What are the characteristics of the world’s longest-living people?
What can we learn from people living in longevity hotspots known as Blue Zones, where an uncommon number of people live long, healthy lives?
Those questions and more were the basis of a Blue Zones Greater Chattanooga community program on April 27 in the University Center’s Tennessee Room on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus.
The event, which brought more than 250 community members to campus, included welcoming remarks from Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly.
“It’s great to see this kind of turnout for this concept because it very much dovetails upon my vision for Chattanooga,” Kelly said. “We’re all here because we love this place and we believe in the potential for Chattanooga.”
Kelly told the audience he is committed to a Chattanooga 10-minute walk campaign as a first step to improving everyone’s health.
“Getting outside and getting exercise, I do it as much for my head as for my heart,” he said. “God gave us this incredible landscape and all of our green spaces, so I think we need to lean into that.”
Blue Zones Vice President of Business Development Dan Buettner Jr. led a discussion identifying the five global cities where people live the longest and are healthiest: Loma Linda, California; Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece. These cities and their lifestyle habits provide a blueprint for improving health.
“Our bodies should go on for about 90 years,” Buettner Jr. said, “but the average life expectancy of an American is 78 years. Somewhere along the line, we’re leaving 12 good years on the table.”
The premise of Blue Zones, which has been around for more than 20 years, is that good health is a community effort. Building a culture of health and well-being leads to better health, lower costs and vitalized economy.
Over the last 10 years, Blue Zones has partnered with more than 70 U.S. cities to create an environment that nudges people toward healthy behavior.
Chattanooga is attempting to become the first city in Tennessee to land that designation. The Chattanooga Blue Zones steering committee, including Dr. Suzannah Bozzone—a lifestyle medicine and board-certified family physician at True Health Journey—is driving that effort.
“Blue Zones is very appealing because they’re evidence-based,” Bozzone said, “and it’s just a way to redirect and nudge people to healthy behaviors.
“So often we have such great data showing where the root drivers of chronic disease, how to eat, how to live, how to stress less, love more, move more, but when our environment boosts us toward disease rather than health, it makes a bit of a barrier and actually increases stress.”
Why is it important to be designated a Blue Zones city?
Bozzone cited data to describe the success Blue Zones has had in different cities in the country. Childhood obesity in schools in Beach Cities, California, has been reduced by more than 50%; smoking in Fort Worth, Texas, has been reduced by 34%; and healthcare expenditures of city employees in Albert Lea, Minnesota, have been reduced by 40%.
“There is no Blue Zones Project right now in the state of Tennessee,” she said, “and as you probably know, we’re in the heart of the worst health in the world. We’re in the diabetes belt. We’re in the obesity belt. You name it, we’re in that belt.
“I think we can make a significant impact because of our location. The ripple effect can impact this entire state.”
Dr. Steven Fox of Erlanger Health System, who specializes in family medicine and is a certified lifestyle medicine provider, said the right pieces are already in place in Chattanooga to make positive changes and eliminate existing health inequities.
“The Blue Zones Project gives wings to improving health on a community scale and changing the environment,” Fox said. “It will improve the health of the community in a much bigger way than I could do one-on-one with an individual.”
Bill Rush, chief executive officer of Metropolitan Ministries, has focused on bringing executive-level officials to the table.
“What interested us from the life perspective and any organization’s perspective is looking at all the different elements that affect the community, especially around developed environments and access,” Rush said. “When people want to live a healthier life, it should not be more cumbersome for certain individuals versus other individuals based on where they live. That directly increases their likelihood of chronic disease, and they’re least likely to be successful because it requires them to work harder to be healthy.
“If you can’t get to a grocery store, or you don’t have the ability to walk and bike in your community, or to socially gather in green spaces and places like that, or have access to healthcare easily, there are a lot of factors that play a part in a developed environment.”
Megan Vermeer, the director of health innovation at YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga, said it takes a village to change a community’s way of thinking.
“The Blue Zones culture is truly to build an environment to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” Vermeer said. “It is a blueprint to truly transform and change a culture to increase quality of life and vitality.
“This event is an introduction so that people understand what the Blue Zone’s mission and movement are so that they’ll get on board and partner with us. The more people we have from different zip codes in different parts of our community, the better.”
Vermeer was asked about the significance of holding the event at UTC.
“To make a culture change, it really starts with the college kids because they’re our future,” she said. “It’s huge that the Master of Public Health department students understand and have exposure to the necessity of why Blue Zones are so important.”
Emma Sampson, program manager for the UTC Master of Public Health program, is the coordinator of University efforts to bring Blue Zones to Chattanooga.
In addition to UTC, event sponsors included the YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga, Lyndhurst Foundation, Medical Society Foundation, True Health Journey and the Chattanooga Times Free Press.