Since the summer, an image of a blue target has been popping up all over Wilton, on signs, flyers and lapel buttons, as buzz has been building about something called a “Blue Zone.” Exactly what a Blue Zone is will become clearer, thanks to an impassioned campaign by one town resident to make Wilton a healthier place physically, mentally and socially.
When Beverly Brokaw moved to Wilton in 2012, she arrived with a slew of prescriptions and side effects as a result of a three-year struggle with several autoimmune conditions, including Lyme, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Lupus.
She believed there had to be another way, and so she took it upon herself to figure it out. “I decided to take a holistic approach to my health, which required a lot of research and a lot of work,” Brokaw explains. “It’s so much easier to pop a pill.”
Brokaw started exploring functional medicine, which focuses on the body as a whole, not just on pharmaceutically turning off an overactive immune system. She was able to go off of her medications but there was still a long learning curve and lots of trial and error in the years that followed.
Today, Brokaw’s symptoms have almost completely diminished. “I do need to check in with myself throughout the day–should I really eat this today, or it will cause inflammation? How’s my hydration and supplementation? Do I need to lie down and rest? How is my stress level, and which modality should I use to lower it? It’s really about managing it day to day.”
A year ago this fall Brokaw caught a Today Show interview with Dan Buettner, National Geographic Fellow and Blue Zones Project founder. Buettner’s message aligned exactly with what Brokaw had learned on her own and, she believed it could be a way to help even more people circumvent the health issues she now believes were largely avoidable.
“For someone coming from a baseline of general health, they can maintain that status through lots of small, simple lifestyle interventions. If the healthy choice was the easy choice, as Blue Zones proposes to make happen, a lot fewer people would have to suffer like I did,” she says.
Brokaw began researching Blue Zones Project success stories. One Blue Zone Project town in particular stood out as similar to Wilton in terms of size and needs: Albert Lea, MN. Since becoming the first official U.S. Blue Zone in 2009 the town has reported the following achievements which they attribute to participating in the project: 25% property value increases, $40 million in otherwise unavailable grants, gifts and investments, 20 new businesses opening in three years, 40% reduction in city worker healthcare costs, 90% increase in resident satisfaction levels, decreases in markers for all of the major diseases, and a new distinction as one of the top towns in the state to live.
It was enough to make Brokaw pick up the phone and ask what it would it mean for Wilton to become a Blue Zone.
The Blue Zones Project is a community-wide well-being improvement initiative designed to help make healthy choices easier through permanent changes in environment, policy, programs and connections. Buettner spent 10 years studying five areas around the world–Ikaria Greece; Loma Linda, California; Nicola, Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; and Sardinia, Italy–where the most people are living the longest. He identified nine lifestyle characteristics, or what he calls the “Power 9” principles, across these five Blue Zone environments:
- Move Naturally: This doesn’t necessarily mean structured exercise. Buettner found that people living in Blue Zones are nudged into moving about every 20 minutes, whether it was gardening or going out on foot to visit a friend or to work.
- Down Shift: Stress is part of the human condition, but Blue Zone residents are committed to daily rituals that reduce stress and reverse the inflammation associated with stress. Rituals vary and include activities such as prayer, ancestor veneration, napping, and happy hour.
- Purpose: In the Blue Zones, people have vocabulary for purpose and according to a National Institute on Aging study, people who are able to articulate their sense of purpose, can live up to seven years longer.
- Red Wine: A healthy relationship with alcohol is the key here; high quality red wine has been shown to reduce the effects of chronic inflammation.
- Plant Slant: Another common denominator is a diet based mostly on plants. In many Blue Zones, meat is consumed much less regularly than they are in the West. Beans, full of fiber and protein, play an integral role.
- 80 Percent Rule: People living in the Blue Zones keep it simple and stop eating when they feel 80% full. It takes time for the brain to process that the stomach is actually full.
- Loved Ones First: A commitment to not only spending time with spouses and children, but an effort around building the relationship is important too.
- Belong: People in Blue Zones tend to belong to a faith-based community. According to Buttoner, individuals who regularly attend a faith-based service live 4-14 years longer than their counterparts who do not.
- Right Tribe: Healthy behaviors are contagious. The world’s longest-lived people “curate” social circles around them that support them in times of crisis and support their healthy behaviors.
Currently, there are 42 cities in the United States that have achieved Blue Zone certification. Proponents say that by leveraging the “Power 9” principles, Blue Zone-certified communities have seen dramatic and measurable reductions in obesity, BMI, cholesterol, tobacco usage, and markers for cardiovascular, heart and autoimmune disease, cancer, and diabetes. Simultaneously, they have seen significant increases in well-being, civic pride, volunteerism, in-person connectedness of residents and economic vitality. Brokaw is hoping Wilton will commit itself to this effort, which could make it the first Blue Zone community in the Northeast–and help it benefit from the likely ensuing media attention by being the first New York City-commutable Blue Zone.
“Wilton is already doing so many things that can, at no cost, help us earn Blue Zone status.” says Brokaw. “The Blue Zones Project team would work with us to coordinate the good works already happening here and help us choose from a menu of choices of other items concerning policy, programs, social connections and the built environment to earn certification. It is not meant to take money from existing efforts but to piggyback on them and get them greater recognition. This is only of interest if it can be privately funded but publicly supported. Typically, funding comes from large hospital systems, healthcare companies, health foundations, or local investors and corporations that want to share in the mass media reach and association with this high-profile cause.”
Brokaw says that if Wilton achieves Blue Zone certification, it would gain access to money that the town could use towards healthy lifestyle improvements, such as sidewalks, bike paths, town amenity enhancements, and more.
“It’s really about leveraging our best and most unique assets: our farms, trails, river, parks, history, health-minded and caring residents,” Brokaw explains. “Wilton could get local and national recognition as a town that invests in the health and wellbeing of its residents—including new families, school-aged children, young professionals, stay-at-home or work-at-home residents, and the elderly, as well as the thousands of employees that come here every day to work.”
So, what’s next? The Blue Zones team will be coming to the Clune Center in Wilton on Tuesday, Oct. 23. Starting at 7 p.m., there will be a 45-minute National Geographic-level presentation followed by an open forum Q&A where all questions can be asked.
“This is our chance to find out if the Blue Zones initiative makes sense for Wilton,” says Brokaw.
More information about the Blue Zones project can be found online. To stay on top of Wilton-specific Blue Zone efforts, visit the local effort’s website or Facebook page.