Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones (2023) s01e03 Episode Script

The End of Blue Zones?

[birds chirping]
[bells tolling]
[lively music playing]
[indistinct chatter]
[Dan] Eleni, you were telling me
about the dough here.
It's not just
plain old bread dough, is it?
I put a little bit, um, sourdough.
Inside is a pie.
Onions, leeks, fresh onions,
and herbs.
- A lot of herbs.
- Oh my God.
[Dan] It's not gonna shock people
to learn that there's
a longevity hotspot in Greece.
After all, Greece is one of the homes
of the Mediterranean diet.
Everybody knows the Mediterranean diet
is good for you,
with its greens
and olive oil instead of butter
and sparing use of meat.
[lively music continues]
[Dan] We know that produces
healthier populations.
But here's this one special Island
that is producing outsized numbers
when it comes to longevity,
and that is Ikaria.
Here's a population living
about seven years longer than Americans
with about half the rate
of cardiovascular disease.
[Dan] And what was really interesting is,
as I was meeting people
over 60 or 70 or 100,
I couldn't find any cases of dementia.
[speaking Greek]
[Dan] So I knew
I had to find how this island
is different than all the rest.
[dramatic music playing]
[peaceful music playing]
[Dan] So when I find
a place with outsized longevity,
I want to understand how it's different.
And a good place to look
is history and geography.
Ikaria has this very unique culture
because it had no natural ports.
By the Middle Ages,
Ikaria was almost completely isolated
from the rest of the ancient world.
Ikarians couldn't depend on a boat
arriving with a bunch of supplies,
so they had to figure out
how to eke a living
out of this really rough, rocky soil.
And it pushed a resilience
that you did not see in other places.
They had to develop
an ability to live off the land,
an ability to identify plants
and harness bees
and cooperate against
really difficult situations.
And it's actually
through that difficulty and hardship
that they emerge
as one of the healthiest populations
on the planet.
[peaceful music continues]
[Dan] Thank you for the almonds.
All right. Okay, we have
a few questions for you.
[Thea in Greek] He wants to ask you
some questions now.
[Dan in English]
When it comes to what life was like
We heard before 1980
that Ikaria was
completely self-sufficient.
What does she remember about that time?
[in Greek] You can find
whatever you want in stores now.
But back then,
we only had flour
because we grew it ourselves.
We had to mill our own wheat.
You know what our coffee was back then?
It was barley and chickpeas,
which we roasted and brewed.
[in English] So they literally
bought nothing?
[gentle guitar music playing]
[Dan] So Ikarians had to learn
how to survive on their own.
What emerges is a very different
sort of Greek way of living.
[bees buzzing]
[Dan] They had to learn
how to identify plants
to use for food, for greens,
for herbs, for spices, for medicines.
And so the Ikarians developed a habit
of drinking these local herbal teas.
What kind of herbal teas do you drink?
[in Greek] Sage tea,
rosemary tea, common mallow tea.
[Dan in English] What's the best tea
to drink on a daily basis?
- [speaking Greek]
- [in English] Wine.
[all laughing]
[Dan] Grape tea!
[Dan] I like the way you roll. [laughs]
Drinking herbal teas, especially
when you're doing it for decades,
has a litany of health benefits,
and one of them
actually might be lower rates of dementia.
They're all anti-inflammatory,
and they contain often diuretics,
which lower blood pressure.
Herbal tea is
something that persists to this day
and has a very strong tie
to the extraordinary longevity
on the island.
[in Greek] Honey?
[Dan in English] Yeah, a little bit.
Is this homemade honey as well?
- [Thea] This is from Ikaria.
- [Dan] Perfect.
It's so easy to put tablespoon
after tablespoon of sugar in our tea.
In America, the go-to sweetener
is either sugar
or high fructose corn syrup.
But in Ikaria, for millennia,
it's been honey.
[bees buzzing]
[Dan] There are several
interesting dimensions of Ikarian honey.
The beekeepers actually move their hives
as the season progresses.
So, at the beginning, it might be
with the wildflowers near the coast,
but then eventually, they end up
in these pine forests near the top.
So these bees are gathering the nectar
from different types of plants.
With that nectar are other micronutrients
or other bioactive compounds.
We know that honey
has shown to inhibit cancer.
It seems that Ikarian honey
is contributing to longevity.
What does that honey look like
compared to honey in a grocery store,
and is it healthier somehow?
[in Greek] The problem with some
store-bought honey is it's been boiled.
As a result,
they destroy the pollen grains,
and it turns into sugar.
[in English] You never boil the honey
or warm it a lot.
Even if you use it in the tea
as a sweetener,
just leave the tea
until the point that you can drink it.
[Dan] Because the honey in Ikaria
is not pasteurized,
it's not boiled,
the nutrients and the bioactive compounds
aren't destroyed in the processing of it.
That means Ikarian honey
is basically from the bee to your tea,
and that seems to have
an extra added benefit.
So for me, when I start thinking
of the sweetener I'm gonna go to,
it's gonna be a raw honey,
and ideally a honey
like the one we see in Ikaria.
[mellow music playing]
[Dan] In Ikaria this time,
I had a really big epiphany around love.
[woman in Greek] Taki,
I brought green onions for our salad.
You sharpened the knife
to cut the lettuce, right?
[woman] For you.
I sharpened it to cut the salad nicely
so you enjoy it.
[Dan in English]
We know that when a spouse dies
from a long-term relationship,
your chances of dying
in the next three months
go up by something like two-thirds.
But here we have the reverse happening
with Aleka and Panagiotis.
These two came to true love late in life.
[in Greek] When my first wife passed away,
I had lost my appetite to live.
I wouldn't talk.
I wouldn't laugh. I wouldn't eat.
I fell into pieces,
and she brought me back.
I must have been 73.
I was sitting on a bench at church
with my best friend.
I was looking at the women
that were coming in.
More than 40 women had entered.
As soon as she stepped in,
an electric wave struck me.
[Aleka] I don't remember who called who,
and we met at Pezi Lake.
He had prepared a meal for me.
A picnic.
And he played a tape and sang
"I love you because you're beautiful."
When I was looking at him,
something was tickling my soul!
I married my first husband at 16
and had a gloomy life,
but you have made me complete,
and I have forgotten the past.
I feel as if I have lived
all my years with you.
[Dan in English] The power of happy,
committed partnerships may seem obvious,
but we can't underestimate
how this type of connection
can lead to a longer, more fulfilled life.
People in the Blue Zones
make their partners a priority,
nurture their relationships
and invest in them.
[Dan] I believe that wine has been playing
a surprisingly powerful role
in Ikaria's longevity culture
throughout history.
Greek myth actually says
the god of wine was born here.
They've been using
the same grapes for centuries,
and, not only that,
the same ancient process.
Oh my God!
It tastes like Ikaria on a spring day.
- Yeah, that's a good wine.
- Not overly sweet. It's amazing.
[man] So the Ikarians,
we have a winemaking method.
Under this, there's an amphora and the
- [Dan] Which is a big clay vessel, right?
- [man] Yes.
The temperature on the top
might be what the sun
- [Dan] Yeah.
- Uh, sunlight.
But five centimeters under it,
it's humid and cool.
We collect the grapes manually.
There's no machines.
It's a very long process
but gives very good quality.
- [Dan] Only the good grapes go in here.
- [Konstantinos] Yeah, exactly.
[Dan] And here, instead of an oak barrel,
it's stored the way
that people before the time of Christ
were storing wine.
- Yes, yes.
- [Dan] It's amazing.
We're all aware of the controversy
around wine and alcohol.
But when you look at the wine in Ikaria,
something different is happening here.
The wine is natural.
There aren't any chemicals added to it.
We also know that when drinking
Ikarian wine with a Mediterranean meal,
you increase the absorption
of the antioxidants.
You were telling me
that minerals that come out of the
[Konstantinos] Potassium.
Phosphorus, boron, iron.
Everything, like the microclimate,
the quality of the grape,
the quality of the island,
gives these unique qualities
that they were able
to call it medicinal wine.
This is nearly like drinking a supplement.
[Konstantinos] Yes.
[in Greek] To our health!
[Dan] People in Ikaria have been drinking
the same wine for over 100 generations,
and they're living the longest.
And for me, that's enough of a connection
to allow me to enjoy my glass of wine
at the end of the night.
[playing a lively tune]
[man singing in Greek]
[Dan] So one of the bright spots in Ikaria
were the young people
and how they not only
preserve these traditions,
but they actually celebrate them.
For me, where that most comes alive
is for the panegyris,
these great all-night parties
where people from 14 to 94
are coming together
and connecting socially and having fun.
They are dancing all night long.
And you look at it, and you might say,
"Well, big deal. They're at a party."
But actually, an hour of running
or an hour of dancing
are about equal
when it comes to caloric burn.
But an hour of dancing is a blast.
We've tended to associate
exercise with suffering.
"If there's no pain, there's no gain."
But in Ikaria,
we're learning that, actually,
physical activity can be joyful.
They are laughing the whole time.
Laughter is good for our arteries.
It's good for heart disease.
The happiness is palpable.
I think what Blue Zones teach us
is that longevity can be joyous.
It doesn't have to be a chore.
And community, connection
is the prescriptive to longevity.
[whimsical music playing]
It wasn't surprising that you'd find
extraordinary longevity here.
But after marinating in the beauty
and the culture of Ikaria,
it wasn't until I traveled back
to the Americas that I found
the most extraordinary centenarians
on the planet.
I remember the first time
I came to Nicoya.
I met up with my local guide,
Jorge Vindas.
Welcome to Nicoya.
[Dan] He introduced me
to one of the first centenarians
I was to meet in Costa Rica,
a lady named Ponchita.
[both speaking Spanish]
[Dan in English] One hundred and five
years old, and she was absolutely amazing.
If there was one person
that embodied the promise of Blue Zones
and what it offers the rest of us,
it was Ponchita.
[in Spanish] You see? It's a good machete.
[Dan in English] Nicoya is a rural,
remote region in northern Costa Rica,
isolated from the rest of the country,
an 80-mile peninsula,
just south of the Nicaraguan border.
In this Blue Zone, I found
that the proportion of centenarians
is close to three and a half times
the global average.
And, incredibly, from what I saw,
many of them
live without medication or disability.
In most of the world, the data is clear.
You need to be wealthy
to afford to be healthy.
As income goes up,
so does life expectancy.
But Costa Rica's income
is only about one-sixth
that of the United States,
and yet they actually exceed
our average life expectancy.
In fact, the Blue Zone here
is among the poorest regions
in the country.
People living in Nicaragua,
just 20 miles to the north,
they're not living a long time,
nor the people to the south
living in Panama.
But here, there seems to be a sweet spot.
People in Nicoya, Costa Rica,
are living among the longest in the world.
Why is that?
Ever meet somebody who,
when you find out how old they are,
it just doesn't seem to match?
So let me tell you a story
about a guy named Ramiro.
So my colleague Jorge shows up
at a ranch in Costa Rica
expecting to meet this centenarian.
Instead, he meets this cowboy who's got,
you know, smooth skin and perfect teeth,
and he's jumping on a horse
and lassoing cows and riding around.
[Ramiro speaking Spanish]
[Dan in English]
And after a while, he asked this Ramiro,
you know, "I was
supposed to meet a centenarian,"
and Ramiro says, "Well, that's me."
And Jorge says, "Well, can I see your ID?"
And, sure enough,
on his national identity,
it says born August 1921, 100 years old.
And Jorge still doesn't believe it.
He travels to the capital city
a couple weeks later,
looks up the national records,
and, sure enough,
in these sequentially listed IDs,
there is Ramiro, confirmed 100-year-old.
This guy looks like he's 70 years old.
Easily the most vital centenarian I've met
on any continent over the past 20 years.
A scientist by the name of David Rehkopf,
from Stanford,
measured the biological age
of Costa Ricans in Nicoya.
That was one
of the most fascinating findings to me
in our telomere work.
And that was that people in Nicoya
[Dan] And he found
that, in this part of Costa Rica,
Nicoyans actually have
a biological age about ten years younger
than their chronological age
would suggest.
So, what's going on here
that explains this young biological age?
[Dan in Spanish] Hello!
[man] Dan Buettner.
[Dan] Pleasure.
[speaking Spanish]
- Sit down, friend.
- [Dan] Did you work today?
- [Dan] Did you?
- Yes.
[Dan] What time did you get up?
At 4:00.
- [Dan] At 4:00?
- Yes.
It's ten o'clock. You've already
been working for almost six hours.
And why do you work so much?
You don't have to work so hard.
That's what they say, but I can't.
Because that's my life.
[Dan in English] Costa Ricans have
this very clear sense of purpose
they call plan de vida.
They know where they're heading in life.
They know why they're waking up
in the morning.
That's what propels them
through difficulties,
keeps them doing the work.
And for me,
this was an aha moment.
It's very similar to the ikigai
we saw in Okinawa.
So now we've seen this same idea
in two different Blue Zones,
and that tells me this is important.
Yes! [laughing]
[man speaking Spanish]
[Dan in English]
You see the way Nicoyans live,
and you can't help but notice
they do everything by hand.
They don't have
the mechanical conveniences
to do their housework and their yard work.
For instance, they use a machete
to cut their grass.
And the activities
around keeping the house clean,
gathering and preparing food,
involve unconscious movement,
which, at the end of the day,
amounts to more physical activity
than, quote, unquote, "exercise."
[ethereal music playing]
You watch a woman making tortillas.
The corn had to be ground by this crank.
And, you know, they end up
with, like, Popeye arms
trying to get that
to the right consistency. It's a workout.
And it happened effortlessly,
too, 'cause they're so used to it.
They didn't even realize
that they were burning calories.
For most of human history,
we've had to work all the time,
so it's only natural that we would come up
with conveniences and mechanical helpers
to do a lot of our work.
But now we've engineered
most physical activity out of our life.
But when you look at Costa Ricans,
they're still chopping wood,
and they're still grinding corn by hand
and growing their own food.
And it makes you wonder
if they're getting more exercise
by doing everyday chores
than we are by going to the gym.
These things might seem small,
but they add up over time,
and they could not only burn more calories
than, say, going to the gym,
but they may also
keep your metabolism burning higher.
[man in Spanish] Come on!
[Dan laughing]
[man] This is dangerous.
[Dan] Yes, I imagine.
[man] Can't you see?
[Dan] You still use an ax at 86?!
I started with the ax
when I was 14 years old.
[Dan] And what other work do you do?
[man] I cut with a machete,
and I fix fences.
[Dan] And how many hours
do you work daily?
I work from 6:00 to 10:00.
Now, with my old age,
I think that you have to rest.
[Dan in English] You think about
the way Americans work.
We work 40, 50 hours a week.
In Nicoya, they also work very hard,
but it tends to be in an abbreviated time.
So work very hard, usually in the morning,
and then they sort of
take the afternoon off.
[Dan in Spanish]
Do you have money in the bank?
- No.
- [Dan] You don't have any?
- You don't have any security?
- No, sir.
[Dan speaking Spanish]
You have to rely on your own
- That's right.
- [Dan] And if you get sick, what happens?
[Juan] Let's say, when I have money,
I like to go out and treat myself.
- [man] To a long life!
- That's right!
[both laughing]
[Juan] I do not complain.
I'm poor and ugly,
but I have enjoyed
as much as one should enjoy.
[Dan] You said poor and ugly?
You are not ugly. You are macho.
[both laughing]
[Juan] How could I explain?
It would have to be thanks to the Lord
because I ask him that if,
at this age that I am, already 86,
but I still move around alone,
I do my jobs
If he's going to give me more years,
let it always be like this.
I ask him when I go to bed, when I get up,
"Give me strength."
[Dan in English] While I wasn't able
to measure their leisure time,
in Nicoya, just like
all the other Blue Zones,
people would never do
a couple extra hours of work
when they could be enjoying their family
or taking a siesta
or interacting with their friends.
So, in other words, they slow down
to make time
for things that really matter to them.
[man in Spanish] Good morning.
José Benerando, I'm here
for this year's visit.
- How are you?
- Good.
[Dan in English]
Here's a country that spends
about one-fifteenth
the amount we do on healthcare.
Yet they came up with this genius approach
that actually helps people avoid diseases
before they're a big problem,
something that we've completely missed
in most other countries around the world.
Costa Rica has a longer life expectancy
than the United States does,
much lower rates of middle-aged mortality,
and they achieve that
spending about one-tenth per capita
than we do in the United States.
How do you achieve that?
[in English] So it's reinforcing water.
It's moving forward
with very strong nutrition programs,
making sure, especially children,
get the proteins that they need
to develop their brains
during the first 12, 24 months
of their life.
It is creating
a tremendous amount of new infrastructure
in what we have called
los puestos de salud,
small clinics.
They begin to populate the geography
with the idea
of bringing health to communities
and to where people are living.
[Dan] Since the mid-'90s,
every man, woman, and child in Costa Rica
has had the right to a visit
from a healthcare ambassador.
Each team serves about 4,000 people,
and they go door-to-door
over the course of the year.
They know their names.
They're almost always invited in.
They sit down with 80, 90, 100-year-olds,
and they ask, "How are you doing?"
[Wesly in Spanish] Does someone dress you?
Do they help you with your clothes?
I put them on by myself and everything.
I put on my clothes and underwear.
I wash myself.
I do everything by myself.
[Wesly] Mr. José Benerando,
what date is it today?
Today is the 8th, right?
[Wesly] Eighth of what month,
Mr. José Benerando? Eighth of what month?
[Wesly] What year?
Well, I'm not very sure of the year,
but I do know it's March 8th.
[José in English]
Public policy in Costa Rica
has become a culture.
It has become a way of life.
It has become
something that we feel proud of.
[Dan] In the United States,
we hope for health,
but we really incent for sickness.
All of the money
lies in waiting for you to get sick
and then getting paid to heal you.
And it's both
incredibly expensive and ineffective,
but here's a country that spends
a fraction the amount we do on healthcare,
and they're still getting better results.
How is it that such a poor country
is able to offer
such an efficient healthcare system?
This just might be
contributing to Nicoya longevity.
[woman in Spanish]
I started making rosquillos as a child.
I used to go to a neighbor's house
to help her make rosquillos.
[Dan] How old were you then?
[woman] About ten, maybe.
[Dan] How old is this grinding stone?
[woman] Oh, no, that stone,
I can't tell you
because my mother used to grind
on that stone.
[in English] Wow.
[woman in Spanish] Yes, my mother used
to grind with it, then she gave it to me.
- [Dan] Yeah.
- [woman] She'd done a lot of grinding.
- It has more than 100 years.
- [Dan] Yes.
[Zayda] Everything she learned to do,
she taught me, too,
so I do everything like that.
And I have passed this on to my daughter.
[whimsical music playing]
[people chatting in Spanish]
[in English] Without a doubt,
one of the reasons people in Nicoya
are living a long time is
because they are eating this diet
of beans, squash, and corn.
They call it "the three sisters."
It's the Mesoamerica trifecta
that's been consumed by people
in that region for at least 6,000 years.
Corn, often prepared
in the form of tortillas,
is a traditional staple of the diet.
The kernels are an excellent source
of complex carbohydrates,
rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Their traditional processing of corn
boosts the nutritional value,
starting with the wood ash
that women add when they soak the corn.
This breaks down
the cell walls of the kernels
and releases niacin,
which helps control cholesterol.
And black beans contain
the same pigment-based antioxidants
found in blueberries.
They're also rich in fiber,
which helps cleanse the colon.
Squash is a good source
of vitamins A, B, and C
and is rich in minerals,
such as potassium and magnesium.
Now, we know from the Adventists
that a vegetarian diet is good for us,
but most Americans' biggest concern
with skipping out on meat
is that they won't get enough protein.
Richer countries have become
fixated on the idea
that we need protein from our meat
or dairy products to build muscle.
So, how are the Nicoyans
out there splitting logs
and herding cattle
every day of their lives?
Well, the real magic comes from pairing
beans, squash, and corn together.
Our bodies need nine amino acids,
the building blocks of protein,
to make muscle,
and animal products such as meat,
fish, and eggs provide all nine.
But they also contain
cholesterol and saturated fat.
Together, this three sisters diet
provides all the amino acids
without cholesterol and saturated fat.
So they're spending a fraction
of what we do on meat and dairy,
and they're getting
all the protein they need,
which just goes to show
that you do not have to be wealthy
to eat healthy.
[woman in Spanish] Let's eat, Isaac.
[in Spanish] If you were to tell Isaac
how to get to 100 years old,
what advice would you give him?
[in Spanish] I hope
that he eats what I eat.
Do you think your son
will eat the same diet
as your grandfather?
[woman] I don't think so
because everything is different now.
Lots of processed food.
[Dan] With beans and rice,
he has reached 100 years.
Wouldn't it be better?
[woman] Well, yes, but kids aren't
interested in rice and beans.
They are into things like cereal
that aren't as nutritious
as rice and beans.
You want some, Grandpa?
Do you want some?
- [woman] If you want.
- [Ramiro] One.
Just to try it. Thank you.
He doesn't want rice and beans or eggs.
He wants cookies.
[Dan in English] It breaks my heart
to see how Nicoya is changing.
You drive into town,
and the first thing you see
are fast food restaurants.
The vendors are selling chips
and sodas and candy bars.
And this is replacing
this genius way of life,
this diet that has produced
the manifestly longest-lived people,
and now it's going the way
of modern societies everywhere.
Since I found this Blue Zone, it has
shrunk to one-fifth its original size,
and by some estimations,
the Blue Zone could completely be gone
within a generation.
And in Okinawa, it's even worse.
When I first traveled there in 1999,
it was known for producing
the longest-lived, healthiest people
in the history of humankind.
But today, the longevity phenomena
has almost completely disappeared.
In fact, Okinawa now has
the highest rate of obesity
of any other area in Japan.
[orchestral music playing]
[Dan] But the good news
is that we've captured the wisdom.
We have the blueprint
to reproduce longevity in our lives.
And I became obsessed with that notion.
I got to wondering,
could I actually create a new Blue Zone?
[acoustic string music playing]
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