Morgantown to potentially partner with Blue Zones Project

MORGANTOWN — WVU and Morgantown hope to be the first joint city/university to receive a prestigious Blue Zone health and wellness distinction, but it’s not likely to be fast, easy or cheap.

Tony Buettner, senior vice president and national spokesperson for the Blue Zones Project, explained that a 15-year-old research project supported by National Geographic and the National Institute on Aging has resulted in the first “evidence-based, science-backed” initiative to get consistent, measurable results in improving community health and reducing health care costs.

Buettner said the original project, to find and study the world’s healthiest and longest lived populations resulted in five original Blue Zones — Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan and Nicoya, Costa Rica. Buettner said the team spent its time quantifying why, for example, these communities could boast a rate of cardiovascular disease about one-sixth that of the U.S.

“To date we’ve found five places that we call Blue Zones. It is in these places that our team has spent its time figuring out secrets so that we could bring the secrets back and share them with individuals, family, organizations and communities to make healthier choices easier and long lives a reality here in America,” Buettner said, noting the 2008 pilot project, in Albert Lea, Minn., brought city worker health care claims down 47 percent, dropped tobacco use 17 percent and increased walking and biking by 80 percent — all in about 13 months.

“We’re now in 45 communities. We partner with Gallup to actually measure risk factors and disease prevalence in a population so we can actually calculate what the cost of doing nothing will be,” Blue Zones Project Senior Vice President and General Manager Michael Acker said.

Morgantown’s opportunity to potentially become the 46th community to partner with the Blue Zones Project came by way of some fortuitous timing.

Christine Wallace, who spearheaded the creation of Morgantown’s Health and Wellness Commission along with her husband, City Councilor Ryan Wallace, said her family was already familiar with the Blue Zones concept when they arrived in Morgantown. She said she began working toward the health and wellness commission in an effort to help turn around West Virginia’s flagging health indicators, but always with a long-term goal of pursuing the Blue Zone designation.

In the lead-up to council forming the commission, Wallace gave a presentation last summer during which she offered an explanation of what Blue Zones are and the impacts the program is having elsewhere. Shortly thereafter she heard from a representative of the university who asked if the city had already initiated contact with the Blue Zones Project.

“It was actually a total coincidence that WVU was already in touch with the Blue Zone people. This wasn’t planned at all. I had no idea,” she said. “We didn’t know that WVU had already reached out to them.”

Fast forward a year and both the city and university are about to undergo an extensive, four-month assessment. According to Acker, the assessment will include “Qualitative and quantitative analytical work over the next many months to compile for the community a set of recommendations in the form of a report.”

According to Acker, the university will pay $250,000 for the assessment of both itself and the wider community.

Buettner explained that following the assessments, the Blue Zones Project will return to share the findings with both entities.

“Then we’ll determine if the university and community is ready to lead a project of this magnitude and certainly what would the investment or resource allocation look like to do a Blue Zones Project here,” Buettner said.

Colleen Harshbarger, Morgantown Health and Wellness Commission chairperson, said if the city gets the green light and is willing to invest in moving forward, the real work of trying to hit the benchmarks informed by the assessment process will begin.

“It would be anywhere from a three-to five-year process. Part of the assessment period is also looking at whether a community is ready. If they perceive not enough overall buy-in or not enough leadership or don’t feel the community is ready to prioritize this as a project, then they’re not going to become invested with us. I know for sure that has to be there for them to say, ‘Yep, we want to help you get there.’ ”

Harshbarger said having the Blue Zones Project in town is a tremendous opportunity.

“The expertise they have and ability to collectively harness our strengths to move in a unified direction in creating a culture of health in our community, I think that’s huge,” Harshbarger said.

Wallace said she hopes Morgantown is able to achieve the Blue Zones designation not only for its own benefit, but the benefit of all of West Virginia.

“If we bring awareness to what a Blue Zone is and start to highlight how things can change positively in terms of people’s health, I think that we can be a real shining light to the rest of the state,” Wallace said.

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