Tuesday night, Wilton learned about the Blue Zones Project, which promotes community-wide participation in a “well-being improvement initiative.” It’s based on the philosophy that if a community adopts a comprehensive program weaving together certain changes in environment, policy, programs and connections, it will have a profound impact on overall health, wellness and life-span for the people who live there.
Believing something like the Blue Zones Project could benefit Wilton, a small group of town residents invited the program’s representatives here in the hopes that the wider community would consider adopting and implementing it.
What is Blue Zones?
Founded by longevity expert Dan Buettner, the project has designated more than 40 cities around the country as official Blue Zones, each one working toward the goal of making widespread improvement in residents’ health, emotional well-being and social connections.
Tony Buettner, the brother of the Blue Zones founder, gave an hour-long presentation to explain how the project was developed and what some of the core principles are. Approximately 300 people attended the discussion in the Clune Center Auditorium and more than 120 watched GOOD Morning Wilton‘s livestream of the event to hear about the initiative.
Buettner’s TED Talk-style pitch explained how he and his brother identified five cities around the world as places where residents lived longer, some to 100 years old and beyond. The Buettners observed common factors and behaviors among residents of those communities–diet, exercise, faith, family practices, friendships, work, etc.–and believe if other communities were to adopt similar behaviors, longevity would be extended for their residents as well.
The Blue Zones website puts it in a more alluring way: “Using secrets discovered in the original Blue Zones—rare longevity hotspots around the world—we help transform communities into thriving places to live, work, eat, and play.”
Buettner recounted the type of primary research the Blue Zone team has done on longevity–as he put it, working with “demographers, anthropologists, medical researchers, nutritionists.” He referenced other research they’ve accessed, starting with the Danish Twin Studies and the Adventist Longevity Study. He added that they’ve interviewed more than 260 centenarians, and worked with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
“Our longevity is tied to our genes by only about 20%. That’s counterintuitive–people think, ‘That family lives long because they have good genes.’ The reality is, 80% of how long each of us live is tied to two things–your environment an your lifestyles. So our premise was if we could find the right environments and lifestyles that support longevity, we could have the de-facto recipe, or try to re-engineer it. Our simple approach was to find geographically confirmed, demographically defined places around the world where people live longer lives.”
One city they studied was Okinawa, Japan, a place Buettner called “ground zero for longevity.” There, he said, women live 12 years longer than American women do; they have the longest disability life-expectancy in the world; there are five times the number of 100-year old people; they see one-fifth the rate of breast and colon cancer; and they have one-sixth the rate of cardiovascular disease.
Buettner shared several entertaining, anecdotal accounts of individuals who were living active, healthy, socially-engaged lives well into their 90s and even higher.
Blue Zone Wilton organizers are looking for feedback and input from Wilton–fill out their online survey, here.
From all of their work, the Buettners have developed “The Power 9″–nine “lessons to live a longer, better life.” Included among the list:
- Move Naturally
- Right Outlook (to reduce stress)
- Eat Wisely (plant-based diet and drink small amounts of wine)
- Connect (family, faith, friendship)
Buettner explained the business model as this: “We try to get people using about 400 evidence-based, science-backed defaults, pledges of their choice to make healthy choices in their life radius,” a term he used to describe an individual’s environment.
The key, said Buettner, was that the initiatives are community-led. To be successful, a Blue Zone city would need significant numbers of volunteers, involved leaders and a team of Blue Zone “specialists,” all working with the Blue Zone organization and national experts who consult. The local effort would select from among programs created by the parent organization that would have a higher likelihood of being accepted by the wider community.
“We don’t tell people what to do. We hire a staff from the communities we work in and train them,” Buettner said.
He shared examples of several Blue Zone communities and their successes: one where childhood obesity has dropped 64% in seven years, another which had a statistically significant drop in medical claims. Other benefits Buettner said that Blue Zone cities were reporting included “measurable increases in well-being,” improved productivity, more active population, and economic boosts.
Beverly Brokaw, who introduced the Blue Zone concept to Wilton, opened the evening by telling the audience she hoped people would simply be open to learning more about the idea and its principles, noting that she wants Wilton to make up its own mind.
“I do not work for Blue Zones, I’m just a Wilton resident who cares about this town, came across this idea and thought it sounded like a good fit,” she said.
She said the information session was meant to be “exploratory.”
“That’s what we’re here to do tonight–to learn, to be educated and to understand if this is something that we can pursue.”
Over the last several month working to organize Tuesday evening’s discussion, Brokaw found other Wilton residents who volunteered to help after they heard more about the Blue Zone concept.
“A lot of us didn’t know each other before we started doing this, so it’s been the best of community coming together. We are a group of people–mothers, fathers, sisters, children–who just believe in three things about this initiative: it represents the best of our town, it represents the best of our community and it’s all about health. We, as a group of volunteers, feel this takes the best of what this community has to offer and brings us together in really unique ways that can elevate and give visibility to this town.”
Bob McDowell, the CEO of the Wilton Family YMCA/Riverbrook Regional YMCA, spoke in support of the Blue Zones program.
“Blue Zones represents common sense principles that are aligned with the Y’s mission, dedication to maximizing the personal potential of all individuals in the community.”
He asked the audience to “think big.”
“Imagine changing a whole generation’s health in a positive way. Are you ready to rally around creating a culture of well-being in our community?”
Public Reaction–High Level of Interest, and a Dash of Skepticism
Blue Zones has certainly won fans in town. Several people shared their appreciation and support for the idea on social media and in conversation after the event.
But the Blue Zone concept is bigger than just an organized movement; there is also Blue Zone LLC, the for-profit business. It’s that distinction that has some residents wanting to know more before jumping in.
Buettner did spend a chunk of his time establishing the Blue Zone team’s credibility, pointing to the media coverage and New York Times best-selling books written by his brother.
Among the kind of media attention the Blue Zone work has attracted includes long-time support from National Geographic. Dan Buettner published his first article about “The Secrets of Living Longer” in the magazine in 2005; Tony Buettner told the Wilton crowd that the article is the second most-read article in the publication’s history. National Geographic also recently publishing a book by the Buettners about Blue Zones. As well, he talked about a cover story in Time Magazine, and coverage by The New York Times, the Today show and Good Morning America, and more.
But where the presentation left some people with unanswered questions was in the area of funding–who would pay for implementing the program, how much would it cost, and what do you get for the money.
A statement on the Blue Zones website says, “Projects are deployed through our partnership with both Sharecare and regional sponsor(s). The projects are publicly supported, privately funded, and run for 3-10 years.”
It continues: “Successful communities have a champion(s) that leads the process of securing funding and educating and driving community stakeholder interest. Past and current project champions include health insurance executives, public health officials, and community leaders. They all have one thing in common: they have the vision to change their community.”
At least three states–Oregon, Hawaii and Iowa–have statewide Blue Zone programs in place and several towns that have signed on with the project. It’s been easier for them to get funding through larger health insurance and health care companies, as well as larger community and charitable foundations.
One community that has wrestled with becoming a Blue Zone city is Erie, PA. According to one media report, the cost of the program there was estimated to be approximately $10 million over five years. “The money would be used to pay for staffing, education and community-design initiatives, which could include creating walkways that encourage people to get around by foot or bicycle.”
Leaders there recognized that for other Blue Zone communities, the costs were covered by major health providers, like hospital systems or health insurance companies, or through grants from large foundations. Erie had a harder time finding funding.
Lebanon, NY is another community that had engaged with Blue Zones, but eventually pulled out of the project, over funding questions.
From the Albany Democrat Herald:
“Initially, Lebanon backers believed the city was in the running to receive a three-year, $1.2 million grant to develop programs for healthier living. Last fall, program representatives clarified the proposal, saying demonstration communities did not receive dollars but instead a three-year funded program, to which they would be expected to contribute between $200,000 and $400,000 a year to offset costs.
“At an update meeting last week, Blue Zones representatives told the steering committee and its supporters that Lebanon was one of three “finalist” communities, and that all three needed to be able to pledge $200,000 for 2017 and $300,000 for the next two years to receive the demonstration community designation.
“Shelly Garrett, president of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, said her feeling was that Lebanon was not winning a title but being asked to buy one, and she didn’t think that was the best choice for the city.
“Every dollar pledged to Blue Zones is one no longer available to help existing nonprofits, even though they might already be committed to helping the community achieve healthful objectives, Garrett said.”
Presumably the amount required to implement a Blue Zone program in Wilton, or any city, would vary based on its size and the details of the program specifically crafted for that town. But there was very little discussion about cost and funding during the presentation Tuesday night.
That’s not to say it wouldn’t be at future discussions, as Buettner’s presentation was more of a 10,000 foot view than a deep dive into details.
One question Buettner was asked Tuesday night was whether there had been any failures in Blue Zones’ history. His answer was, “None.” But like Lebanon, NY, there have been other communities that have dropped out, like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, because of the high cost of participation.
The program also has been questioned about cost and transparency elsewhere, including in Charleston, NC.
One person who left the presentation on Tuesday said she supported the principles and the way of life promoted by the Blue Zones Project–she just wasn’t sure about the sales pitch part of it.
It remains to be seen how receptive Wilton’s town officials will be. First selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice declined to comment about the program, saying she hasn’t yet met with Brokaw to discuss it, and she felt it wasn’t appropriate to comment before then.