The Longevity Project | Part 2: How do Colorado’s long-lived mountain towns stack up to the rest of the world?
February 13, 2018
Editor's note: This is the second installment in a four-part series from the Vail Daily.
Marie Zdechlik lives in a house with a red-tiled roof off of Fifth Avenue in Frisco. She blows snow off her walkway by herself. She also mows her lawn, drives her car and lives independently.
For most able-bodied people in Summit County, that might not seem like a big deal. However, Zdechlik is exceptional — she's still lively at 92 years old.
But if you ask her how she's managed to be this healthy at such an advanced age, she'll shrug and give you the same answer.
“In these Blue Zones areas, people don’t live a long time because they’ve consciously tried to shift their behaviors. They lived a long time because they lived in the right environment, an environment that nudges them into doing the right thing for most of their lives, and nudges them away from the wrong thing.”Dan Buettner
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"I don't know why. It's not something we ever discussed, why one person lived longer than someone else did. I just did."
And that may just very well be the key to longevity. Living life the right way in the right place, subconsciously, appears to be more effective than fads, diets, exercise routines or other artificial methods of trying to live longer.
That is a conclusion from the Blue Zones Project, an initiative to transform communities to emulate the lifestyles and behaviors of some of the longest living communities on the planet. In this installment of our Longevity Project series, we will delve into the concept of Blue Zones, what makes them special and whether places like Summit and Eagle counties may be considered "Blue Zones."
The Origin of 'Blue Zones'
Anthropological researchers Gianni Pes and Dr. Michel Poulain coined the term "Blue Zone" in a paper published in the journal Experimental Gerontology in 2003. The term described specific areas with unusually high concentrations of male centenarians in a mountainous part of the Sardinia region in Italy. Their study found that these Sardinian men lived longer, healthier lives than men in most other parts of the world.
The term reached a mainstream audience with a 2005 National Geographic cover story called "The Secrets of a Long Life" by Dan Buettner. Buettner intended to try to find answers left unanswered by Pes and Poulain's study by going to areas known for their longevity and studying their people, cultures and environments. He wanted to see what was unique about these communities, as well as to explore whether there was a pattern of shared lifestyles, habits or practices that explained their high life expectancy.
He and a team of researchers traveled to four areas around the world where people seem to live longer — Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; and a Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California. Buettner eventually wrote a book detailing his findings, titled "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest."
So what exactly is a 'Blue Zone'?
The way Buettner sees it, a "Blue Zone" is a place where locals do things "the right way." According to his book, Blue Zones are "areas of the world with concentrations of some of the world's longest lived people." These are "communities where common elements of lifestyle, diet and outlook have led to an amazing quantity — and quality — of life."
Those common elements, Buettner said, are deeply ingrained in the culture of these communities, and aren't trends or behaviors that were adopted overnight.
"In these Blue Zones areas, people don't live a long time because they've consciously tried to shift their behaviors," Buettner said. "They lived a long time because they lived in the right environment, an environment that nudges them into doing the right thing for most of their lives, and nudges them away from the wrong thing."
For an example of how these "nudges" are built into the culture and the social order, in his book Buettner looked closely at the long-living mountain men of Sardinia.
"As a rule, they had worked hard their whole lives as farmers or shepherds," Buettner wrote. "Their lives unfolded with daily and seasonal routines. They raised families who were now caring for them. Their lives were extraordinarily ordinary," with the exception being that their communities had an abnormally high number of centenarians.
While Buettner attributes part of that unusual longevity to the specific genetic make-up of Sardinians, he points out that these "ordinary" lives they lead are busy.
"Everyday hikes taken by Sardinian shepherds burn up to 490 calories an hour," he wrote. That's the equivalent of two hours of brisk walking, 90 minutes of gardening or two hours of golfing. Sardinian men also lead purpose-driven, family-centered lives that are based on routines, hard work and a wry outlook on life that builds mental toughness and resolve.
Buettner emphasizes that this activity is part of a lifestyle, and not done out of leisure or as part of a trendy, expensive exercise program.
"Most of what we know about what makes us live longer is wrong," Buettner said. "Exercise, diets, aging serums, supplements — they make somebody a lot of money, and they're marketed a lot. They might work in the short term, but they fail almost all the time for all the people in the long run."
So what did Buettner find in common for the lifestyles in these communities that, if adapted into the social order and culture, could lead to longer lives? At the end of his book, he condensed what he learned from the Blue Zone communities into nine lessons:
Be active, move around.
Eat more plant-based foods, not meat and processed foods.
Drink red wine.
Have a strong sense of purpose.
Learn how to relax.
Be part of a religious or spiritual community.
Always put family first.
Surround yourself with people who share values 1-8.
By building these habits, routines, lifestyles and behaviors into the core of their society and culture, Buettner said these Blue Zone residents have unconsciously adopted these healthy lifestyles and even enjoy them.
That, he said, is the key to building a Blue Zone — a lifestyle that can be passed from generation to generation, not temporary changes that may be abandoned because of lack of motivation or enthusiasm.
"When it comes to living longer and healthier, we hope for short-term fix," Buettner said. "That doesn't work, a short-term fix doesn't exist."
Instead, the Blue Zones project aims to help rebuild communities so that they naturally gravitate to better habits and better lifestyles.
"The purpose of the Blue Zones project is to think comprehensively communitywide on how to reshape the environments we're living in so that the healthy and happier choice is the default," Buettner said.
So, at their very essence, Blue Zone areas don't try to be Blue Zones. People aren't trying to live longer, they're not trying to be healthier, they're not seeking everlasting happiness. It is something that has become so accessible and routine that it's not something they even need to think about.
Are we living in a Blue Zone?
In short, no.
"There's no way any place in Colorado will be an official Blue Zones area," Buettner declared. "America gets a B plus for longevity. These other places have an order of magnitude, like 10 times more centenarians, to qualify to be a Blue Zone."
What about that dazzling statistic of Summit, Pitkin and Eagle counties having the highest life expectancies in America?
"You deserve credit for high life expectancy, yes. But not to throw a wet blanket on you guys, but that's like being the valedictorian of summer school. There's such a long way to go."
He isn't kidding. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report about centenarians in this country. The report stated that at the time, there were 53,364 people aged 100 or older still living in the U.S. That's a ratio of less than one centenarian for every 5,000 Americans.
Compare that to one village in Sardinia, which was found to have seven centenarians in a population of 2,500.
Buettner points to the relatively high middle age morbidity rate in the U.S. as one reason this country can't compete with places like Sardinia or Okinawa. In those Blue Zones, people not only live longer, they suffer much less before death.
"The worst cohorts for life expectancy are people dying in their 60s," Buettner said. "Those people tend to have a long ailing period when they're suffering from cancer or diabetes. They're spending vast amounts of health care dollars to live longer. In Blue Zones, that period is compressed. They live a long time, and they die very quickly."
Buettner agrees with local experts Dr. Jules Rosen, chief medical officer at Mind Springs Health, and Dr. Peter Lemis, of Summit Cardiology, that the life expectancy in Colorado's mountain communities may be artificially inflated due to a self-selection bias. People who are able to live here long term are financially and physically equipped to stay, but if they aren't they have to leave and die elsewhere.
Rosen, who is also the former chief of geriatric psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, allows that there are some possible benefits to living in the mountains that help with aging.
"Enjoyment of the outdoors and physical activity are conducive to successful aging," Rosen said. "Anything that reduces heart diseases is likely to reduce brain vascular disease. There's also a lower risk for dementia."
Rosen added that the lifestyle enjoyed by many here is also conducive for a healthy social life.
"Here, you call friends over to go on a hike, or to go skiing," he said. "There's a very natural, pleasurable link between where you live and what you do."
Ultimately, though, Rosen sees that lifestyle being lived by people lucky enough to do it regularly and without as much concern for things like basic health issues or financial survival.
"It's really a self-selection of people who choose to live here," he said. "The people who have to live here because of jobs, if they don't engage in that self-selected lifestyle, they won't experience any benefits."
Tamara Drangstveit, executive director of Summit's Family and Intercultural Resource Center, believes the quality of life people have in Summit depends a lot on the lifestyle they can afford.
"I definitely think life expectancy depends on the demographic you're talking about," she said. "We've seen the studies that it's one of the healthiest populations, but not necessarily the case for sub-populations."
Drangstveit specifically talks about lower-income populations who struggle to make ends meet in the mountains, who in many cases have to pay the same prices for necessities as affluent people or the visitors do.
"Most of these working people hold two to three jobs," she said. "Low-income families can't access all the high-income families can. Aside from cost, they don't have the time to live the kind of lifestyle that leads to really high life expectancy."
Other issues are well known to mountain residents, such as high rent and health care costs. This environment creates a social bottleneck, which keeps poorer and less healthy people out.
But Buettner said mountain residents shouldn't necessarily be ashamed of those high costs. "There's nothing wrong with that," he said. "The fact that you manufactured a community that justifies high rent, there's no shame to that. You have a lot of land you conserve, that helps with activities and being close to nature. The rest of America should look at what you're doing right."
Marie Zdechlik is a great example of a person who lives this ultimately fruitful lifestyle without even realizing it. While she didn't consciously adopt the Blue Zone lessons, she certainly lives by most of them and seems to have created her own mini Blue Zone at home.
Zdechlik is originally from Minnesota, growing up on a farm during the Great Depression. She went to nursing school and moved out to Colorado in 1946, after a polio outbreak hit. She was trained to operate the iron lungs and to help treat the disease that was ravaging the nation. She went on to work as a nurse at the Climax mine, which for many years supplied most of the world's molybdenum.
She stopped working at the mine the day her first child was born in 1954. Aside from occasional stints working as a nurse later in life, she devoted most of her adult life to raising her six children. She and her husband, Bob, built their home in Frisco in 1958, partly with materials they salvaged from Climax. She still lives in that house.
Back when she was raising children, Frisco was more of a rural mountain hamlet with 87 residents. "We didn't have streets around here, or a water or sewer system," she recalled. "We had to dig our own well to get water."
There weren't any parks, playgrounds or any other social areas for children, so she let them play in her yard.
For many children, her home became the neighborhood social hub where long-term friendships and community spirit were kindled. But she made sure to impress upon them the need to behave properly, not hurt others and to abide by her ground rules.
"You needed to follow the rules," Zdechlik said. "If you didn't follow the rules, you had to go home."
Zdechlik followed these rules throughout her life. She made sure to eat healthily and moderately, worked hard to raise her family and stayed active with everyday chores. In her leisure time, she skied, golfed and hiked. Without even noticing, she grew to the age of 92 with few health issues aside from the occasional back twinge that keeps her indoors.
When asked if living in Summit had anything to do with living longer, she says she really doesn't know. "I came out here because of work. Back in those days, nobody really had a lot of money, so we went where the work was. So I didn't really think of choosing the life here, it's just how it happened."
When it comes to advice she has for future generations, one thing she emphasizes is to not stop exploring life, and to leave little room for regrets.
"I haven't figured out what has caused people to have this attitude, 'I've done everything in life.' No they haven't. Absolutely, you never do everything in life. Be happy and go do the things you want to do. If there's something you really want to see, see it. Don't have any remorse for things you should've or shouldn't have done."