Tony Buettner, who identified himself as the Senior Vice President of the Blue Zones Project gave a polished pitch and review of the Blue Zones Project. Buettner is the brother of Dan Buettner whose book(s) on five pockets of centenarians around the world and their habits and diet was a best seller. (There is third Buettner brother involved as well.)
He started out by asking if every adult in the room had walked to school as a child, and most had. However, when he asked if their children did, almost no one raised their hand. This may sound damning, but is really rather naïve. Wilton has essentially zero sidewalks outside the downtown area, and no real way to maintain such sidewalks even if they could be built. This is common in New England because of the rocky terrain and old property lines and roadways. He might have looked around the town a bit before starting his canned pitch.
Buettner reviewed some of the remote civilizations where there are more than a usual number of long-lived people, including quite a number of centenarians, and followed that up with Dan’s conclusions that there are nine factors involved in extending your lifespan, (and living happily as the members of these civilizations) in Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Nicoya (Cosa Rica), Ikaria (Greece) and the Adventists of Loma Linda, CA. He named and trademarked these nine factors as the “Power of Nine,” even though some of them are pretty common and obvious, such as “eat more vegetables.”
He suggested that their success in longevity is 80% environment and life-style and only 20% genetic. This is somewhat in conflict with their science advisor Stuart Jay Olshansky, who believes genetics is far more important than that. However, this was a marketing pitch, not a scientific one as we discovered when one of his slide misspelled “Chi-squared” as “Khi square.”
He also suggested that bitter melon, favored by the Okinawans, “kills cancer.” This is utter nonsense, as no human experiments have been performed to validate this folk remedy. And he refers to the Ikarian wine as having 4 times the polyphenols of other red wines. But, unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence that such antioxidants have any health-giving properties. That is mostly a marketing myth.
He also brought up their oft-repeated story about Stamatis Moriatis, a Greek man from Ikaria who while working in the U.S. “developed terminal lung cancer,” and went back to Ikaria to die, but lived another 30 years, allegedly because of the healthy climate and lifestyle of his home island. Neither his story nor any of the articles I have found provide any validation for this medical fairy tale: no doctors in either the U.S. or Greece are cited. While Buettner, asserted that this story has been validated and published in the New York Times, he is actually referring to a magazine article written by his brother Dan, which contains no references of any kind.
In pitching the services the Blue Zones Project can provide to our town, Buettner continually mentioned “evidence based” and “science backed.” However, at no time did he give examples of such evidence or science. OK, neither Buettner is a scientist. But in describing their work in demonstration city Albert Lea, MN, he talked about replacing candy and junk foods in the supermarket checkout area with 43 “superfoods.” Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a “superfood.”
Switching to some of their current projects, he mentioned the Beach Cities project in California, made up of Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. He claimed great success, with a 50% reduction of childhood obesity. This would be an amazing accomplishment, but if you go and read about the project, this effort was a years-long project by the Beach Cities Health District starting in 2006. According to Eric Garner, Communications Director of the BCHD, childhood obesity has fallen by 68% since that time. This is indeed a major accomplishment, but the Blue Zones Project came much later, (2010-11) and only added the Walking Schoolbus to the obesity project. I would call this intentionally misleading, to say the least.
When I got to ask some questions, (awkwardly, I’ll admit) I wanted to know why this work had never been published or subjected to peer review, and whether this wasn’t just correlation without causation. Buettner’s rather arrogant answer was that they had been featured on 3 magazine covers and been asked to present at the Davos Economic Forum, and they didn’t need to deal with causation, (which he clearly didn’t understand).
I also mentioned Professor Stuart Jay Olshansky’s objection:
… He exaggerates the importance of diet as genetics is critical in these folks, and I was not happy early on that they were selling items from the various locations as longevity boosters, which supposedly they stopped doing…
He immediately interrupted to me to assert that the BZP has never sold anything. This is patently untrue: here is a link to their “store,” where they sell turmeric from Okinawa, bean soup with beans from almost very Blue Zone region, and even cases of Blue Zones Water. They also have offered “Longevity Tea,” and Caracolillo Coffee from the Nicoyan region, but these are sold out.
He was not interested in discussing the criticism in Eric Carter’s paper, which I enumerated in my previous article, and quickly moved to shut me down.
I found Buettner’s attitude and mendacity very troubling and am not enthusiastic about our working with this group.