Supporting a ‘Blue Zones’ well-being initiative to improve community health

What can we learn from some of the world’s longest living and healthiest cultures? It’s a question at the root of an approach to improving the health of a community by investing in systemic, sustainable changes that can result in long-lasting improvements. These enhancements are imbedded in an understanding of why residents in places such as Sardinia, Italy or Okinawa, Japan see people thriving past 100 years old: They lived in environments that supported healthy lifestyles: Healthier food choices, walkable streets and strong social bonds, among other things.

The Blue Zones model illustrates this strategy and employs evidence-based efforts to help people live better and longer. The company’s work is based on research and principles developed by Dan Buettner, National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author, who identified the cultures of the world — or “blue zones” — with the healthiest, longest-living populations. Taking those principles as inspiration for other communities, UnitedHealthcare, in collaboration with several other local organizations, is working to implement a Blue Zones transformation in the Phoenix area.

"Nearly 80% of what influences a person’s health relates to nonmedical issues, such as food, housing, and transportation. These social determinants of health and the health equity challenges in south Phoenix disproportionately affect communities of color," said Jean Kalbacher, CEO, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Arizona. "We are pleased to be collaborating with passionate and driven organizations for the expansion and delivery of sustainable health and lifestyle solutions."

Equality Health Foundation, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Arizona and Valley of the Sun United Way are funding the first assessment phase of Blue Zones Activate. Here’s how it works:

  1. The Blue Zones team, made up of global experts in food systems, built environment and health equity, works alongside local leaders and organizations to assess the strengths, needs and challenges that south Phoenix residents may be facing.
  2. The Blue Zones team then works to educate and mobilize local leaders and residents to build a plan for change, prioritizing the strengths, challenges and opportunities of the community. The transformation plan, once implemented, can drive widespread improvements in well-being, reductions in health-related costs and improve economic vitality in the region.
  3. The needs, desires and readiness of the community helps determine where to go next — into a Phase II or a Phase III path to improving the well-being of the region. Phase II of Blue Zones Activate focuses on policy improvement as the most powerful and cost-effective lever for sustainable change. Phase III is a Blue Zones Project — the full Life Radius model, which focuses on people, places and policy. This may include improving roads and parks, promoting physical activity, building healthier models in restaurants, schools and workplaces or forming social groups to help nurture healthy habits.

“At Equality Health Foundation, our goal is to end health disparities and improve the whole health of diverse populations,” said Tomás León, Equality Health Foundation president. “We’re honored to serve as the convener of like-minded entities around this very important initiative.”

By looking at the built environment in a community, and discerning where gaps in wellness occur, these partners can better understand how a community “ticks” – and then plan lasting improvement accordingly. This Blue Zones model helps build off the UnitedHealthcare mission to help people live healthier lives, by supporting under-resourced Phoenix neighborhoods’ own journey to better health.

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