Longevity coach, Dan Buettner on How to live to be 100+ at TED (Full Transcript)
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Dan Buettner – Longevity coach, explorer
Something called the Danish Twin Study established that only about 10% of how long the average person lives, within certain biological limits, is dictated by our genes. The other 90% is dictated by our lifestyle. So the premise of Blue Zones: if we can find the optimal lifestyle of longevity we can come up with a de facto formula for longevity.
But if you ask the average American what the optimal formula of longevity is, they probably couldn’t tell you. They’ve probably heard of the South Beach Diet, or the Atkins Diet. You have the USDA food pyramid. There is what Oprah tells us. There is what Doctor Oz tells us.
The fact of the matter is there is a lot of confusion around what really helps us live longer better. Should you be running marathons or doing yoga? Should you eat organic meats or should you be eating tofu? When it comes to supplements, should you be taking them? How about these hormones or resveratrol? And does purpose play into it? Spirituality? And how about how we socialize?
Well, our approach to finding longevity was to team up with National Geographic, and the National Institute on Aging, to find the four demographically confirmed areas that are geographically defined. And then bring a team of experts in there to methodically go through exactly what these people do, to distill down the cross-cultural distillation. And at the end of this I’m going to tell you what that distillation is.
But first, I’d like to debunk some common myths when it comes to longevity. And the first myth is if you try really hard you can live to be 100. False. The problem is, only about one out of 5,000 people in America live to be 100. Your chances are very low. Even though it’s the fastest growing demographic in America, it’s hard to reach 100. The problem is that we’re not programmed for longevity. We are programmed for something called procreative success. I love that word. It reminds me of my college days.
Biologists term procreative success to mean the age where you have children and then another generation, the age when your children have children. After that the effect of evolution completely dissipates. If you’re a mammal, if you’re a rat or an elephant, or a human, in between, it’s the same story. So to make it to age 100, you not only have to have had a very good lifestyle, you also have to have won the genetic lottery.
The second myth is, there are treatments that can help slow, reverse, or even stop aging. False. When you think of it, there is 99 things that can age us. Deprive your brain of oxygen for just a few minutes, those brain cells die, they never come back. Play tennis too hard, on your knees, ruin your cartilage, the cartilage never comes back. Our arteries can clog. Our brains can gunk up with plaque, and we can get Alzheimer’s. There is just too many things to go wrong.
Our bodies have 35 trillion cells, trillion with a “T.” We’re talking national debt numbers here. Those cells turn themselves over once every eight years. And every time they turn themselves over there is some damage. And that damage builds up. And it builds up exponentially. It’s a little bit like the days when we all had Beatles albums or Eagles albums and we’d make a copy of that on a cassette tape, and let our friends copy that cassette tape, and pretty soon, with successive generations that tape sounds like garbage. Well, the same things happen to our cells. That’s why a 65-year-old person is aging at a rate of about 125 times faster than a 12-year-old person.
So, if there is nothing you can do to slow your aging or stop your aging, what am I doing here? Well, the fact of the matter is the best science tells us that the capacity of the human body, my body, your body, is about 90 years, a little bit more for women. But life expectancy in this country is only 78. So somewhere along the line, we’re leaving about 12 good years on the table. These are years that we could get. And research shows that they would be years largely free of chronic disease, heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
We think the best way to get these missing years is to look at the cultures around the world that are actually experiencing them, areas where people are living to age 100 at rates up to 10 times greater than we are, areas where the life expectancy is an extra dozen years, the rate of middle age mortality is a fraction of what it is in this country.
We found our first Blue Zone about 125 miles off the coast of Italy, on the island of Sardinia. And not the entire island, the island is about 1.4 million people, but only up in the highlands, an area called the Nuoro province. And here we have this area where men live the longest, about 10 times more centenarians than we have here in America. And this is a place where people not only reach age 100, they do so with extraordinary vigor. Places where 102 year olds still ride their bike to work, chop wood, and can beat a guy 60 years younger than them.
Their history actually goes back to about the time of Christ. It’s actually a Bronze Age culture that’s been isolated. Because the land is so infertile, they largely are shepherds, which occasions regular, low-intensity physical activity. Their diet is mostly plant-based, accentuated with foods that they can carry into the fields. They came up with an unleavened whole wheat bread called carta musica made out of durum wheat, a type of cheese made from grass-fed animals so the cheese is high in Omega-3 fatty acids instead of Omega-6 fatty acids from corn-fed animals, and a type of wine that has three times the level of polyphenols than any known wine in the world. It’s called Cannonau.
But the real secret I think lies more in the way that they organize their society. And one of the most salient elements of the Sardinian society is how they treat older people. You ever notice here in America, social equity seems to peak at about age 24? Just look at the advertisements. Here in Sardinia, the older you get the more equity you have, the more wisdom you’re celebrated for. You go into the bars in Sardinia, instead of seeing the Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar, you see the centenarian of the month calendar.
This, as it turns out, is not only good for your aging parents to keep them close to the family — it imparts about four to six years of extra life expectancy — research shows it’s also good for the children of those families, who have lower rates of mortality and lower rates of disease. That’s called the grandmother effect.
We found our second Blue Zone on the other side of the planet, about 800 miles south of Tokyo, on the archipelago of Okinawa. Okinawa is actually 161 small islands. And in the northern part of the main island, this is ground zero for world longevity. This is a place where the oldest living female population is found. It’s a place where people have the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. They have what we want. They live a long time, and tend to die in their sleep, very quickly, and often, I can tell you, after sex.
They live about seven good years longer than the average American. Five times as many centenarians as we have in America. One fifth the rate of colon and breast cancer, big killers here in America. And one sixth the rate of cardiovascular disease. And the fact that this culture has yielded these numbers suggests strongly they have something to teach us. What do they do? Once again, a plant-based diet, full of vegetables with lots of color in them. And they eat about eight times as much tofu as Americans do.
More significant than what they eat is how they eat it. They have all kinds of little strategies to keep from overeating, which, as you know, is a big problem here in America. A few of the strategies we observed: they eat off of smaller plates, so they tend to eat fewer calories at every sitting. Instead of serving family style, where you can sort of mindlessly eat as you’re talking, they serve at the counter, put the food away, and then bring it to the table.
They also have a 3,000-year-old adage, which I think is the greatest sort of diet suggestion ever invented. It was invented by Confucius. And that diet is known as the Hara, Hatchi, Bu diet. It’s simply a little saying these people say before their meal to remind them to stop eating when their stomach is 80% full. It takes about a half hour for that full feeling to travel from your belly to your brain. And by remembering to stop at 80% it helps keep you from doing that very thing.
But, like Sardinia, Okinawa has a few social constructs that we can associate with longevity. We know that isolation kills. Fifteen years ago, the average American had three good friends. We’re down to one and half right now. If you were lucky enough to be born in Okinawa, you were born into a system where you automatically have a half a dozen friends with whom you travel through life. They call it a Moai. And if you’re in a Moai you’re expected to share the bounty if you encounter luck, and if things go bad, child gets sick, parent dies, you always have somebody who has your back. This particular Moai, these five ladies have been together for 97 years. Their average age is 102.
Typically in America we’ve divided our adult life up into two sections. There is our work life, where we’re productive. And then one day, boom, we retire. And typically that has meant retiring to the easy chair, or going down to Arizona to play golf. In the Okinawan language there is not even a word for retirement. Instead there is one word that imbues your entire life, and that word is “ikigai.” And, roughly translated, it means “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.”