Like every other hypochondriacal American who is pathologically afraid of dying, I recently watched all four episodes of the Netflix series Live to 100, in which author and NatGeo guy Dan Buettner tours “blue zones”—places around the world where a disproportionate number of people live past 100 without medical intervention—in order to discover their secrets.
Going into the show, living to 100 didn’t actually appeal to me. I know people say that as you get older, you get wiser, but the people I know—old or not—are, for the most part, total morons. On top of that, I always associated true old age with isolation, disease, pain, boredom, and, of course, death.
When it comes to death, the not existing part always sounds kind of chill, but everything leading up to it I could do without, which is why I have spent my entire life specifically trying not to die or get sick, and therefore to live longer. What this amounts to is me frantically trying to implement every single thing I’ve ever heard on The Huberman Lab, a goal that is physically impossible, but that certainly hasn’t stopped me from trying.
I know people say that as you get older, you get wiser, but the people I know—old or not—are, for the most part, total morons.
This hobby of mine takes up so much of my life that I have no time (or skills) to verify the health advice I collect. I’m not a scientist. Instead, I live in ignorant angst and immediately shun whatever the Internet insists is unhealthy that week, be it lectins or Bluetooth, and move on.
When I used to think about the perfect age to die, ideally in a surprise, instantaneous implosion in which you think and feel absolutely nothing, 47 usually came to mind. If you died at 47, people would remember you as young and vibrant. You could have avoided experiencing sickness. You would probably not have gone through the stress of a divorce yet, or had to face the sexual marketplace past your prime.
At 47, you’d be old enough to know what your kids look like after their awkward stage, but young enough that you haven’t had to watch them marry a psychopath.
Anyway, those were my thoughts until Live to 100 came along. As I sat there, watching footage of smiling grandmas, cut together with beautiful landscapes, kitchen islands covered in gleaming vegetables, steaming pots of tea, and mineral wine, I became inspired for the first time to live long and prosper.
Cancel your gym memberships!, Dan Buettner basically tells us. Quit your stressful job! Enjoy carbs! Follow me, and I’ll show you how you, too, can be 105 and playing pickleball with friends or shepherding cattle through a river on horseback rather than staring at some piss-colored wall unable to remember your own name.
I’m paraphrasing. But, seriously, this series was by far the most comforting thing I’ve ever seen, and that’s coming from someone whose anxiety forces them to exclusively watch Gilmore Girls and Nancy Meyers movies on a loop. As I drifted off about halfway through the first episode, the thought Maybe existence isn’t that bad after all even floated across my mind. Then I fell asleep, had my usual petty nightmares, and woke up ready and determined to blue zone the sh*t out of my life.
Tangled Up in Blue
Each episode in the series tours a different blue zone, starting with the island of Okinawa, Japan. Based on his research here, Dan becomes convinced that if you garden every day, you can be a spry, adorable 100-year-old. I don’t have a garden, and every plant I’ve ever owned has died almost immediately. So I was worried, as I began the first day of my blue-zone journey, that I was doomed from the start.
But as I kept watching, things became more clear. Dan believes that gardening helps these people live longer not just because of the fresh food gardens produce, but also thanks to the low-impact, natural movement that gardening involves. This got me thinking: as long as I mimicked the movements of gardening on a daily basis—raking, pulling weeds, digging, and potting soil—I could still stand a chance. All I had to do was “garden” my rug.
After squatting around my living room doing gardening motions while my cat watched me suspiciously from the windowsill, I went to the market to stock up on everything I might have eaten if I had a real garden in Okinawa.
At home, I made a big vegetable stir fry with purple sweet potatoes, the No. 1 food in Okinawa, and prepared myself to follow Hara hachi bu, a mantra the Okinawans say before every meal to remind them to eat only until 80 percent fullness. Dan believes this moderation may also be a contributing factor to their longevity.
The problem with the mantra is that the stomach knows it’s full before the brain does. It occurred to me that in order to eat until 80 percent fullness, I would have had to stop when my brain sensed about 50 or 60 percent fullness. Obviously, by the time I realized this, I was 110 percent full.
But despair does not lead to longevity. Plus, I still had two crucial tenets of blue-zoning left for Okinawa alone, and it was already five o’clock.
Based on research in Okinawa, Japan, you can be a spry, adorable 100-year-old if you garden every day. I don’t have a garden, and every plant I’ve ever owned has died almost immediately.
The first was to make sure you have a moai, a group of friends who gather regularly to play instruments and sing and dance together. I tried not to panic. You see, not only can I not play an instrument, I can’t even listen to others play them. Live music in any form makes me at best uncomfortable and at worst want to die. I suspected that actively wanting to die would counteract the longevity benefits of a moai, but I reassured myself by thinking about what Dan had said: that companionship is the essential thing. I made a plan with two of my friends for later that night, sans music. They both flaked.
All that was left for me to turn to from Okinawa was my ikigai—a life’s purpose, and a quintessential part of the longevity formula on this little island. It could be something as simple as cooking for your family, or volunteering.
As it happens, I already have my ikigai. Every morning, I open my eyes and feel my mission take hold of me. Then I open my phone and proceed to execute it: scouring the Internet for annoying things people are doing and privately seething about how horrible everything and everyone is. I am thrilled and blessed to have an ikigai, even if some members of my would-be moai are convinced it’s slowly killing me.
I reassured myself by thinking that companionship is the essential thing. I made a plan with two of my friends for later that night. They both flaked.
I worried about watching Episode Two because my days were already jam-packed with tasks from Episode One. Alas, with no real moai and my brain lagging at least 20 minutes behind my stomach, I had no choice. I turned it back on and was transported to a little village in Sardinia—our next blue zone.
Here, as opposed to in Okinawa, the people eat plenty of simple carbs, though it’s mostly homemade sourdough bread and fresh pasta, alongside a hearty plant-based diet. Given the lackluster results of my cooking the day before, the prospect of successfully baking my own bread was grim, but some good news came when Dan said that the real secret to longevity in this particular village may be the steep hills residents have to climb every day to get around. So that day, after doing my morning-gardening motions, I ate pasta and then drove around until I found the steepest hill in my neighborhood, which I proceeded to walk up and down until I was so bored I wanted to cry. Then I went home and continued the episode.
I learned that in the Sardinian village, there is a distinct culture of reverence and care for elders, as exemplified by a childless, 100-year-old woman who is cared for in rotation by all of her nieces. Dan goes on to say that not living in a nursing home makes you live longer. In other words, a key to longevity is to make sure your kids don’t hate you—basically an impossible task. But if I was going to do it, I knew I would have to play the long game. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
I was going to have to turn myself into a wise old woman who exudes serenity, so that caring for me will be a relaxing and enriching pleasure rather than a burden for whichever unfortunate person has to do it. I downloaded a meditation app and an e-book of the Poetics, by Aristotle. That night, I read the first page—twice—and didn’t understand a single word. Then I fell asleep.
The next day I finally finished the Sardinia episode, which emphasized the lack of stress in the culture. The men in Sardinia are shepherds. They work hard but are not chronically stressed, because they are engaged in work that allows for “active coping.” You can’t control the stock market, or whether some brain-dead executive is going to like your screenplay, but you can do things to make sure your sheep are healthy, and still get home by late afternoon for a glass of wine with the guys.
That day I found a recipe for minestrone—a Sardinian staple—and calmly went to the market to get ingredients. It took me five hours to make, and I ate until I was 170 percent full because thinking about stopping at 80 was causing me to stress-eat.
In Sardinia, there is a culture of reverence for elders. In other words, a key to longevity is to make sure your kids don’t hate you—basically an impossible task.
Before bed, I put on Episode Three, which transported me to Ikaria, an island in Greece where the people drink a lot of herbal teas and mineral wine. Here, Dan tells the incredible story of a Greek immigrant who develops lung cancer while living in the United States and is given six months to live. He decides to return to his native Ikaria to die, but after moving back there and immersing himself in the island’s insular world of communal traditions, healthy eating, and active living, he proceeds to live three more decades.
Watching this episode, my hopes were at last crushed. I realized I would never be able to fully blue zone my house, because my house wasn’t in Ikaria. I couldn’t blue zone my body because my body is in Los Angeles, a city that is simultaneously crawling with people and also totally alienating. In L.A., I have a moai who cancels plans half the time and an ikigai that makes me want to jump off a cliff the other half of the time.
I ate until I was 170 percent full because thinking about stopping at 80 was causing me to stress-eat.
I hadn’t even finished the series, which would later take me to Loma Linda, California, to Singapore, and even to Minnesota, but I already knew there was only one option: to move myself, my cat, and my entire family to Ikaria. Everyone would surely be down if it meant living to 100, I thought. My dad is already 15 years older than the man who almost died but then moved and didn’t die. I was full of hope and excitement. Convincing my family to move to Ikaria would be my new ikigai.
At my next family gathering, I told everyone the plan. It was met with a lot of “meh”s. My dad thought it would be too much of a schlep, and my mom, after hearing about the musical element of moai, took out her ukulele. Doesn’t she realize I will one day have the power to put her in a nursing home? She should really start showing me some respect.
I have a moai who cancels plans half the time and an ikigai that makes me want to jump off a cliff the other half of the time.
At home that night, I collapsed onto my bed and turned on the final episode of Live to 100, in which Dan actually attempts to re-create a blue zone in the middle of America. He selects Albert Lea, Minnesota, and sets out to foster a healthy environment by creating community activities based around exercise and health.
Evidently, it works. The town loses a total of 12,000 pounds and a bunch of other miraculous things happen, but if my quest up until that point was any indication, I’m too low-energy and jaded to spearhead that kind of project. Moreover, I’m annoyed with everyone I know except my cat, who is nuzzling up to me as I write this.
So, for now, it’s just me and her, living day in and day out, eating healthy, moving naturally, and supporting each other. My cat is my moai. They say cats can live to 25, but she and I are getting to 100.
Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones is available to watch on Netflix
Cazzie David is a Columnist for AIR MAIL and the author of No One Asked for This, a collection of essays about social media and millennials