MINNEAPOLIS — Albert Lea, Minnesota, gets only a few minutes of screen time in “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones.” But it’s hard to imagine that the docuseries would exist — or that its host, Dan Buettner, would become a guru of longevity — without the city agreeing to be ground zero for a bold experiment.
Buettner, who grew up in St. Paul and graduated from the University of St. Thomas, convinced Albert Lea in 2009 to test out health initiatives that ranged from starting community gardens to adding bike lanes, all designed to help its citizens live longer and prosper. Those tests would lay the seeds for the Blue Zones Project, which has now been adapted by more than 70 cities nationwide.
“That provided the proof,” Buettner, 63, said this week in a Zoom interview from his brother’s home near Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis. “It was Patient A.”
Minnesotans would certainly have been thrilled if “Live to 100” focused more on the town of roughly 18,000 people, about a 90-minute drive from Minneapolis. But that approach probably wouldn’t have drawn many eyeballs outside of state lines.
Instead, the four-part series, landing Aug. 30 on Netflix, spends most of its time in more exotic towns whose senior citizens have a lot to teach those of us who had a Big Mac for lunch.
We discover how steep hills in Sardinia, Italy, herbal tea in Ikaria, Greece, and volunteer work at a church in Loma Linda, California, will all do more for you than a membership at the local gym.
You also get to see the joy on the faces of people well over age 90, socializing like teenagers on their way to a sock hop.
“I’m not going into a retirement home in Cottage Grove,” said Buettner, who got a particular kick out of mingling with folks in Ikaria and Nicoya, Costa Rica. “I found these quiet, wonderful people there. I love shining a big, beautiful camera on them and making them heroes.”
Buettner’s mission is well documented in print. His last book, “The Blue Zones American Kitchen,” featured more than 100 recipes, including some from Twin Cities chefs Sean Sherman, Yia Vang, Andrew Zimmern and Alan Bergo. His next, “The Blue Zones: Secrets for Living Longer,” comes out Aug. 29.
But he’s well aware that he might reach even more people through television.
“I first started by writing for National Geographic. That’s the way you brought your findings home,” said Buettner, who won trips around the world in his youth by selling high numbers of subscriptions to Minneapolis newspapers. “Now the way people consume information is through Netflix.”
In conversation, Buettner rattles off statistics and preaches with such conviction that you can feel like you’re in a doctor’s office. But his lectures go down smoother on the screen, where they are accompanied by footage like that of a 101-year-old woman laughing as she plays a ring-toss game with her family.
Moments like that may do more to sell his message than the results of any study.
“You can only see so many beaches and churches,” said Buettner, who had just spent an hour walking around Lake of the Isles and had biked the North Cedar Lake Trail the day before this interview. “There’s nothing more fun and interesting to me than having an assignment for National Geographic where I have the license to visit people’s homes and go deep. I actually tried to retire about three years ago. It didn’t work for me. This is what I’m going to be doing the rest of my life.”
(Neal Justin covers the entertainment world, primarily TV and radio, for the Star Tribune.)
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