According to the most powerful data gatherers in the world, Gallup, residents in the Beach Cities have in the last two years – since the arrival of the Blues Zones Project – made among the most dramatic and measurable health and well being improvements in the nation.
Gallup unveiled new survey results before the Beach Cities Health District Board of Directors at its Jan. 31 meeting. Among the most striking of the gains revealed was an nearly 14 percent reduction in obese and overweight adults locally, or an estimated 1,645 fewer obese and more than 12,000 fewer overweight adults then in 2010.
The findings were presented to the BCHD board by Dan Witters, chief research officer for Gallup’s Well Being Index, which polls 190 communities nationwide on health and well being measures.
“The improvements are impressive and real,” Witters told the board. “And I congratulate you for it.”
Witters noted that direct causality between the dramatic, across-the-board improvements and the Blue Zones Project initiative is difficult to correlate, but the fact that few other of the 190 communities surveyed show such consistent, dramatic gains strongly indicates the public health initiative has affected the change.
“In my professional opinion, it is a slam dunk,” he said. “The change we see here is in rare company of what we might find across other cities nationwide.”
The Blue Zones Project is a public health initiative jointly funded by BCHD and Healthways, a private firm that works nationally with companies to improve employee well being. It grew out of a National Geographic study of the world’s longest-living and healthiest populations and seeks to apply lessons in living from those geographies – called Blue Zones by demographers – to the U.S. population. The Beach Cities’ Blue Zones Project began with a WBI survey in late 2010 and runs though late 2013.
Part of what was unusual about the newest WBI numbers – derived from a survey of 1,206 residents composed almost equally of Manhattan, Redondo, and Hermosa Beach residents last October – was the uniformity of improvements in key well being indicators. The overall composite well being score, which tracks emotional and physical health as well as other elements such as work environment, health care access, and healthy behaviors, is perhaps the most difficult number to nudge forward.
Since 2010, residents of the Beach Cities have seen their well being climb three points for an overall composite well-being score of 76.4.
“I wasn’t anticipating that at all,” said Lisa Santora, BCHD chief medical officer. “It almost doubled what I expected to see in change.”
According to Gallup, research indicates that each point in well-being improvement equates to a statistically significant percent decrease in the likelihood of hospital admission and the likelihood of incurring healthcare costs.
Healthy behaviors saw significant upticks. Residents who identified themselves as smokers dropped from 10.6 percent to 7 percent, an estimated $6.97 million savings in health care costs since 2010 and far below the unmoved national average of 21 percent.
“That is greater than a 30 percent reduction in smoking,” Witters said. “Do the quick math. That is about 3,500 fewer people that are smoking today than two years ago, a statistically significant number with very high confidence. We are very certain this represents authentic change and isn’t a function of sampling error.”
Nearly 10 percent more residents report eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables four days a week than in 2010. Likewise, 10 percent more report exercising at least 30 minutes three days per week.
“Now you are talking five or six thousand more people that are hitting those plateaus than were two years ago,” Witters said. “So, very impressive improvement.”
Not all the Gallup data showed progress. One of the most striking features of the 2010 WBI was it revealed levels of stress and worry locally that were among the worst of the 190 cities surveyed – residents in the Beach Cities residents were found to be angrier than Detroit and more stressed than New Orleans. These indicators, Witters said, have remained largely unchanged.
“This is the one area where the Beach Cities were at the back of the pack a few years ago, and are still in the back of the pack,” he said.
The most strikingly dramatic improvement, the drop in overweight and obesity incidence, had a local precedent. The BCHD LiveWell Kids program, which promotes physical activity to kids in the Redondo Beach Unified School District, achieved a directly measured drop in obesity among 5th graders from 18.2 percent in the 2004-05 school year to 10.5 percent in 2010-11.
“The schools represent a microcosm of what we are now trying to do community wide… I definitely don’t think these are outlandish numbers we see,” Santora said. “Think of the thousands of parents who have been impacted by LiveWell Kids program. We’ve been doing this over 7 years, and then finally we have this galvanizing catalyst of an experience, through the Blue Zones Project, in our community – you know, there are so many stories of people making dramatic weight loss, 40 pounds, 50 pounds, and connecting to the community and achieving goals. Is it all attributable to Blue Zones? Of course you can’t say that, since we’ve had a lot of initiatives and programs in the community. But I think we are on the verge of this great momentum. And I think this kind of demonstrates that.”
BCHD CEO Susan Burden likewise said that the momentum has really just begun. The fundamental framework the Blue Zones Project seeks to establish in the community is changes in the local environment that make making healthy choices more convenient. This includes changes ranging from restaurant menus better presenting healthy choices to cities increasing bike lanes and pedestrian friendly areas.
“People will be touched by this who have no idea it exists,” Burden said. “They are not going to understand what it was that put that walkway in, or how that bike trail happened, or maybe how the grocery store is laid out differently. And that was the goal – whether they know it exists or not, just for folks to have choices. It’s all about choices, and we are not going to see results for a long time in many of these things. So to have these kind of results, already, is very encouraging.”
Paige Lapen, the Blue Zones engagement lead locally, said that 15,000 residents have been engaged thus far. She said a priority going forward is to increase the numbers of residents who sign the “Blue Zones Pledge” from 4,011 now to a goal of 18,000. Lapen, who joined the project last year, said the last year saw more online engagement – a 68 percent increase in the last six months of 2012, helping reach 200 million impressions through various online avenues.
“I’m starting to think we are a very website-driven community,” Lapen told the BCHD board.
Lauren Nakano, the Blue Zones Project director for BCHD, pinpointed increased involvement since Lapen’s arrival. She noted that 2013 has a marketing campaign that emphasizes different themes for each month of the year.
“We now have had a plan for the year – it’s very cohesive, and it’s got a real theme. That is something we were really looking for….We feel it really creates a buzz in the community and we get a lot more traction.”
Burden also praised community leaders for their emphatic support, which began even before Blue Zones chose the Beach Cities with the endorsement of every elected body in the Beach Cities.
“The city councils, the mayors, the school districts, the superintendents of schools, the chambers of commerce – those people have all been amazing,” she said. “They all said, ‘I am in,’ and they meant it.”
Santora also praised the BCHD board, which in a real sense launched the project.
“Your decision two and a half years ago has placed us at the vanguard of a national movement,” she said.
“But you shouldn’t rest on your laurels and let it stall out,” Witters said. “Get the awareness higher, get more people involved in the activities, and keep moving the needle on this. We will continue to track your progress in the years ahead, and hopefully we will see the same amount of progress.”
See more information or take the pledge at bluezonesproject.com, or come to a special “Wine @ 5” tasting and pledge party Feb. 21 at Uncorked, 302 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach.