When adventurer Dan Buettner set off around the world, riding his bike and visiting far-off destinations, he put a way of living into motion. Through the study of various communities around the world, Dan discovered pockets where populations of older people seemed to be living longer than anywhere else on earth. There were five such places where people lived a very long time and were healthier than many of the world’s people. Dan called these places “Blue Zones.” The Blue Zones included Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California.
The Blue Zone concept grew and developed through the work of Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain. They originally identified Sardinia as a part of the world where there was a high concentration of older men. As the two began mapping the regions of longevity, they highlighted the villages and termed the inner circle of them “Blue Zones.”
“Dan and the team of demographers and researchers found that all blue zone areas share nine specific lifestyle habits that they call the Power 9.”91
The Blue Zones became a New York Times best seller. Media attention followed, and soon there was increased interest in the lifestyles within the Blue Zones. People began to recognize the Blue Zones as the happiest places to live. Communities were looking for ways to emulate the lifestyles and successes of these regions and in turn boost their longevity.
Dan realized he had not only a business, but a mission. What would happen if Blue Zones were created around the world? What if every community became a Blue Zone and a happy and healthy place where people lived longer? Could chronic disease be eradicated? Would health care costs drop?
In 2009, Albert Lea, Minnesota, teamed up with Blue Zones by applying the same concepts seen in the other Blue Zone locations. The location was suffering a severe economic crisis and needed a strategy to get out of it.92
What do these communities get for signing on to be a structured Blue Zone? Lower obesity rates, smoking cessation, increased exercise among their populations, reduced health care expenses, and a happier and more productive community. The initiatives are incredibly effective at making changes in how people live, work, and play. The Blue Zones project is population health at work. Adopting Blue Zones is creating a culture and community of complete well-being—one in which the people have increased productivity due to less illness.
Creating these communities includes a phased in approach. Blue Zones starts with Phases I and II, which build the foundation. Through assessment and an understanding of current state and desired future state, the gaps and issues are identified. The plan is drawn, and then in Phase III there is a full transformation that includes the people, the places, and the policy. When the plan is fully accepted and implemented, people will enjoy longevity, lower health care costs, and the recognition that the community is a great place to live and work.
How does the Blue Zones process work for the communities that participate? The effort is a collaboration between the community and the Blue Zones team. Starting with a complete evaluation of the community, Blue Zones experts work with community leaders and residents to assess the current state of well-being. Understanding the challenges currently facing the community provides the team with the greatest opportunity to develop the opportunities that will transform the community.
The statistics speak for themselves. Now communities across the United States are working to find ways to combat the crippling effects of the nation’s health care crisis. Blue Zones could be the answer. “The Blue Zones Project helped our community set amazing, aggressive, and achievable strategies that moved the Public Health agenda further in 10 months than what I could have expected in 10 years,” said Lois Ahern, director of Freeborn County Health (retired), in Albert Lea.93