Trend: Lo-Fi Longevity
We’ve been bombarded in 2023 with high-tech and medical longevity solutions and products, but low-key longevity is again having a moment. It’s in part spurred by Netflix’s new series on Blue Zones communities that make healthy choices the “mindless” ones, and by countries like Singapore doing some modern engineering of Blue Zones principles, because we can’t all be Sardinian farmers. Expensive or affordable, high-tech or low, the longevity community is a fast-rising trend.
It’s astounding how quickly longevity–the quest to reverse aging and extend healthspan–has become the mania in the health and wellness space. The pricey longevity clinic is the new business genre, breaking down the walls between medicine and wellness, and so many of these clinics are opening globally. Every week, we read about another biotech startup working on complex longevity interventions: whether unriddling the epigenome, reversing cellular senescence, or new DNA repair therapies. In the name (and sometimes game) of longevity, we have medical-grade hyperbaric oxygen therapy, cryonic freezing, peptides and exosomes, “young blood” transfusions, and so on. The media delights in covering the mad investments of billionaire tech bros like Jeff Bezos or Peter Theil in solutions that might give them eternal life. Just this week, The Guardian explored these billionaire “immortals,” while Rolling Stone went in-depth on rich biohacker Bryan Johnson, who now has an algorithm running his endless, daily mission to live longer. If 2023 is the year of longevity, the high-tech, medical, extreme-biohacking variety has dominated.
You would think we had forgotten the low-tech, simple longevity approaches identified by the Blue Zones project. We all know the Blue Zones, those five places around the world identified by National Geographic fellow and author (and GWS keynote speaker) Dan Buettner, where dramatically more people live to 100. This isn’t because of pills, treatments and self-optimization, but because their environment makes the healthy choice the default, “mindless” one. With his new Netflix docuseries, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, which came out August 30, the conversation around environment as the lynchpin of longevity has been reignited. It quickly became one of Netflix’s most-watched series and there has been a lot of press coverage with Buettner offering new insights and research. The series wings you to the original five Blue Zones (Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California) to illustrate how these places, in quite different ways, all share the nine Blue Zones principles that create fulfilling, long lives: from a plant-based diet, to moving without thinking (walking everywhere, gardening), to a lifelong sense of purpose (“retirement” is a foreign concept), to a strong human support network (daily socializing with family and friends).
In the show, Buettner drives home the dramatic mindset difference between the new high-tech, high-cost, and essentially fear-based longevity approaches and the Blue Zones approach. In the first episode he explains how a Blue Zones life “is not about trying to prevent death, it’s about learning how to live…not about test-tubes, but living well without trying.” It’s about things that feel good like having a glass of wine with friends and having purpose. And if wellness is all about personal agency, how we actually need “to stop beating the dead horse of personal responsibility” in order to create effective longevity communities.
Singapore named the new Blue Zone, we shift from organic to engineered communities:
Part of the powerful allure of the Blue Zones (and the series) is fantasizing about being a sun-dappled Sardinian goatherd, living in a pre-digital (even pre-industrial) world, where you mosey 20,000 steps a day without thinking, you’re constantly socializing and supported, and you grow all your food. Rather a challenge in a world where most jobs involve being constantly slumped over a laptop, where our smartphones chain us to endless stress and social media versus social lives, and the food environment evilly conspires against us. Buettner (always funny) called the series “longevity porn,” and also noted that he’d be hard-pressed to ever find another “organic blue zone.” By recently naming Singapore as only the sixth Blue Zone, he’s signaling a major shift in focus (he calls it “Blue Zones 2.0”): It’s less about chasing the daydream of places where longevity is the fallout of ancient traditions, but actively creating modern and urban places that engineer, over time, wide-ranging policies that re-imagine the whole environment around health. In a new article in Fortune (see below), Buettner details why Singapore has been so wildly successful in boosting longevity these last 20 years and why the city-state “is the future of aging.” Singapore has endless walkways and green space where residents get 10,000 steps a day without thinking (and if they do hit those steps, they get points to use at restaurants and shops). The city subsidizes healthy food, and its hospitals are social, resort-like and focused on prevention, sending nurses out into communities to deliver everything from free health screenings to setting people up for healthy food. And most importantly, Singapore is pioneering multigenerational living, from giving tax breaks to people if their aging parents live with or near them to real estate projects like Kampung Admiralty, that connect seniors to nature and younger gens, with elder care and preschools engineered right next to each other. Singapore has unleashed diverse, strategic policy actions that nudge people– every day–to simply do the healthy thing.
The longevity community models will spawn:
Blue Zones continues to work with new cities like Scottsdale, AZ and Sacramento, CA to change their infrastructure and policies to drive healthy behaviors naturally. New, thankfully affordable, housing developments are being created inspired by Blue Zone principles. Alafia, a 57-acre, 2,600-unit, $1.2 billion state-funded project slated for one of the poorest parts of Brooklyn, will feature an urban farm, mental health center, medical clinic, nutrition education, healthy food delivery for seniors—and it’s all about design that sparks connection, with a maze of social and recreational facilities and walking paths.
At the high-end, high-tech and medical longevity communities are rising fast. The first Blue Zones Center in Miami is part residences, part hotel, and is focused on advanced preventive longevity medicine in an urban high-rise. (Note: The Blue Zones brand–and a strong brand it is–can be hard to understand: It was developed by founders Michel Poulain, Dan Buettner, and Giovanni Mario Pes, and in 2020, the non-profit healthcare system Adventist Health acquired Blue Zones to greatly expand its reach, and the Adventist community of Loma Linda, California as one of the original Blue Zone longevity hotspots.) Velvaere, a new skiing- and nature-focused wellness community in Park City, Utah (with everything from art and music classes to multigenerational programming), has recently partnered with medical-longevity company Fountain Life which uses cutting-edge diagnostics and AI to identify diseases very early—the first time that solution has been brought to a residential community. Extreme biohackers are creating longevity communities, such as Zuzalu, a pop-up longevity city in Montenegro that is looking for a permanent home, say in Costa Rica or Rhode Island, or Próspera, a private crypto city in Honduras that is reportedly a lab for experimental, unapproved longevity medicines.
A community that works to make healthy choices stealth, requiring little will and self-optimization (where community, movement and healthy food come first); futuristic biohacking “cities” trying everything imaginable; and hybrid models essentially integrating some Blue Zones wellness with advanced medicine…Such different vibes and longevity approaches. What Blue Zones has taught us is that longevity is ALL about the community you live in–and the longevity community is a trend to watch. Which will actually extend healthspans? Which cultures will people embrace? Which will make them happy? Time will tell.
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