- Associated Press - Saturday, August 22, 2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - People in Nicoya, Costa Rica, are twice as likely as Americans to reach a healthy age 90.

In 2004, author Dan Buettner and National Geographic teamed up with longevity researchers to find out why certain pockets of people in the world reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States.

They discovered that these pockets - or Blue Zones, as they call them - had nine shared lifestyle characteristics that might explain longevity. They called these the Power 9.

Now, Beacon Health System is hoping to apply some of those factors to South Bend and Elkhart. The hope is that the communities’ health will improve and that they will attract workers who want to live a healthier lifestyle.

But in order to become official Blue Zones Project-certified communities, the cities have to demonstrate that enough community leaders will support the effort.

What is a Blue Zones community?

“It goes beyond diet and exercise,” said Rick Zeeff, community well-being coordinator for the Blue Zones Project at Beacon. In a Blue Zones community, members - schools, employers, restaurants, grocery stores and community leaders - collaborate on policies and programs that move the community toward better health and well-being.

The communities try to incorporate the Power 9 traits, including moving naturally, eating more plant-based foods and having a strong support system. The project’s goal is to lower obesity and smoking rates, increase vegetable consumption and daily physical activity levels, generate medical cost savings and improve overall well-being.

Other communities have reaped benefits from participating in the project, according to data collected through the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Healthways, a health management organization in Franklin, Tenn., implements the Blue Zone Project.

In 2009, Healthways applied the Power 9 principles to Albert Lea, Minn. Over the next several years, the city built and rented 46 new community gardens. About 44 percent of the adult population participated in walking groups, grocery stores reported a 46 percent sales gain in 36 healthy foods and smoking rates declined from 23 percent to 19 percent. Health care claims for city workers dropped 49 percent and participating businesses saw a 21 percent decline in absenteeism.

Local process

Currently, South Bend and Elkhart are in the assessment phase, which means that Healthways is conducting focus groups to gauge community interest and researching the area’s institutions, economy, current initiatives and health issues. An expert is also brought in to assess the environment and identify areas for improvement.

“We look at what things are already in place, what challenges might exist and what opportunities there are,” said Chris Liberto, organization lead for the Sioux City (Iowa) Blue Zones Project.

In early September, Healthways will provide Beacon with a copy of its assessment, at least part of which Beacon plans to make public. Whether one or both of the communities takes the next step depends on the assessment, local support and funding.

“People are very receptive,” Zeeff said, explaining that many community organizations and leaders have signed a pledge of commitment. “The pledge allows Beacon to tell Healthways that these community leaders are behind it.”

Elkhart Community Schools, which signed the pledge, already follows many of the Blue Zones’ suggested healthy practices for schools, said Shawn Hannon, superintendent for communication and data for the school system. It has surpassed the healthy food requirements for students, has revised school policy to incorporate more movement into the school day and has an agreement with Activate Healthcare, which offers screenings and incentives for employees meeting healthy goals.

Hannon sees a lot of potential in partnering with the project. Other Blue Zone communities’ schools have done some interesting things, she said, which the Blue Zones team could help local schools examine. For example, some of the Blue Zones communities have walking school buses, where a school employee walks children to prearranged stops in the manner that a regular school bus would.

“Those aren’t things that we’re starting tomorrow, but I like the idea of collaborating with people in the community that support each other,” she said.

Changes won’t happen overnight, even if the project is adopted, but Beacon hopes it will have a long-term impact on the area’s health.

“This isn’t something we will do for six months or a year,” Zeeff said. “It might take six or seven years to really impact all facets of the community we live in.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune, https://bit.ly/1J5cCfx

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com


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