Over 350 adults attended last Friday’s kickoff of the Blue Zones Project in The Dalles, where attendees pledged to make small changes to live healthier, longer lives, and signed up to join walking groups called “moais.”
Attendees sat in the chilly theater at the Civic Auditorium to hear keynote speaker Nick Buettner, and also had the chance to drop in on a Zumba class, get a free massage, and enjoy healthy snacks.
Over 180 people signed pledges to make lifestyle changes of their choice, with options ranging from using 10-inch dinner plates to taking up meditation.
Twenty people signed up for potluck “moais,” or social groups. Another 17 signed up for walking “moais.” Thirty people signed up to volunteer for the Blue Zones Project in the week leading up to the kickoff and at the kickoff.
Buettner has travelled the world doing research on centenarians, or people who live to 100 or more.
His brother, Dan Buettner, led research for National Geographic that found five areas around the globe with the highest concentrations of people living to 100.
Those areas were dubbed Blue Zones, and researchers learned residents in all five areas shared nine habits, from eating plant-based diets to moving naturally to socializing and even drinking wine regularly.
The Blue Zones Project partners with local communities to help make the healthy choice the easy, default choice, from restaurant menus to grocery stores to transportation. So far, they have worked with 42 communities, including four in Oregon.
The three-year effort in each community is driven by the preferences of the community itself.
Peggy McGuire, president and board chair of Cambia Health Foundation, the main financial backer of the initiative, said the types of changes that lead to longer, healthier, happier lives “can only be done in communities and by communities.”
She said, “We really want to work with you to empower community spirit.”
Buettner painted a bleak picture of the status of American health, where diets fail, gym memberships lapse, and people don’t even take prescribed pills.
Loneliness — and its significant bad effect on health — has increased, with Americans reporting having fewer friends than 20 years ago, and for the first time, children will not have a longer life expectancy than their parents.
Individual responsibility is important, he said, but discipline is a muscle, and muscles fatigue and break down.
Research found health is only 20 percent determined by genetics. The rest is environmental and behavioral. It is that much larger arena in which Blue Zones hopes to inspire change.
Buettner showed that behaviors had changed just in the lifetimes of the people in the audience. He asked for a show of hands of those who walked to school as kids. Many went up.
Then he asked for a show of hands of how many of their own kids walked to school. Just a smattering of hands went up. “We’ve engineered exercise out of these kids’ life. Safety right?”
Blue Zones Project communities have implemented “Walking School buses,” which are chaperoned walks to school that combine safety with natural exercise.
Buettner spoke of seeing people near or over 100 years old who were still building fences, diving for oysters, or saying things like, “I feel sexier at 104 than I did at 103.”
His brother Dan found areas where people lived to 100 at rates 10 times higher than in America, and with a fraction of the disease.
The Blue Zones he found were in Costa Rica, Greece, Italy, Okinawa in Japan, and Loma Linda, a town in California.
In Sardinia, Italy, “these are places, at 102, they’re still riding a bike,” Buettner said.
“They can beat a guy 65 years their junior at arm wrestling” he said as he showed a slide of his brother Dan getting whupped at arm wrestling. And his brother is no physical slouch. He holds three world records in distance bicycling, he said.
Sardinians are shepherds, and move naturally throughout their day, Buettner said.
Their go-to foods include healthy, unleavened breads, cheeses high in omega 3 fatty acids, and wine high in polyphenols, which are artery-scrubbing antioxidants. He called it “longevity wine.”
Those residing in Blue Zones had a mostly plant-based diet, and ate meat maybe three or four times a month — in much smaller portions than in the U.S. — and had fish three or fewer times a week.
But much more important than diet and exercise was their attitude toward aging. In the U.S., youth is admired. But in Sardinia, the elderly are more revered, he said. Older people are showered with love, and also expected to help with the kids. Those ages 70, 80, and even 90 are still active members of society.
He cited what’s called the grandmother effect: Where grandparents live with the family, children are actually healthier.
Okinawa has the highest rates of female centenarians, he said, and the world’s longest disability-free life expectancy.
In the U.S., people are sick an average of 4.5 years before they die. In Okinawa, it’s 1.5 years. They have one-fifth the rate of breast and colon cancer, and one-sixth the rate of heart disease.
They had plant-based diets and ate fruits and vegetables they grew themselves.
Buettner said he’s had dinner with centenarians all over the world, and all shared the notion of only eating until they were 80 percent full.
In Okinawa, they had groups called moais (pronounced mow-eyes), or social groups that are formed when children are little.
When a slide came on the screen, Buettner said, “These five women have been in the same moai for 97 years.”
Their average age is 102, and one of them said the first thing she does every morning is look to see if her friend is up and about. A photo showed one of them holding her many-greats grandchild, who was 100 years younger than her.
She said holding someone a century younger was “like leaping into heaven,” he said.
At the Blue Zone in America, in Loma Linda, the first signs once you get into city limits are for a Del Taco and a Weiner Hut, Buettner said. But the town is also home to the nation’s highest percentage of Seventh-day Adventists.
They celebrate community, they celebrate health, and they celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, Buettner said.
Women there live to 89 on average, while the U.S. average is 80. Men there live 10 years longer than the national average.
“Is it genetics?” he asked. No, it isn’t, since Seventh-day Adventists come from all walks of life. On Saturdays, they go to church and then hold a potluck and go on a nature walk.
“They get out with their family and let the stress of the week go.”
They focus on their vegetarianism and their family. He spoke of a 97-year-old man who got a quote to build a fence, felt the price was too high, then spent the next three days building it himself.
The man was also a working surgeon.
Another was a still-active cowboy who swam every morning. A woman named Marge woke up daily at 4 a.m. to read the Bible and volunteers for seven different organizations, “Including the Loma Linda old folks home. She’s 104 years old.”
Another centenarian mowed her lawn with a machete.
The long-lived move naturally, biking or walking to the store. In Okinawa, they move naturally because they’re getting up and down off the ground, he said. Buettner said in one Blue Zones Project town, 60 percent of the people who joined a walking moai still maintained the friendships they’d formed there seven years later.
Other towns found the Blue Zones Project led to a significant drop in worker absenteeism and childhood obesity.
While loneliness kills, stress also kills. But anti-stress activities include napping, praying, ancestor veneration, and having a strong sense of purpose.
The year a person retires, they are 30 percent more likely to die, Buettner said. Having a sense of purpose, or “ikigai” in Japanese, is a longevity tool.
Purpose workshops have proven popular in Blue Zones Projects. In Klamath Falls, which is already well into its three-year Blue Zones Project demonstration, purpose workshops have drawn hundreds of people.
The first purpose workshop here is set for Feb. 6 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Mid-Columbia Senior Center.