Chasing Life

Mary Petricca teaches elementary school in Schaumburg School District in Illinois along with her twin sister, Maureen. Both have used Buettner’s quests extensively at different grade levels. Mary told me the profiles the team dispatches about kids they meet on their quests are very powerful, and they help students identify with children in different parts of the world. “They see these kids doing many of the same things they do,” she said. “And even though the quests go to some very impoverished areas, the kids there are still happy to have their family and their culture. Our students certainly become more empathetic.”

Maureen Petricca said the quests are great for schoolwork because they can apply to all areas of the curriculum—social studies, math, and English. In organizing Blue Zones, Buettner has paid close attention to conforming his curriculum to the many state and local educational standards that have emerged since his last quest in 2002. “Otherwise teachers just won’t use it,” Buettner said. For Blue Zones, for example, a one-hundred-page teacher’s guide was put together with help from the National Institute on Aging.

When former students contact the Petriccas, they often say what they remember from class are the quests, and they ask how Dan is doing (and they’re disappointed to hear that there hasn’t been a new quest in more than two years). “You know that it made an impact,” said Mary Petricca.

“I was one of those kids so inspired by the quests that I have basically spent my life trying to get on one,” Rachel Binns, a twenty-five-year-old doctoral student at the University of Southern Florida told me. Binns was a junior at Disney’s Celebration School in Florida, a model elementary and secondary school for technology, where she helped younger students follow AfricaQuest and MayaQuest. While still in high school, she met Buettner at a conference on classroom technology. “I was totally treated like a star for just meeting him—the teachers had crushes on him and the students idolized him,” she said. She told her teachers at Celebration that she would go on a quest one day.

Remarkably, she kept to that goal throughout her years in college. As an undergraduate, she studied communication at Purdue, and began her graduate program studying love and interpersonal communication. She kept in touch with Buettner, who encouraged her studies—communication appears to have a great deal to do with longevity. Initially, he told Rachel that she might be able to participate as an expert from afar for the Blue Zones trip, but he ultimately reconsidered and hired her as part of the team going to Okinawa. “I told him he should bring me along on a quest, but he didn’t think so. But I was persistent,” she said.

The Guinness Book of World Records used to say that “no single subject is more obscured by vanity, deceit, falsehood, and deliberate fraud than the extremes of human longevity.” That was proven by one of National Geographic’s previous looks at longevity. In 1973, Harvard gerontologist Alexander Leaf wrote about his visits to, among other places, Soviet Abkhazia (now the Republic of Georgia), which at the time claimed to have the highest concentration of centenarians in the world. The most tangible outcome of his look at allegedly life-prolonging practices was years of Dannon advertisements touting the life-affirming qualities of yogurt, a staple of the Georgian diet. Buettner does not mind attesting to yogurt’s positive attributes, but the age claims made in Leaf’s original article have been debunked. Dr. Leaf himself acknowledged in 1982 that a large number of the men and women he met had exaggerated their age, either in order to improve their social status or to promote tourism. Similar dodgy record-keeping and outright lies about age were later found in the supposedly long-lived areas Leaf visited in Ecuador and Pakistan.

The age claims in the blue zones are backed-up with more reliable age records as well as peer-reviewed health studies. Buettner has found that Okinawans, for example, not only have the world’s longest life expectancy, they also have one-fifth the rate of heart disease, a fourth the rate of breast cancer, and only two-thirds the rate of dementia as Americans.

Buettner has done much research in the science of aging. In particular, he likes to refer to a Danish study performed on identical twins that found that roughly twenty-five percent of healthy longevity—of living longer lives unencumbered by significant health-related problems—is dictated by genetic indicators, and seventy-five percent by lifestyle. “The National Institute on Aging and our experts will tell you that you can live eight to ten years longer if you optimize your lifestyle,” Buettner said. “The blue zones are places where they’re living those additional eight good years of life that we’re not. If we can go there in a methodical way and find out what their lifestyle is and bring it back, what we have there is a recipe for longevity.”

In his National Geographic article, Buettner highlights three sets of best practices from the regions he visited and from the current scientific knowledge of aging. He sees a connection between his previous explorations of ancient cultures, and the lifestyles and practices he has seen in the blue zones. “There is so much observed history and wisdom built into everyday peoples’ lives—the way their spirituality intermeshes with their agriculture and meshes with the societal norms. It evolves like an intelligent organism. We found these cultures where this really works and then we extrapolated from that. What is it that works—it only exists in little pockets, and with the intrusion of a less healthy modern lifestyle, it may soon be all gone,” he said.

None of the broad recommendations Buettner relates are much of a surprise: Don’t smoke; stay physically active; keep socially engaged; cherish family; and eat a plant-based diet. He says his article only scratches the surface of what he’ll be able to “drill into” with the Blue Zones quests, and he firmly believes that the experiential component will help people retain and incorporate the quests’ findings. He stresses that the project is unfolding with the help of behaviorists at the University of Minnesota—the better to help people make a healthy shift in their lives.

On the Blue Zones website (www.blue zones.com), Buettner and his partners have created what he calls a vitality compass, a proprietary survey of a person’s habits that recommends the practices Buettner has found in his research and will explore on his Blue Zones expeditions.

In the spring, Buettner will bring the Blue Zone Challenge to students and parents who have participated in the quest. It’s a healthy lifestyle curriculum aimed at reducing childhood obesity, an indicator related to longevity, and is based on work done by University of Minnesota epidemiologist Cheryl L. Perry, who previously led a three-year school-based program that was successful in reducing student fat intake and increasing physical activity.

What does Buettner do on behalf of his own longevity? He said his typical day includes a midday yoga class followed by lunch, and then, about a half-hour later, a power nap on a cot in his office’s supply closet. He insisted this is more of his own circadian imperative than a health practice. “I slingshot right out of it,” he said.

Buettner met Cheryl Tiegs in 2001 and the two have been dating for three years, doing their part to keep CJ’s trickle of celebrity gossip going at the Star Tribune. I called Buettner and left a message, asking if that kind of attention was going to his head; in short, was he going Hollywood on us? “Actually, I’m standing in the alley behind Marshall Liquor in St. Paul, so I don’t think so,” he told me when he called back one night. He was walking around his neighborhood, which is his preferred mode of returning phone calls. Hale backed him up on this point. “Dan never forgets his old friends,” she said.

Dan Buettner has carved out a renaissance lifestyle. He uses his local celebrity status and his accomplishments as means to his latest projects, yet he does not appear to put any more stock in fame and success than he did twenty years ago, in his croquet days. Writer Stephanie Pearson calls Buettner an “exponential experiencer,” a person who is able to find new connections, new projects, and new experiences where other mere mortals cannot. Jocelyn Hale is a little more blunt, but still complimentary: “He’s the classic A.D.H.D.—creative, chaotic, jumping from one thing to another. His work is not always linear, but he always gets things done. His vision stays clear, but his process can be a little messy,” she said. Buettner himself sometimes invokes Sisyphus, the mythical character who is forced to spend eternity rolling a large stone up a hill, only to have to do the same thing the next day. It’s the prospect of new challenges and new connections each day that excite him.

“You know, when you are forty-five years old, telling people you set a record for riding your bicycle, it’s more sort of a Minnesota State Fair midway accomplishment than anything else. Right now I am getting very little funding for the education component of this. I have a team of people, textbook writers, who’ve written the education curriculum. It will cost me six figures and is mostly self-financed right now. At some point I might get that back, but at the end of the day, when you look back on what you did, what endures is the people you touch and the difference you made—not so much in a flash-in-the-pan world record.”

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