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June 2012
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By DAVID ZOELLER dzoeller@paducahsun.com

Supporters of the holistic health initiative known as the Blue Zones Project say an area's economic health will be enhanced along with its overall physical health, well-being and longevity.

A group of local organizers is considering a proposal to make Paducah the first Kentucky community to become a Blue Zones Project, joining 42 other communities in nine states.

The initiative is based on principles identified in studying areas of the world where people live the longest - Blue Zones - and using those principles to help communities adopt healthy behaviors to improve quality of life, decrease medical costs and improve worker productivity.

The findings that led to the Blue Zones Project stem from a National Geographic cover story by Dan Buettner, "The Secrets of Living Longer," in which nine commonalities (The Power Nine) were identified among the world's longest-living people. They include, among other things, an emphasis on regular physical activity, a plant-based diet, and engagement in spirituality or religion, family life and social life.

In building Blue Zone communities, strategies target both individual behavior and places where individuals spend most of their time, including where they work, grocery stores and restaurants they frequent, their faith-based communities and schools.

In a series of meetings with community members interested in bringing a Blue Zones project to Paducah, project representatives have outlined how changing the environments in which people live, work and interact with family and friends can lead to healthy behaviors that will ultimately have a positive impact on the community socially and economically.

Tony Buettner, Dan's brother and senior vice president of business development with Blue Zones, said in communities that have undertaken the initiative, funding often comes from "organizations that value a healthier community. Insurers that are insuring lives, hospitals that are mission-driven, health foundations, well-being foundations, major employers and philanthropic organizations that are looking for evidence-based, measurable, inclusive legacy projects."

The city would benefit also, he said, not necessarily as a funder, but in reaping the benefits of the economic impact and healthier population.

According to Ben Leedle, co-founder of Blue Zones, a theme that emerged from a recent national conference of purchasers of health care is that "the right strategy is to aim to improve well-being in the workforce."

Blue Zones uses data collected in the annual Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index that measures a community's well-being based on survey answers in five areas: purpose, social, financial, community and physical.

"We know we can measure well-being, and we know we can design interventions to improve it," Leedle said. "And, we know when you do improve well-being, it produces a population of people that performs better and costs less. That's really the underpinning proposition for the Blue Zones Project."

In the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Kentucky has been ranked 49th among the states for eight years in a row.

Blue Zones representatives have suggested a project for Paducah could cost between $5 million to $7 million over a three-year period.

Leedle introduced a statistical model analyzing data to measure the impact on the greater Paducah area (defined as McCracken, Ballard, Livingtson and Graves counties in Kentucky, and Massac County in Illinois). Using that model, Leedle said the greater Paducah area would rank 185th out of the 190 metropolitan statistical areas nationwide.

Based on survey data, with no intervention, he suggested total medical and lost productivity costs would increase $433 million over a 10-year period.

By adopting Blue Zones initiatives, Leedle said the greater Paducah area could see in 10 years projected medical claims savings over $94 million and improved productivity of $79 million.

He estimated that over the 10-year period there would be a regional economic impact of $29 million, that for each $1 of improved workforce productivity there is a positive impact on the regional economy through increased direct and indirect household consumption. That totals a projected savings of $202 million over that period.

A healthier community also addresses the issue of talent recruitment and retention, according to Leedle.

"In some communities they call it 'brain drain,''' Leedle said. "They have good systems for education, they get professionals produced and then they leave and go someplace else. If you want to grow businesses, you've got to be able to attract and retain talent."

Paducah Mayor Brandi Harless was among the community representatives attending the Blue Zones presentations.

"I'm in public health and so I'm definitely very interested in the health aspects of this (Blue Zones)," the mayor said. "But more importantly, I'm very interested in things all of you have passion for and that is workforce and economic development.

"When I listen to the stories being told around our state by our governor announcing jobs in places like Bowling Green and east Kentucky, they (announcements) haven't quite made it over to our area and for no other reason than geography. This is a geography issue, it's not necessarily intentional," Harless said.

"But because of that (geography) we have to do things differently and that makes us innovative. This is something that I think can set us apart more than anything else because when we talk about workforce, we don't actually lack the population of workers." she said. "We lack workers who are willing and able to work. The good news is we have a great population to pull from, we've just got to help them get into the workforce."

According to the mayor, "This is big stuff. We can't deny that. We can't run away from the fact that this stuff costs money. We also can't run away from the fact that this could be one of the biggest things we could do in our city in a long time."

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