Book Review: The Blue Zones (Second Edition) by Dan Buettner


Blue Zones 2nd Edition CoverThis book is dangerously easy to read. I'm not a fast reader, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself gliding through these pages with exceptional ease.

If you're new to the Blue Zones, here's the brilliantly simple concept: find the areas of the world with the highest concentration of the healthiest people over 100 years old, then go there, see how they live, take notes, and see what they're all doing in common. 

Long time National Geographic writer Dan Buettner did exactly this after he uncovered five places around the world with an unusually high number of "centenarians" (people who've lived for over a century): Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California (yep, in the USA); Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece. 

Note: this review is of the Second Edition (latest version) of the book.
  
The book is split up into chapters with each of the "Blue Zones" (called as such because the first time they were circled on a map, blue ink was used) having it's own chapter and detailing the most interesting stories of the author and his team's time spent in theses places, and the fascinatingly elderly people they met there, with the final chapter bringing together all the commonalities of the zones.
 
One of the first things Buettner was quick to establish was that your longevity is mostly up to you. Yes, genes play a part, but only a small part compared to what most people give them credit for. How healthy you are into your old age is 80% your lifestyle choices and only 20% your genetics. And it would make sense that if you want to live the longest, you would take advice from the people who have lived the longest and simply do as they did
 
The unexpected speed-of-the-read I encountered in this book was mainly due to about 70% of it reading like a novel, and not the science book I was preparing myself for. I kind of expected this to read like the China Study - not complicated or confusing, just dense - but it was refreshing to see that Mr Buettner has wrapped some very important life lessons up in some charmingly light tales of what these healthy 100+ year olds get up to in a day. For example, one chapter opens by following the morning ritual of a very active lady who does more before breakfast than most Westerners do all day, only then do we find out that this ladies daughter is in her 80's. 
 
The more "nutrient dense" parts of the book - sections with more detailed scientific explanations - were smaller, and very noticeable in contrast to the breezier and more entertaining stories of the authors time spent in these communities with the centenarians and their memories of past atrocities in their long lives, like hiding underground from American bombs during WWII, or eating nothing but sweet potatoes for 50 years straight.
 
Buettner is a very enjoyable writer, I see why he's had work from National Geographic for so long, and it's great to see important life lessons being shared in the most accessible way possible, which is what he does perfectly in this book. However, to accomplish this, it requires skimming over certain details or omitting others. Small things annoyed me, such as his recommendation to take fish oil supplements for their omega 3 fatty acids, disregarding the evidence that these are useless and often harmful way of getting these essential nutrients, but none the less, these were only small squabbles with that is overall a very loveable book with very essential messages.
 
Blue Zones on Map
The Blue Zones locations on almost every continent.
 
After personally travelling to all 5 Blue Zones around the world, Buettner has brought back very valuable lessons that, in my opinion, should be downloaded permanently into everyone's mind through reading his book as early in age as possible. Having said that, it might seem weird to you then that I have listed below, with short explanations, each of the 9 lessons accumulated at the end of his work, which could be considered the summation of the book.
 
But fear not, I hate spoilers as much as anyone (actually, probably a lot more) but trust me: knowing these will not "spoil" any part of the experience of reading his book. The real book is in the personal stories he uncovers, it is in the greater depth and clarity of explanation allowed by a 300 page publication written by someone who met, spent time with and interviewed these living examples of the healthiest lifestyles on earth. It is in the sense of being in the Blue Zone's with these people and being apart of their unique communities that are, unfortunately, all but dying out, where the real story lies, and the real lessons are to be learnt from these detailed accounts. Consider the following points a blurb at best.
 
The Nine Common Lessons from the Blue Zones:
 
  1. Be active without having to think about it.
    Everyone in every blue zone is active daily. More than simply "making time" to exercise daily, being active is built into their lifestyles. How can you benefit from this? If you can, walk to the shops if you're not in a hurry. Or buy a bike. Ride to the train station instead of driving to work. The idea is to make it so easy to exercise that you have no reason not to. 30 - 60 minutes a day is all that's needed to have noticeable effects on your longevity. 
  2. Painlessly cut calories by 20%.
    The only scientifically proven way to slow the ageing process in mammals is caloric restriction. Members of the Okinawan blue zone remind themself before every meal to only eat until they are 80% full, but members of every blue zone never over eat. As our friendly Dr Michael Greger from NutritionFacts.org will explain below, maybe there are other ways to achieve the same effect...
  3. Avoid meat and processed foods.
    All the blue zones ate meat, but very sparingly - no more than once a week, and sometimes as little as once or twice a year, only indulging in animal flesh on special occasions. Some of them do this because they cannot afford to eat it more regularly, but most seem to do it because it's in their tradition. They all appeared to base their diets around whole plant foods, and just supplement with a small portion of meat at most once a week. This would seem to tie in with the conclusion from T. Colin Campbell's work The China Study that anything more than 5% of your calories coming from animals is not conductive to good health. Interestingly, from the stories told it appears that most of the meat they eat is not store bought from factory farms either, but rather their own animals that they have personally fed and cared for before slaughtering and consuming. 
  4. Drink red wine - in moderation.
    Aside from the studies linking daily, moderate red wine consumption with health benefits, Buettner advises that having a glass with dinner makes the meal into an event, which is more likely to make you eat slower, so in-turn less likely to over eat. He says to acheive maximum health benefits from this practice to limit to 1-2 glasses per day maximum, and not to save them up for the weekend... The question this lesson left hanging in my mind is, tradition aside, is it not possible to obtain these same health benefits from getting these nutrients in other food, without the toxic effects of the alcohol? 
  5. Take time to see the big picture (realise your purpose).
    The Blue Zoners all had a strong reason to get out of bed in the morning. Whether it was for their family or their church, even at over 100 years old, they all felt a strong driving purpose to get up and start the day. Some of their languages even had a specific phrase for it. It's suggested that having set goals to accomplish, that is, having a direct purpose for continuing living can add years to your life just in itself, as seen in the rates of death spiking just after people retire from working. The key's here are to keep learning new things (languages, instruments or whatever new skills bring you joy) and, as immortalised in Stephen Covey's self help masterpiece The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, write a personal mission statement that gives your life clear, specific purpose to increase it's vitality which will eventually increase it's length.
  6. Take time to relieve stress.
    Each of the Blue Zones had their own way of de-stressing, and they did it every day like clockwork. "People who've made it to 100 seem to exude a sense of sublime serenity" Buettner says, following powerfully with, "Part of it is their bodies naturally slow down as they have aged, but they're also wise enough to know that many of life's most precious moments pass us by if we're lurching blindly towards some goal."
    For this reason they all make specific points to be social every day with friends, family and loved ones, usually over meals or tea, which are specific times when nothing is done except being together and talking. Humans really are social creatures, and it would seem being social really is very healthy.
    I'm reminded now of one of my favourite aspects of one of the Blue Zones, where everyone is so laid back and relaxed that when someone says "come over for lunch tomorrow", it could mean anytime between 11AM and 6PM. The doctor who tells us about this didn't even open his practice before 11AM, because there was no point, no one ever came in that early. A 107 year old lady named Rafaella's advice sums this up beautifully: "Life is short. Don't run so fast that you miss it."
  7. Participate in a spiritual community.
    Every Blue Zone had their own faith. Whether they were Catholic, Adventists, Greek Orthodox or an unusual blend of religion and ancestor worship, it didn't matter, the point was they all had faith in something.
    Attending a religious service as little as once a month has been shown to reduce risk of death by about a third. This could be because religious people are less likely to participate in risky or harmful activities, and more likely to adopt healthier lifestyle practices like self reflection, de-compression and stress relieving meditation. Thankfully the author doesn't recommend everyone who is currently "faithless" just up and joins a church, but instead suggest doing your research to find something less dogmatic than the main religions that may have previously left a bad taste in your mouth. To me immediately this pointed my attention to Buddhism, which for people, like me, who are deterred by the main mono-theistic religions can find all the positive aspects of participating in a spiritual community (I'm yet to find anything, including drugs, to be as truly stress relieving as Buddhist meditation) without having to adhere to blind faith.
  8. Put family first.
    "Invest time and energy in your children, your spouse and your parents. Play with your children, nurture your marriage, and honour your parents" Beuttner summarises. Having strong family connections is important for a number of reasons, but suffice to say that giving and receiving love is a very healthy practice, and it's not done anywhere easier than with your family. He recommends having specific rituals and daily meal times centers around family, as well as living in a smaller house to create more togetherness, and as creepy as it sounds, creating a family shrine.
  9. Be surrounded with those who share Blue Zone values.
    "You're the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with" someone wise once said. So it's no surprise that each Blue Zone lives like one community. This is a huge key to having these lessons work for you. Just like it's harder to go vegan if everyone you spend time with is eating meat and dairy, it's going to be a lot harder to make these longevity secrets work if everyone around you thinks your crazy for even bothering. The authors advice is to create an "inner circle" of people who share the same Blue Zone values and spend at least 30 minutes a day with them. And be likeable! To quote from the book, "Of the centenarians interviewed, there wasn't a grump in the bunch. "
 
If you're in Australia or Europe I'd especially recommend getting your copy of the Blue Zones through Book Depository because their prices are the cheapest and shipping times are the quickest (and free). I get my books from their sent to the west coast of Australia and it usually takes less than 5 working days.
Note: on Book Depository and around the web you'll see a cheaper version of the book, but that's the out of date first edition that this review is not about (you can see the cover is different).
 
For everyone else getting your copy on Amazon would probably be the best bet. Of course, use Amazon if you want it in digital format for your Kindle too.
 
Please if you liked this review use one of my links here to purchase your copy of the book. It won't cost you anything extra but it will give Vomad a dollar or two to go towards helping us continue doing what we do.
 
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Peace.
 
- Benjamin
 
PS. All studies mentioned above are from the book, so go and buy it to see more info on them!