Monday, April 28, 2008

NY Times Piece on Blue Zones

How to Live Longer Without Really Trying

Published: April 24, 2008

MY neighbor Bruce has the healthiest lifestyle on the block. He eats small portions and skips dessert. He walks to work. His hobbies — coaching Little League, riding his bike and taking his dog on hikes — all involve getting wholesome, fresh air.

This behavior drives my husband, who has the least healthy lifestyle on the block, crazy. “You’re going to be so lonely living forever,” he yells at Bruce from our balcony, where we drink beer. “All the interesting people will be dead.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” I chime in to show support for my husband (and Anchor Steam).

But secretly I’m on Bruce’s side. I wouldn’t mind living forever. Or at least long enough to blow out the candles on my 100th birthday cake.

Maybe I can. According to a new book that looks at the daily routines of clusters of centenarians who live in four geographically remote or culturally isolated “blue zones” of longevity — from Okinawa to a community of Seventh Day Adventists in Southern California — all I need to do to extend my life is follow a few of their simple secrets.

Eat less. Make family a priority. Banish stress. I figured it should be no problem to follow most of the common-sense tips that Dan Buettner outlines in “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” (National Geographic, 2008).

Of course, I was not going to be able to work a nightly glass of mugwort sake into my diet as easily as an Okinawan. Or spend the whole day hiking uphill like a Sardinian shepherd.

But maybe I could take advantage of the culturally isolated and geographically remote environment in which I live — my basement, in front of a computer — to create my own blue zone. I hoped, in fact, to find a way to obey the Power 9 — what Mr. Buettner nicknamed the rules of longevity — without ever getting up from my desk.

The first step was a cinch. Mr. Buettner recommends getting started by visiting to take a test called the Vitality Compass. Answer 35 questions, and voilĂ , it calculates your life expectancy.

I felt healthier already. Two minutes later, I received (sort of) good news.

“You are in the Blue Zone!” the Web site told me, adding that my biological age is 40, which is better than both my real age (46) and my Wii Fit age (49), but not nearly as young as the age I would like to look (23).

But then the results took a dark turn.

My life expectancy: 95.2.

My healthy life expectancy: 83.9.

While 12 years of decline was bad news for me, it would be even more of a blow to my children, who already have been warned that they won’t inherit my jewelry if they put me in a nursing home.

The only way to react to such dark news was to scoff at it, and dismiss the quiz as a publicity stunt to sell books.

Sadly, however, it turned out that the quiz results were based on a complex, 106-page algorithm developed by Dr. Robert Kane, a physician and a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

“What the results tell you are a confirmation and a consolidation of what’s been known, for the most part,” for decades, Dr. Kane said in an interview. “The challenge now is to try to get people to use it to change behavior. Most of us know what we ought to do, but have a hard time doing it.”

Like me. If I followed all the personalized advice in the quiz’s final report, I could get as much as an extra 2.3 years — if I didn’t get struck by lightning or some unforeseen fatal disease. But even knowing that incentive, I suffered an immediate setback. Two suggestions — get more rigorous exercise and eat less — made me hungry.

A few Mint Milano cookies later, I returned to my desk determined to improve. I e-mailed my tennis doubles partner, Stacey (who is also studying to become a certified personal trainer), to volunteer to let her train me twice during the next week.

She wrote back, with suggested training sessions and gossip about the latest team scandals, which sidetracked me until my fingers had gotten such a rigorous typing “workout” that I was ready to move on to the next suggestion: avoid salt.

To accomplish this, I sat at my desk awhile, eating nothing, until I figured enough time had passed to allow me to check off the no-salt suggestion.

Next: eat more fruit.

A Google search for salty fruit yielded 456,000 results. I settled quickly on something delicious called Sweet-n-Salty Fruit-n-Nut Honey Lace Brittle. Was that so hard?

After printing out the recipe, I moved on to the next suggestion: drink red wine.

Here — while people who know me might find this hard to believe — I hit a roadblock. While it’s possible, sometimes even essential, to drink wine in front of my computer, I couldn’t imagine myself drinking red.

Seeking clarification, I phoned Mr. Buettner. “Do you really think some book is going to get me to give up white wine?” I asked.

“No, no, you don’t have to,” he said in a reassuring tone meant to lower my stress level (another suggestion from my final report). “When it comes to drinking any spirits, a woman should have a drink a day and maybe two, unless pregnant.”

“Any spirits?” I pressed.

“You get this extra little antioxidant bump” from the polyphenols in red wine, he explained. “But white wine is fine too. I know drinking alcohol helps because I looked at epidemiology studies of huge populations and saw that those who drink a little outlive those who don’t.”

No doubt because nothing reduces stress like a full glass of chardonnay. And I needed relaxation more than ever because Mr. Buettner had become part of the problem. “I’m feeling considerable stress,” I told him, “because, according to your quiz, I am not going to live to be 100.”

“You have to have won the genetic lottery to live that long,” he said. “Like, did your grandparents and all their siblings live to be 100?”

I considered. Perhaps all four grandparents combined reached that age. My only option was to tackle another of the Power 9.

“I am thinking of trying to be more likable, as page 259 of your book suggests,” I said. “But how does that help?”

“If you’re likable, you’re likely to have a better social network, and even get better health care at the doctor’s office because the people who take your blood pressure will do a better job,” he said.

Pray tell, how to become more likable? “Be interested, not just interesting,” he said. “Likable people tend to ask you a question about yourself instead of just talking about themselves.”

Taking his advice, I changed my Facebook status to say, “Michelle is wondering what YOU are thinking.”

This prompted a Facebook friend to write a post: “Funny you should ask. ...”

Encouraged by how youthful my newfound amiability made me feel, I sent a text message to my Twitter entourage that said, “I meant to mention earlier, you look really good today.”

No response. So I texted, “Did you change your hair or what?”

This backfired. One of my Twitter-hating teenagers texted, “Do you realize that everyone can see what you’re typing?”

In desperation, I was ready to take the final bit of Mr. Buettner’s advice (“Maybe you should minimize time spent on the Internet as a way to reduce stress”) and spend some quality offline time “surrounded by those who share your blue-zone values.”

So I made a pan of calorie-laden chicken tetrazzini and went across the street to Bruce’s house with it. There my husband and I found him poring over the score sheet from a Little League game (his team won 20-5, which had to have diminished his stress).

“That looks good,” Bruce said, pointing to the casserole.

“Try some,” I said.

He had seconds. I didn’t.


* * *

Not terribly chock full of any new info on the Blue Zone book, but I included it because her writing is entertaining. I've seen conflicting reports about alcohol--some say it improves average lifespan, but then I've seen reports that most centenarians tend not to be drinkers. This researcher seems to be giving it the go-ahead. I presume the epidemiological evidence he mentioned was more than just average lifespan, and analyzed centenarian patterns separately as well.

Oh, did I not tell you last time that Blue Zones has a website? Yah, because it does.

I've been there; there's a lot of bunk, because they hired a bunch of bloggers to post new material constantly based on their personal opinions and not Buettner's research. Whatever you gotta do to market your book, I guess.

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