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Is there a secret formula for a long happy life?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
What factors lead to a longer and healthier life?

Dan Buettner, a National Geographic writer, spent 6 years with a team of experts to find secrets to a long, happy and healthy life. Buettner searched the globe to find out what determines how well and how long we live and he’s taken his findings to cities where people are now living happier and longer lives. He also has nine tips to help you live to be 100.

According to Buettner, speaking at a Health.Inspired Event in Minneapolis, longevity and good health doesn’t happen from spending money on diet programs, gym memberships or supplements. He says diet programs only work for a short time, people drop out of exercise programs and 70% of people who take medicine and supplements – such as omega -3 fatty acids - stop taking them.

He points out that 88% of health care dollars are used on trying to fix a problem. Examples include preventable diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But what really determines how long we live disease free?

Just 4% of health care spending is spent on prevention, yet 80% of diseases are brought about by lifestyle and environment.

Optimizing the environment helps people live longer

Buettner found the secret for good health that he said comes from revamping our environment. Because we live in an environment of ‘ease and abundance’, we’ve become unhealthy. The secret to longevity is to optimize our surroundings.

Examples include eliminating tobacco exposure, getting rid of fast food restaurants and boosting food labeling. People who live long lives don’t run marathons or triathlons – they simply stay active in their own environment. He says we have to make it easy to walk to church and walk to grocery stores and at the same time keep things safe in our communities.

He also points out the importance of having a sense of purpose. One way is by getting people in communities to volunteer. The result is less obesity because it gets residents out of bars and restaurants.

So Buettner proposed a “Blue Zone Community Project”. One city of about 20,000 people was more than ready. He introduced 60 ways to change the environment to promote health and longevity in Albert Lea, Minnesota. AARP and United Health Foundation helped spearhead what was called the “Vitality Project”.

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His team started with making it easy for people to get downtown through one vector, in turn cutting traffic. Next, they used money to make a trail around a lake. Now Buettner says people walk, bike, roller blade and push their children’s strollers any day that weather permits – and it’s free.

Next, they put in four public gardens, followed by getting restaurants to offer healthier choices to consumers.

Workplaces pledged to optimize their environments; all leading to a healthy city with an environment that promotes happiness and longer lives. The team even went into people’s homes, changing their yards and tweaking their kitchens to consume fewer calories a day.

Part of the project also included getting people together in groups of five who wanted to change their lifestyle habits and create friendships. Three years later, most of the groups are still together. They also connected people with volunteer opportunities.

Average weight was lowered by 3 pounds; well-being increased and there was a 40% drop in city workers’ health care costs.

Iowa and Los Angeles are also in the “Blue Zone” to keep people healthier. With diabetes on the rise, cancer and childhood obesity that is expected to cut years from the lifespan of our offspring, Buettner says we need to make changes to get our cities healthier.

In a 2008 Huffington Post article, he offers nine ways to live to be 100:

  1. Move naturally - shovel, rake, ride a bike or just walk
  2. Cut calories by 20 percent - sit down and eat, serve yourself and use smaller plates
  3. Eat a plant based diet - focus more on fruits and vegetables and less meat
  4. Drink red wine in moderation
  5. Find a purpose in life - write down your life's mission - learn something new
  6. Take time to relax
  7. Make family and loved ones a priority
  8. Surround yourself with people who share the same values
  9. Belong and participate in a spiritual community

Only through a change of environment - and lifestyle - can we keep health care spending down and live happier longer lives. He says you can’t bombard a population with unhealthy choices and expect them to consistently “say no”. You can read more about the “Blue Zone” project here and get involved in making your community healthier.

The secret to the two trillion dollar healthcare problem has no ‘silver bullet’. Buettner, author of "THE BLUE ZONE: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest", says there are evidence based ways to change people’s environment one community at a time to solve the health crisis we are facing in America with what he instead calls “silver buckshot”. Cities where people live longer and happier are those that have taken steps to change the environment. People who live long healthy lives have a purpose, relax, eat well, enjoy family and are spiritual. Buettner just might have the secrets to a long, happy life. Watch a TED talk here.

Image credit: Morguefile

Updated December 27, 2013