CORVALLIS, Ore. – Three more Oregon communities join Klamath Falls in the Blue Zones Project, a nationwide program focused on fostering long life and well-being through community engagement.
The Dalles, Grants Pass, and the Umpqua region are the newest areas added to the Blue Zones Project Communities inspired by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times best-selling author who identified five regions of the world – Blue Zones – with the highest concentration of people living 100 years or older.
Buettner pinpointed certain beneficial habits the people of these areas have in common and vowed to help other towns embrace the same behaviors to make it easier for people to make healthy choices. Oregon’s four Blue Zones communities are part of a group of only 42 in eight states accepted into the project since it began in 2010.
In Buettner’s search for areas of health and longevity, he found residents of Blue Zones sites, many of them centenarians, practice nine healthy lifestyle habits, including a plant-based diet, a sense of purpose, moving as part of daily life and socializing. Other behaviors are attending faith-based services, eating only until stomachs are 80 percent full, moderate wine consumption, developing strategies for less stress, and putting family first.
In sites where the Blue Zones Communities Project has been implemented, results are impressive, according to Patty Case, a family and community health educator for Oregon State University Extension Service, which is helping spearhead local efforts. According to the organization, in Beach Cities, Calif., there was a 14 percent drop in obesity with a corresponding decrease in health care cost for businesses and residents of $2.5 million. In Albert Lea, Minn., grocery stores report a 46 percent sales gain of 36 healthy foods. In both cities, smoking rates declined by 23 percent to 40 percent.
Only one new site in Oregon was expected to join Klamath Falls in the program, but three of the 2017 applicants showed high need in areas such as health care, generational poverty and high unemployment, according to Lauren Kraemer, a family and community health educator for OSU Extension. In addition to need, communities demonstrated readiness to change and commitment from residents, business and government through financial contributions, volunteerism or participation in one or more programs.
“The best outcome will be an overall improvement in whole community health and well-being that doesn’t just single out physical health, where all aspects of health are equally valued,” said Kraemer, who submitted the application on behalf of The Dalles.
In Klamath Falls, where the project is 2 years old, residents have stepped up to volunteer for initiatives such as encouraging healthy food in schools, grocery stores, workplaces and restaurants. They’re also advocating for bike and walking paths and helping facilitate community interaction, including in religious settings.
“It’s a community-wide effort that is intersecting across a lot of venues to make healthy choices easy choices,” said Case. “Ultimately it would be seamless. The next generation wouldn’t think whether this is a healthy place or not. They’ll just think it’s the way it’s always been. This is the culture of our town embracing wellness.”
To become a certified Blue Zones Community, municipal leaders and volunteers must implement well-being improvement strategies in 13 pillar areas focusing on people, places and policy. National Blue Zones staff monitor the process and conduct ongoing research to determine results.
“An example of a target for the food policy sector is to create a local food hub where small, local farmers can sell their produce to restaurants, schools and other institutions,” Case explained. “A goal for the tobacco volunteer sector is to create and implement a policy that requires a retail license of the sale of any tobacco products.”
At the core of Blue Zones is a concentration on community-supported health. If there’s a more walkable city, more people will walk. If restaurants serve nutritious alternatives, customers will be more likely to order them. If community centers are available, residents can gather for social interaction.
In Klamath Falls, the response has been encouraging. “We’ve been putting our energy into developing a healthy population,” said Case, who has lived there for 25 years. “The Blue Zones project has given us the tools to bring everyone together to work toward a common goal. There’s more synergy now. It’s very powerful.”
The project in Oregon is funded by Cambia Health Foundation with buy-in by local businesses, municipalities and other organizations.