Forever Young: Dan Buettner on Human Longevity

Dan Buettner speaking on stage.

Photo by Ed Schipul

Dan Buettner pulls back the curtain on the science behind a long, happy, meaningful life

Kamada Nakazato’s family was so poor that she dropped out of school in third grade to help her mother raise her siblings. At 18, she entered an arranged marriage with a man four years older. Kamada shouldered most of the parenting when their six children were small, because her husband traveled often in search of work. She wove straw hats for supplemental income, but the family still survived almost entirely on sweet potatoes. Eventually her husband could return home and help her finish raising the children to adulthood.

Then World War II broke out, turning her native Okinawa into a battleground and changing the island’s culture forever. But Kamada’s life changed little: She had family responsibilities and still needed to work hard to eke out a modest existence.

In 2005, at age 102 and a widow for 10 years, she met Dan Buettner, an American on a research expedition seeking the health secrets of centenarians from Okinawa. Kamada wore a traditional kimono and brushed her hair straight back. Buettner noted her gentle brown eyes, which held wisdom, kindness and a deep spirituality. Everyone in the little community on the Motobu Peninsula revered her as a spiritual leader.

“Living History”

Buettner also treasured Kamada, one of the individuals who helped him uncover the well-being formula of the world’s longest-lived people.

“I remember the little house in rural Okinawa.… This woman was born in the rain, outside, and now sort of knew life was angling in on her,” Buettner says. “To watch her go through these daily chores in this ancient house—it just felt like I was living history.”

Digging into the backgrounds of centenarians like Kamada refined his life mission, making Buettner a best-selling author and earning him TV time alongside Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey. But conducting in-depth interviews with the elderly and studying their lifestyles wasn’t always his passion. “I had no great affinity for old people when I started this, as some might think,” he says with a chuckle.

Instead, Buettner’s research into the “Blue Zones”—regions containing the highest concentration of people 100 or older—appears to be the apex of a lifetime exploring the globe… or perhaps only half a lifetime, it may turn out.

Buettner’s Path

Buettner learned to live self-sufficiently in the woods of his native Minnesota by age 6. His father, a special-education teacher, passed down a desire to experience the world in every way. Well-spoken and confident, Buettner, who turns 53 on June 18, has barely a wrinkle on his face and only a touch of gray in his hair. Seeking adrenaline during and immediately after his college days at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis-St. Paul, he sold newspaper subscriptions in a program that paid for long excursions to Spain and Morocco. Only later did he embark on real adventures.

He set a Guinness World Record for biking across the Americas, from Alaska to Argentina. The 15,000-plus miles of Americastrek were completed in 1987. Then the Soviet Union began to break up, and Buettner cycled across that empire, in 1990’s Sovietrek. Two years later, Africatrek covered almost 12,000 miles.

MayaQuest, when he and a team of experts on Mayan civilization traveled to Central America seeking an explanation for the society’s sudden collapse roughly 1,100 years ago, ultimately made Buettner an Internet pioneer in 1995. During that journey, the travelers uploaded their findings for—and responded to questions from—teachers and students at 40,000 participating schools.

“We were all trying to figure out how we could use the Internet as a communication vehicle for schools,” Buettner says. “But also, how do you engage students in a meaningful way, so they’re avidly learning about science?” MayaQuest attempted to explain how environmental factors influenced the Mayans and other cultures, and in the process encourage naturalism in a new generation.

“MayaQuest was the first one out of the chute,” Buettner says. The “Quest” series later expanded. “We went on to explore the legend of Marco Polo, human origins in Africa and origins of Western civilization. Eventually, we stumbled upon a World Health Organization finding that Okinawa had the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. I thought there had to be a non-genetic explanation—something is going on with their lifestyle and environment. We used the quest mentality to try to open that treasure chest.”

Into the Blue Zones

So began Buettner’s investigation into the secrets of centenarian-rich pockets of Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, Italy, Greece and even Southern California—the research tour that would earn him publication in National Geographic and The New York Times led to his 2008 book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, and what has become his life’s work, an attempt to spread the same healthy, happy principles to U.S. communities.

In 2009 Buettner formed the Blue Zones Project, an organization that works with companies, schools, cities and towns to improve community well-being. More than 750 businesses and 40 schools have taken up the lifestyle principles, and dozens of city councils have joined in, adapting their communities to encourage the health of residents by building more bike paths, for example, and changing construction codes to encourage more pedestrians.

Like SUCCESS, Buettner believes there’s much more to life than amassing a fortune. Everyone has needs, and certain luxuries are always welcome, but making the most of life is about finding personal peace, enjoying family and friends, realizing a purpose, giving back, and passing on wisdom to future generations. The better their diet and health, the longer people can live, thus giving them a greater chance to impact the world. Astonishingly, these “success measures” directly relate to longevity.

This revolutionary work has tied together the sciences of health and happiness with the search for meaning, so naturally SUCCESS’s interview with Buettner focused on how anyone can relate to his findings and how the Blue Zones studies have changed his life.

This article originally appeared in SUCCESS on May 9, 2013. Copyright SUCCESS Media.


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