Ask the Doctor: Blue Zones

Ames has a chance to turn blue—that is, become a Blue Zones community. There are many people who would be thrilled if this happened. One of them is Dr. Michael Kitchell, a neurologist with McFarland Clinic.

Kitchell is a strong proponent of Blue Zones. Sponsored by Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield and Healthways, the Blue Zones project is a statewide, research-based health improvement initiative and a key part of Iowa's Healthiest State effort.

In February it was announced that Ames is one of 11 Iowa communities selected for a Blue Zones site visit. In May three or four of these communities will be chosen to be Iowa's first Blue Zones communities. Ultimately, 10 Iowa communities will be chosen for the program over the next five years. These communities will receive assistance from international experts to create healthier living options based on Blue Zones concepts.

Here Kitchell explains the Blue Zones program, its potential impact and why he's such a believer in it.

Q: Why has the Blues Zones initiative struck such a chord with you?

A: There are several reasons. First, it's a proven method. The Blues Zones project is based on research by Dan Buettner, who studied areas of the world that have the longest and healthiest lives. His research found that there were nine characteristics of these communities that correlated with happiness, better health and longevity.

Second, the impacts of this program could be long-lasting and far-reaching. This isn't a program about running marathons or going on fad diets. Instead it's about making good choices that can lead to incremental, sustainable changes in our environment and community.

Third, participation in the program could contribute to reduced health costs.

Q: Because, at least in theory, a healthier population wouldn't require as much health care?

A: Exactly. Iowa has good health care. In fact, the Commonwealth Fund rates us first in quality of health care for children and second for adults. But keeping people healthy and living longer requires more than quality health care. Heredity plays a role—perhaps 20 percent—in determining health and longevity, but the biggest factors are the choices people make in their eating, exercise, social habits and environment.Providing options for people who want to lead healthier lifestyles can be an effective strategy for reducing health care spending. It's simple: If people were healthier, they wouldn't need as much health care. Taxes and premiums could go down if we could keep people healthier and avoid expensive medical procedures and hospitalizations.

Q: Has Blue Zones been tried anywhere else?

A: Yes. Albert Lea, Minn., was among the first communities in the United States to apply the Blue Zones concepts. The city completed the program in 2009, and the results are dramatic: Life expectancy increased by three years; there was a 21 percent decrease in absenteeism; and health care costs for city employees decreased by 49 percent.

Q: Do communities selected for Blue Zones receive money?

A: The communities do not receive any direct funding. Instead, the Blue Zones program provides funding for experts who come to selected cities and help citizens put healthier living options in place. A community planner, for example, might work with the city government to create more bike or walking paths. A food and nutrition expert might work with schools and local restaurants to create healthier dishes that could be added to a menu.

Q: You're obviously versed in the Blue Zones' Power 9® and a proponent for healthier living. Do you practice what you preach?

A: Blue Zones principles are designed to become habits to follow for a lifetime. I have incorporated healthier eating, social activities and regular exercise into my daily routine. For example, whenever I can, I bike to work. It is an enjoyable, relaxing part of my day. I also have a purpose, and enjoy my work, so I have no plans to retire for a long time.