Sunday, May 26, 2024

How Netflix’s ‘Blue Zones’ Series About Centenarians Captivated My Ten-Year-Old Daughter


My ten-year-old is obsessed with the new Netflix documentary series Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones and yours probably should be too.

“I don’t get it.” My daughter was struggling to grasp the Barbie movie she had been so eagerly anticipating. I explained as best I could that much of the humor and plot points weren’t likely to be like other live-action versions of some of her favorite movies. She was steadfast and insisted that it was a movie she was ready for even though she was not quite ten. But as the lights turned on and the fire alarm started whirring in that Burbank theater — about 15 minutes before the film was over — I could sense underneath her confusion and fear over the (false) alarm, a feeling of relief that she didn’t have to watch any more of the movie. 

As we made our way back to the car — no fire in sight — I did my best to explain why the patriarchy is a problem, why the Indigo Girls song was so funny, and why women have historically had to work harder than men without ever really being equal. She gets it, for the most part — she has a single, working mom, after all. But, still, Barbie has long been one of her favorite characters. This wasn’t anything like the animated Barbie movies she’s come to love. It was as if her favorite toy had been stolen by grown-ups and they refused to give it back — which isn’t all that far from the truth.  

Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones

So it was a bit of a surprise when she insisted on watching Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, the new Netflix documentary series following Dan Buettner’s work on longevity. “It might be boring for you,” I cautioned. She was unperturbed. “I want to watch it,” she said. 

This is not her first documentary. She’s a big fan of another Netflix doc, the Academy Award-winning My Octopus Teacher. She’s watched it at least half a dozen times always as attentive and moved as if it were her first viewing. She watched Seaspiracy — and was shocked and outraged just like the rest of us. She enjoyed Jane, the National Geographic documentary on one of her idols, Dr. Jane Goodall. And there are scores of other documentary series like James Cameron’s Secrets of the Elephants and even Will Smith’s Welcome to Earth.

But watching a series on the diet and lifestyle habits of older people? It seemed a little bit out of her comfort zone. How wrong I was, though.

“She looks so amazing!” my daughter exclaimed at the 100-year-old woman profiled in the Okinawa segment as she smiled and played with her younger family members. “I want to eat like that,” she said as the episode showed purple sweet potatoes being mashed as colorful veggies were on display on the countertop. When Sardinian elders made bread and gnocchi, my daughter squealed with joy.

As the series moved through Blue Zones regions, she sat rapt, watching the stories unfold. When elders walked or engaged in physical activity like gardening or dancing, she paced the living room. “I don’t want diabetes,” she said, even though I reminded her we eat very similarly to people in the Blue Zones and she gets plenty of exercise already.

When younger family members in the series explained how they cared for and enjoyed time with their elder family members, bypassing the need for outsourced care, my daughter looked at me and said, “You will never live in a nursing home. I will always take care of you.” I choked back tears — both of surprise and gratitude. 

But should I really be surprised? 

A third of my daughter’s life has been spent navigating the Covid pandemic (her father has it as I write this). She’s had “bad guy” drills since she started school at age 3. And although she’s been raised on a plant-based diet her entire life, she has seen the impacts unhealthy diets have on people close to her.

John Mackey
On his 70th birthday, John Mackey shared 70 life lessons | Courtesy / Instagram

When my daughter met John Mackey, the co-founder of Whole Foods Market and now Love.Life (he just turned 70, by the way), she talked about it for weeks. “I met the man who made Whole Foods!” She would tell anyone who would listen about his new restaurant (and his six cats).

As Millennials and Gen-Z have helped to push climate issues to the fore, a question dawned on me as I watched my daughter watching Blue Zones: is Gen Alpha going to be the voice for wellness and self-care? It seems at least, for now, that this generation might be far more open-minded to these discussions than I was at the same age. There’s a genuine interest in making better choices for herself, for me, and, even for our cat.

It’s not that wellness hasn’t been a focus. The wellness industry is valued at more than $4 trillion. But, like Buettner shows in the series, it’s been largely an industry focused on how not to die, rather than learning how to live.

It’s certainly the ethos behind Mackey’s offerings (and it’s also our ethos here at Ethos, too). Personal wellness is paramount to planetary wellness. After all, we can’t take care of the planet, of each other, if we’re not healthy.

Are we talking enough to our children about aging?

Kids are so caught up in the magic of growing up — the birthdays hold more significance and value as kids develop the ability to cherish them more each year. But the conversations usually end there — “when will I old enough to drive, to get married, to have kids?” they ask. Are we talking to them about being old enough for statins, a heart attack, or diabetes?

In our Western culture where, unlike in the Blue Zones, nursing homes are the norm and life expectancies much lower, does it make more sense to start talking to children about these potential outcomes at a younger age?

My daughter had a good foundation. Her first food was avocado and I have photos of her chomping on Brussels sprouts before she could even walk — and she still loves them today. We don’t just follow a plant-based diet — we also prioritize a healthy, whole foods-based diet. I found my footing at a local health food store in my teens and became enthralled by Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood cookbooks and Kristina Turner’s Self-Healing Cookbook which gave me a road map for eating healthy food.

moosewood cookbook
The Moosewood Cookbook | Mollie Katzen (1974)

There are scores of studies that point to the later life consequences of our health choices made in our youth (and even by our parents and grandparents before we’re born). While my daughter is a proud card-carrying plant-eater (fruits, surprisingly, not so much), that’s not the case for most kids.

It’s so easy to fall into bad habits, especially when access to fresh, healthy foods is lacking from the start. But as Blue Zones confirms, the more modest approach to food is aligned with Michael Pollan’s famous advice: eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Series like Michelle Obama’s Waffles + Mochi have been effective at speaking to the very young about their food and lifestyle choices. Sesame Street and other kids’ shows have broached it effectively as well. But where are the shows for the tweens and teens? Given so many of them are watching programming via their devices instead, it’s not a surprise there’s little for them on the major streaming platforms or networks. (My daughter is also obsessed with Netflix’s Is It Cake — a show that not only isn’t focused on clean foods but also produces an exorbitant amount of food waste.) The Blue Zones series certainly isn’t tailored for kids — but it just may be one worth sharing with the older kids in your home. 

Of course, the reason these zones see so many centenarians is not just because of diet and food access. It’s the community, the lifestyle, the ikigai — the purpose that drives them just as much. These are values and habits best instilled at a young age. I’ve long reminded my daughter that getting old is a privilege. Everyone gets to be young, I tell her, but not everyone gets to be old. And the older we get, the more we have to hold sacred that privilege and use our time here to do as much good as we can — for ourselves and each other. It’s the throughline in Blue Zones as Buettner takes us inside the homes and lives of the world’s longest-living people and the people who love them. There is so much life, so much joy — home to home and Blue Zone to Blue Zone, it is the absolute in every location.

There’s a scene in the Barbie movie where Barbie (Margot Robbie) is sitting at a bus stop in the real world next to an elderly woman — someone not often seen in Barbie land. “You’re beautiful,” Barbie tells the woman, who’s played by Ann Roth, a 91-year-old legendary costume designer. I reminded my daughter of that scene the other night as we finished an episode of Live to 100. “She is beautiful,” she said, maybe hating the Barbie movie a little bit less. “I hope we both live to be 100,” she said after turning off the TV. “Me too,” I said.

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