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EFACon opening keynote: What's the recipe for the longest, happiest life?

May 5, 2014
by Pamela Tabar, Editor-in-Chief
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The 8th annual Environments for Aging (EFA) Conference opening plenary session kicked off in music, as Disneyland's "Dapper Dans" barbershop quartet used vocal harmony and instruments to bring out attendees' "inner child" through the most beloved Disney songs.

The focus returned to grown-up Mouseketeers as the conference's hosting partners stressed the need for innovative design in senior living communities and care spaces. "As the population of those over age 65 continues to swell to astronomical proportions, every care and living environment becomes in some way, an environment for aging," said Kristin Zeit, Editor-in-Chief of EFA.

What's the secret to living long and well? Opening keynote speaker Nick Buettner, executive producer of Blue Zones Expeditions, shared with attendees his research on five population locations that seem to have found the answer. The Blue Zones organization has studied the world's longest-living, happiest populations, and Buettner shared a visual journey through five "Blue Zones" across the globe where people enjoy a measurably better quality of life long into their older years.

The healthiest older populations on Earth, according to Blue Zones research:

  • Sardinia, Italy
  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Loma Linda, California
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
  • Ikaria, Greece

Only one American location is among the five, and Buettner considers this a serious warning about the American lifestyle. About 20 percent of a person's life expectancy comes from genetics and preventive health, whereas 80 percent comes from personal habits, he noted. 

"The life capacity of our bodies is roughly 90 years. But life expectancy in America is about 78. We're leaving 12 years of life on the table somewhere."

Each of the five Blue Zones has its own specific attributes toward longevity, Buettner explained, but nine "powers" echoed across all five locations.

  1. Move naturally. Gyms don't exist in most of the Blue Zones. Healthy exercise is movement for a reason.
  2. Have purpose. What's your reason for getting up every day? 
  3. Downshift. Most Blue Zone populations have stress-reducers built into their daily lifestyles.
  4. Use the "80% rule" for eating. The Japanese say, "Hara hachi bu," which means "stop eating when I am 80 percent full." In many cultures, excessive caloric intake is a slow but sure killer, Buettner said.
  5. Eat plants. A key shared characteristic among the Blue Zones is a plant0based diet, rich in legumes, greens and antioxidant-laden fruits.
  6. Have wine @ 5. One or two alcoholic drinks are beneficial in most cultures, Buettner has observed.
  7. Belong. Participating in any faith-based community can add 4 to 14 years to your life, Buettner noted. "It doesn't matter what faith you are, but faith matters," he said.
  8. Put loved ones first. All five Blue Zone groups had strong family involvement and family-first priorities.
  9. Stick with the right tribe. Friends have a huge impact on our lives, and in the Blue Zone of Okinawa, the healthiest older people had friendship groups that lasted for 30 years or more, Buettner explained. Likewise, he said, "Research shows that if your three best friends are obese, there's a 150 percent chance you'll be obese as well."


The opening session also awarded the winners of several key design competitions this year:

The annual design showcase:

Awards of Merit:

Honorable Mentions:

The first annual Landscape Architecture competition, senior living category:

The annual remodel/renovation competition:

See our Blue Zones coverage from the 2013 LeadingAge annual meeting here.

For more coverage of environments for aging issues, click here.