epiphany for me was while we here in America are always trying to pursue health, in blue zones, it ensues. And it ensues from the right environment where the healthy choice is the easy choice or the unavoidable choice. And that works in five disparate places around the world. And it's a lesson we ought to be paying attention to here in the United States.

MARTÍNEZ: You spoke to a lot of older people that are in this zone of being an example of how to live a longer life. But for the young people that you spoke to that are around them, how do they see them?

BUETTNER: First of all, in America, where we tend to celebrate youth - just open a magazine and look at the ads - in blue zones, they celebrate age. The older you are, the more revered you are. You know, I remember going up in these villages in Sardinia, and instead of seeing, like, the swimsuit model of the month calendar, it was the centenarian of the month calendar. It is a resource. Older people are seen as a resource. Their talents are harnessed, and they have this feeling like they matter. And I believe part of their longevity is due to this sort of realization that they know their lives are useful, and they're expected to get up and help.

MARTÍNEZ: Some of these blue zones have been in some ways isolated from the world for a long time, but with the interest in wanting to live longer, you got people visiting and wanting to find out their secrets. And I think invariably sometimes the outside world bleeds in. Are blue zones at risk?

BUETTNER: I don't think they're at risk so much from people coming to visit because the type of people who visit blue zones, you know, care about health, and they tend to be more culturally aware. They're not going to just party or something. But as soon as the American way of life comes in the front door of these blue zones, longevity goes out the back door. And in every one of these blue zones, they're eroding because they're eating more like us, and mechanical conveniences are taking over the type of work they used to do by hand. And it's sad to see.

MARTÍNEZ: Dan Buettner has a limited Netflix series called "Live To 100: Secrets Of The Blue Zones." He's also author of the book "The Blue Zones: Secrets For Living Longer" (ph). Dan, thanks.

BUETTNER: Thank you, A Martínez. I'll see you when you're 100.

MARTÍNEZ: Halfway there, Dan, halfway there. Planning to meet you there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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