Albert Lea on the move into the Blue Zone
It was the middle of January. It was 34 degrees below zero. Albert Lea was in the middle of a walkability study—an audit to determine how the city could become more bikeable, walkable and livable. It was an invigorating start to Albert Lea’s participation in the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project.
The AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project is a 10-month project designed to improve health and projected life expectancy. It encourages the development of social networks; provides healthier restaurant menu options; and makes it easier to get around on foot or by bicycle to create the kind of community where healthy habits are natural. The project, funded by United Health Foundation, sets an ambitious goal of adding at least 10,000 years of projected life expectancy to the people of Albert Lea (two years of projected life expectancy per participant) through environmental and individual changes.
What are Blue Zones?
In the 1990s, native Minnesotan Dan Buettner was transmitting videos and stories into classrooms from his cycling expeditions around the world. During these trips he became interested in demographics and longevity and began his research into “Blue Zones,” his term for regions with the longest disability-free life expectancy or concentration of persons over 100.
Over six years, Buettner and his team of physicians and demographers studied four “Blue Zones,” specific regions whose populations are reaching age 100 at an extraordinarily high rate: Loma Linda, California; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan and Sardinia, Italy. These Blue Zones have a sense of community—an element of happiness and vitality that goes beyond a diet and exercise program. The team identified and studied common threads in lifestyle, behavior, diet, outlook and stress-coping mechanisms.
The AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project is designed to replicate elements of these common practices in other communities around the country. AARP’s highest priorities are health and economic security for all generations. The joint project is combining AARP’s healthy behaviors expertise and Blue Zones’ longevity expertise to help Americans live longer, healthier lives.
Buettner explains, “The goal is to add two years of good life—to live long and live well. We know that additional years of life and better health can be achieved through some relatively simple changes. We are putting this to a test by selecting Albert Lea to take the Vitality Project challenge with the intent that if one city can do it, more can and will follow along. We are looking for a scalable public health initiative that can be replicated by other American communities and individuals.”
Enhancing health and longevity
The average life expectancy in America is about 78. The capacity is 90. The AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project is looking for the other 12 years by focusing on four areas considered to be crucial to health and longevity: Community Environment, Social Networks, Habitat, and Individual Sense of Purpose.
Improving Community Environment means making the healthy and active option the easy option. Are sidewalks and bike trails available, smooth, safe and well connected to the places people need and want to go? Can employers, community centers, faith communities, public sports facilities and schools that serve food make more nutritious options available? A community-wide audit will assess improvements that can be made.
Emphasizing Social Networks focuses on helping participants identify and spend time with friends and family who have a positive impact on their health. In addition, it aims to encourage participants to expand their social circles to include more positive influences. Research shows that our social circle has a powerful impact on our long-term health behaviors.
Improving Habitat means making subtle changes to home and work environment to increase calories burned and reduce the calories eaten. Experts will help residents improve their personal environments and eat healthier without thinking about it.
People who have an Individual Sense of Purpose in life live approximately seven years longer than those who tend to drift through their day. The Vitality Project will feature seminars to help residents identify their values, passions and talents, as well as find outlets to put these qualities to good use.
The success of the project will be measured by asking participants to calculate their life expectancy with a longevity calculator called the Vitality Compass™. This will happen twice—once at the beginning and again at the end of the project. The Vitality Compass estimates life span based on current lifestyle and habits. It also estimates how many of those years will be healthy years.
Blue Zones collaborated with the University of Minnesota-School of Public Health to create the Vitality Compass. It is based on a scientific algorithm created by using more than 350 recognized studies that measure the impact of certain behaviors on health. When it is taken more than once, the Vitality Compass measures the impact of changes in behavior and adjusts its projection. The compass is a series of 35 questions, which takes about four minutes to complete. While the Vitality Compass is an accurate predictor of how behaviors affect longevity, it is not a health-risk assessment tool. Rather the Vitality Compass helps individuals understand and improve their positive healthy behaviors.
Why Albert Lea?
The University of Minnesota helped design the right community size to select for the pilot project. After reviewing the demographic and health statistics of several small cities in Wisconsin and Minnesota, targeted cities were asked to apply and they competed to be the subject of the Vitality Project. Community leaders sent in comprehensive proposals explaining how they would help this project succeed. Albert Lea was selected as the pilot because:
Public health experts recommended piloting the project in a town of 10-20,000 people. Albert Lea has approximately 18,000 residents.
Elected officials, school administrators, the health care providers and employers in Albert Lea made a commitment to support community changes and to help individual residents make personal changes.
Albert Lea has statistically average health conditions for the United States so any other average city in America will be able to replicate this project.
Albert Lea is close to the headquarters of Blue Zones and the University of Minnesota. Dan Buettner is leading the effort. Faculty from the University of Minnesota are acting as academic advisors, providing research insights and helping to measure the success of the project.
The walkability audit validated many things that Albert Lea’s leaders already knew. The town has a historic form that makes the community a good place to live and invest. The presence of a well located, quality downtown, with good streets, roads, a waterfront, trails and neighborhoods made for an excellent start for the future. The walkability study also determined that bicycle parking in the downtown lends little support to bicyclists. Seniors have too few places to sit. Principal roadways lack bike lanes or other friendly features. Sidewalks are needed to support children walking to school, in and around all senior centers, and as approaches to all retail centers. Crosswalks need to be repainted to increase their visibility.
Albert Lea is finding opportunities to listen to the citizens and to involve them in volunteering and decisions regarding community improvements and opportunities. These efforts will engage residents to make personal changes that require little or no ongoing effort but will improve their health and increase their longevity.
For more information, to participate in the AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project or to take the Vitality Compass, go to www.bluezones.com. To learn more about Buettner’s experiences and insights leading up to the project, read his book, The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.