Making the Most of Staying Home: Podcast Transcript

Dan Buettner
March 24, 2020

Dan Buettner

Explore. Question. Act.
Health Life Balance Safety

Brian Lord: Hi, I'm Brian Lord, your host of The Beyond Speaking podcast, and today we have on Dan Buettner. Dan is the National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author of The Blue Zones: Nine Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest and the Blue Zones Kitchen: One Hundred Recipes to Live to Be 100. Dan, thanks for coming on.

 

Dan Buettner: Pleasure to be here.

 

Brian Lord: So as we're recording this in March of 2020, the coronavirus is a top story everywhere and people are spending a great deal more time confined at home than they normally would be. So the ideas of how to live long and be happy and be healthy in this new environment are on everyone's mind. So we're going to get to all those different topics. But first of all, I know you're a National Geographic Fellow and you've done so much research on this topic all over the world. Where have you traveled or what are some of maybe the highlights of your travel for researching these blue zones?

 

Dan Buettner: Well, the idea was to, in a sense, reverse engineer longevity. And based on they add the Danish twin studies, we know that only about 20 percent of how long you live is dictated by genes. The other 80 percent is lifestyle. So the assumption that was originally funded by both National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging was to use demographers, higher demographers to find the statistically longest-lived areas because we know they're living a long time because of their lifestyle and environment. If we can find the places and then bring in a second wave of scientists to distill exactly what those places are doing and what the common denominators are, we can come up with a pretty good prescriptive for living longer ourselves. And originally we identified Okinawa, Japan, longest of women, the Highlands of Sardinia, the Norell Province, as the longest of men, about 11 times more male centenarians there than you'd expect to see in the United States.

 

Brian Lord: Wow.

 

Dan Buettner: On the island of Ikaria, Greece where they're not only suffering a fraction of the rate of heart disease but about one-tenth the rate of dementia- very important as we get older. The Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, a place where people are about two and a half times more likely to reach a healthy age 90 than Americans are and they're doing that, spending about 1/15th, the amount we're doing on health care. So kind of to bust the myth that you have to be rich to live a long and healthy life. And then in the United States here among the Seventh Day Adventists there, I live in about 10 years longer than the average American. So when you identify those places, you find the common denominators remarkable. You see kind of the same things happening over and over and over again, yielding not only a fraction of the rate of chronic disease but perhaps, more importantly, a nine to 10 good decades of life.

 

Brian Lord: Wow, so bringing it to the present day here. How do you think these communities are dealing with this current situation? And I mean, have you talked to any of the people from there or kind of kept in touch with them during this time?

 

Dan Buettner: Yes, my research companion in Sardinia sent me an and the coronavirus has hit Sardinia. It's affecting the Adventists as it is all Americans. Yeah, the one my small advantage most bluestones have is they're geographically remote so that the coronavirus is later to come there. But they have a number of things, I think that will protect them. You know, they have probably stronger immune systems because they're getting better sleep, they're eating less food. Their lives are less filled with stressors than our lives are filled with. So they have a slight advantage over the rest of us. They also have strong families. So if they're quarantined, they're less likely to be stuck all by themselves and they tend to have very strong social networks. So, I mean, they're not going to get out of it, but they're better equipped to cope.

 

Brian Lord: And one of the things, we're dealing with social-distancing right now. And when you spoke with the World Economic Forum, you know, you've also studied in addition to healthy longevity. You're talking about the blue zones of happiness. You said that the happiest people on earth have six hours a day of, you know, face to face interaction with people. How are those people dealing with it? And I guess from a happiness perspective, how should we deal with it as there is so much focus on social distancing?

 

Dan Buettner: So my specialty at National Geographic is finding the most extraordinary populations and reverse-engineering. So the blue zones of happiness. I wrote a cover story on happiness and took a statistical approach. So we don't use positive psychology, but when you distill tens of millions of data points from around the world, mostly the World Poll and do the regression analysis, you can see exactly the things that stack the deck in favor of happiness. One of them is six or so hours of social interaction. So that measurement has been done with a blunt instrument. So the quality of our life satisfaction is a function of not only hours of happiness, but the quality of that interaction. So, you know, if you're with friends who you can sort of exchange sports scores and celebrity gossip, that's not going to be nearly as good as being with people with whom you can have meaningful conversations. People, you know, you can call it a bad day and they'll care. People who keep you meaningfully engaged with the world. So you know, but now bring it back to what I think the essence of your question is if everybody staying home would have a sort of social life. And I think if you live all alone, that's going to be tough, you know because you can stay in touch with people via FaceTime and telephone and so forth. But I think there may be a silver lining in families coming back together, parents moving back in with kids. I know several examples of that, which is very blue zone. And we live such scattered, busy lives at this time I think it gives us a chance to refocus on our family and maybe even strengthen the quality of the immediate social ties with the people we know. So, good and bad.

 

Brian Lord: So you just mentioned that parents moving back in with kids is definitely a blue zone thing. Can you talk more about that?

 

Dan Buettner: Yeah. So you see it in all blue zones, people keep their aging parents nearby. Something called the Grandmother Effect has shown that children who live in a home with a grandparent suffer low rates of mortality and lower rates of disease. They also tend to do better in school. So that's going to favor the life expectancy- So, you know, when we talk about the life expectancy of the population, we're not just talking about middle-age people. We're talking about kids, too. And we're talking about older people. And when older people stay at home, as opposed to being warehoused in a retirement home, their life expectancy is somewhere between 2 and 6 years greater. Part of it, maybe they get better care at home than they would in a retirement home but it probably more has to do with the older person feeling they have a sense of purpose, feeling like they're needed. It was a psychosomatic reaction there. They're more likely to stay active, keep their mind engaged. They're more likely to take their medicines and eat healthier and just stay engaged with the world. So it's this idea of keeping aging parents nearby, it's good for the aging parents, it's good for the kids. And by the way, it's good for you, too, because if you're sending a message to your kids that you can take care of your aging parents is a lot less likely that you're- And I know you have an extraordinary daughter! It's less likely your daughter is going to kick you over to the retirement home when you hit your 80s and 90s! [Laughing]

 

Brian Lord: One of the other things you've talked about, I know you've got the Blue Zones Kitchen, you know, 100 recipes to live to 100. One of the questions we'll get a little bit more into one, the questions we often ask speakers off air to get sound checks. But I'm going to ask on-air for this one is what did you have for breakfast today?

 

Dan Buettner: I had beans. I'm a [Inaudible]. I think, you know, the Blue Zone Kitchen, the idea- I know it sounds like a cookbook, but it's way more than a cookbook. We did a meta-analysis at all five blue zones of dietary surveys done over the last century. And if you take a worldwide average of diets of centenarians, they're essentially eating five ingredients. General groupings of ingredients through eating whole grains, corn, wholegrain rice, and even wheat. They're eating greens, dozens of varieties of greens, tubers like sweet potatoes. They're eating about a handful of nuts a day, which conveys about two years of extra life expectancy. And the longevity all-star food, no matter where you go in the world, is beans. You're eating a cup of beans a day. It's probably adding about four years to your life expectancy.

 

Brian Lord: Wow.

 

Dan Buettner: You know, most of what passes as cereal in this country are just... It's just bowls full of candy that we put milk on. Even Cheerios has a lot of sodium in it. And so I've switched over to a savory breakfast diet. I had a bowl of lentils and rice and I put some mango chutney on there- a little sweetness in there. I had hot sauce. and then I ate some greens with it. And, you know, people think it seems like it's pretty severe for breakfast, but once you get used to it, you crave it and you love how you feel. Your microbiome is having a party down there- a hundred trillion or so cells of bacteria, rather, that provide the short-chain fatty acids that control your mood and your and your immune system and inflammation. Those are being fueled and you don't have an insulin spike and then that drop. So that's my breakfast. Otherwise, I eat oatmeal, which I think is the other all-star breakfast.

 

Brian Lord: OK, great! And then, you know, as people I guess this is a much more timely thing. But as people are stocking up, you know, that's the big story on right now are people stocking up and people getting things that they want to last for a while. How would you advise people to do that? What should they eat? What should they have as they are thinking about cooking at home or stocking up on things?

 

Dan Buettner: See, this is a huge opportunity. Americans, on average are living about twelve fewer years than they could be if they optimize their lifestyle. About 70 percent of that deficit comes from our toxic food environment. We Americans eat out about one hundred ten times a year. Every time you eat out, you eat about 300 more calories than you would if you ate at home. You're more likely to eat high sodium, high sugar, high processed foods when you eat out. This is a phenomenal opportunity for you and your family to relearn the art of cooking. And if you take out a page from Blue Zone Kitchen, they're eating peasant food. These aren't expensive foods. And by the way, they're all shelf-stable. You know you think "I need fresh organic foods." No, you don't! You get 90 percent of it- If you get yourself a huge bag of beans and you go to Costco for $9.99, you get a 25-pound bag of beans, rice-. 

 

Brian Lord: That's good exercise right there, carrying that in! [Laughing]

 

Dan Buettner: You know, you want to have some spices to make it taste good. You want some oil. You know, a lot of people like some oil. But you know my Blue Zones Kitchen has about 50 recipes and how to make beans taste good. The most important ingredient in any longevity recipe is taste. I could tell you the healthiest food the world is fermented tofu or bitter melon. But if you don't like that, you're not going to eat it. There's no short-term fix when it comes to longevity. You have to think decade- years or decades of eating the same things. So take it- Take this period right now and you and your family learn how to make a see a half a dozen whole plant-based dishes, you know, an insta-pot or a crockpot. It doesn't have to be fancy, but that you like them. So you have the skills, you have the equipment to make it. You know that you like it. This is something that will become the dishes that you make on every Tuesday night or every Wednesday night. Take a Sardinian minestrone, for example, arguably the greatest health food cocktail ever invented in 10 easy ingredients that are shelf-stable and cheap. And I guarantee you'll love it. But if you love it, you're going to eat it for the long run. If you eat it for the long run, it's going to add months to years to your life expectancy.

 

Brian Lord: So speaking of long run, that was an incredible tie over to my next question. But you're a very accomplished endurance athlete in cycling. I'm sure you're a runner as well. But how can exercise benefit us now in this environment? Where everyone is worried about immune systems, but also the long run. And then and what are the best types of exercises or what you've learned from blue zones?

 

Dan Buettner: So I'm going to be disruptive here. If you look at exercise over the past 70 years, it has been an unmitigated public health failure. We keep hounding people to exercise and we sign up for expensive gyms and CrossFit, etc.. Fewer than 20 percent of people get enough physical at the minimum, the recommendations of physical activity. That ain't working. Exercise is not working. What does work is getting in living in a neighborhood where it's easy to walk. And even in lockdown, people still go to grocery stores. I'm sitting looking out my window right now and I'm walking people watching people walk up and down the beach walk here. They're still social distancing. In blue zones, nobody's pumping irons, running triathlons, these spry centenarians. But every time they go to work, every time they go to a friend's house, every time they go out to eat, it occasions a walk. Today is the first full day of spring and much of the United States, you should be planting a garden like you're rolling your eyes. A garden? People own gardens. They tend to get out every day to do a little watering. They're nudged to do weeding, at the end they harvest and they emerge from the activity with vegetables that presumably they like. So they're more likely to eat them. Convenience in your home, you do not need a mechanical convenience to do every piece of work in our daily lives. You could lift up the garage door by yourself. You can do a lot of yard work with hand tools. You can knead bread by hand, you can open cans, you can sweep. So thinking about deconveniencing our houses in order to engineer physical activity back in our lives. In blue zones, people's environment nudges them into movement every 20 minutes. So, you know, people listen to this podcast, you guys have employees. You should think about systematically setting up their workdays so they're nudged into more movement. That they have an incentive to take public transportation, walk or even riding their bike to work, that there's a stand-up desk, that you slow elevators down and decorate stairways so more people are likely to take that. That meetings happen standing up or during walks, and that's that the workplace grounds are optimized, that people want to step outside when they can and have their meetings outside. That's the kind of thing that makes a huge difference rather than the delusion that we're gonna give our employees a free gym membership and they're gonna go. If you look at the data, they are going fewer than six times a month on average. So it's not doing what we hope it's doing. If you want to get people more active, don't think of burpees, jumping jacks. Think of a created environment so people are nudged into movement.

 

Brian Lord: So one of the things you talk about are the Power 9. So these are the nine things that people do in these blue zones. Here in America in general, what are we best at doing out of those and what is the worst that we do out of those?

 

Dan Buettner: So just to distill the Power 9, essentially people in blue zones are living a long time because they're eating mostly a whole food plant-based diet. They are moving every 20 minutes because their life is underpinned with purpose. They are surrounded by the right immediate circle of friends and they live in places where healthy choices are the easy choice. And it's that interconnected, mutually supporting a cluster of factors that keep people doing things for the years or decades necessary to avoid chronic disease. To answer your question I would say the most important actionable of those are paying attention to who we're hanging out with on a daily basis. We know that if your three best friends are obese and unhealthy, there's one hundred and fifty percent better chance that you'll be overweight yourself. If your friends drink too much or do drugs, that's contagious. Loneliness is contagious. Unhappiness is contagious. So curating a group of three or four friends whose idea of recreation is golfing or playing tennis or going out for a run or a bike ride, as opposed to sitting around watching TV and eating Doritos. The friends who quite honestly- everybody should have at least one vegan or vegetarian friend in their social circle because you will mindlessly and suddenly eat more plant-based food, which we know lowers chronic disease and then friends who care about us on a bad day. So forget the diet, forget the gym membership. Focus on- And I'm not necessarily telling you to dump your old friends, but I am telling you, if you proactively build, curate, that small circle of friends around you. The Okinawans called a moai. M-o-a-i. It's a lasting intervention that will pay off in spades.

 

Brian Lord: Now, I'm curious. I always like to know the origin story for people and with these things that you've learned were... So prior to doing all this, were you like this? And then you learned all these things that just kind of enforced that? Or did you have a life change as you were learning all these things?

 

Dan Buettner: I had a life change. And it's very hard to... You know, I spent 20 years with this blue zones work and I've done over 20. These weren't just one trip. I've been to blue zones twenty-five times and I know these people. Before you know, you mentioned it before. Before blue zones, I biked across five continents and I ate pretty much, you know, I call it the "see-food diet." If I saw food, I ate it. So I've become much more conscious about what I eat. I've been much more conscious about who I spend my time with. I've been much more conscious about living in places- I very proactively live in places that are walkable and viable. I don't even have a car. I'm fortunate I have a few houses, but I don't have a car at two of the three houses because I am a big believer in walking. Walking and the spontaneous social interactions that come from that.

 

Brian Lord: And I guess just to close up here, you know, if you were to- I know you've mentioned the thing that people need to do of having these friends and these friendships that are, you know, curating your friendship list. What's one other thing that people should do specific to this time that we're living in with social distancing coronavirus and the other things that we're dealing with?

 

Dan Buettner: So I happen to know this from Gallup data. 70 percent of Americans are not engaged with their work. So those of us who are at home and not at work right now, this is the perfect time to take stock. We know that people have a strong sense of purpose, life-meaning are living seven to eight years longer than people are rudderless. Some of us, it's our family. That's all we need to worry about. Stop there. Look, for a lot of people, their purpose is wrapped up in their professional life and from both happiness and a longevity perspective, you should have a job where you on a daily basis, get to use your strengths to do what you do best, not just make money. As you probably heard before, but after about seventy-five thousand dollars, a marginal utility of more income flattens right off. So and that's a lot less in Middle America. By the way. So if your needs are taken care of, your basic financial needs are taken care of, you should be thinking about a job where you can put your passions to work, where you're giving something back to the greater whole. And every once in awhile, this is the concept of flow- But at your job, three or four hours time can just melt away. You don't even realize it because most Americans are spending most of their waking hours at work. And that better be quality time. And now that we're home, now is the time to take stock. Should I be doing the job I'm doing? Or should I maybe think about a pay cut and doing something I really love? Now's your chance.


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