The secrets to a long and healthy life were shared with Fayette County community leaders Monday at a presentation focused on building healthier communities.

The Blue Zones Project uses research from communities with the highest rates of longevity around the world to create a blueprint for others to follow. The group was hired with grant funding to conduct a community assessment of Fayette County. The Fayette Living Well Coalition, which is comprised of county leaders, hosted the presentation at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus.

“We’re all here tonight to see how we may be able to create a better county,” said Muriel Nuttall, coalition member and executive director of the Fayette Chamber of Commerce.

She said the group was formed after data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Grades ranked Fayette County 66th out of 67 in health among Pennsylvania counties every year since at least 2018.

“We’ve got some problems in this county,” Nuttall said.

She said there is “a lot of apathy in our community” and that it requires a “catalyst for change.”

“We want change. I raised my family here. I want them to stay here,” she said.

Dan Buettner, spokesperson for the Blue Zones Project, said following the blueprint has a ripple effect beyond public health, and extends to the economy and health equity. Their research identified nine factors in determining longevity, which he said can add 12 years of life to the average American. They include regular physical activity, life purpose, stress reduction, lowering calorie intake, eating vegetables and establishing meaningful connections with others.

He spoke about five communities with high life expectancies: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Loma Linda, California and Mikoya, Costa Rica. The common denominators among the culture in each community include strong engagement within the communities, diets high in vegetables and active lifestyles. Four of the five communities are at or below the poverty line, he said.

In Okinawa, children are placed into groups of about five people of the same gender who stick together for life, Buettner said. The groups, called moia, meet together on a regular basis. If a member does not attend their gathering, they go together to check on the person. Buettner said the women of the community have the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. Okinawans live seven healthy years longer than the average American. They have a healthy and active lifestyle, which involves gardening and diets with high vegetable intake.

The highlands of Sardinia is home to the highest number of male centenarians, Buettner said. The main industry of the community is shepherding, which requires high amounts low-intensity physical activity. The community members keep their families close, and often work together. The elderly are revered in the community, he said.

Buettner noted that three of the five communities studied do not have a word for “retirement.” Instead, they have a word for concepts like “what gets me up in the morning.” Purpose, he said, is a key factor in longevity.

The Blue Zones Project will take aspects of these long-living communities and the results of their Fayette County assessment to create a report for local leaders with steps for building a healthier community. The project engages schools, faith-based organizations, businesses and worksites. In other Blue Zones communities, leaders have built trails and community gardens and added Blue Zones aisles to the grocery stores.

Nuttall described herself as “the county’s biggest cheerleader” and said she believes that local leaders working together can build a happier and healthier community.

“It’s like having a big family together,” Nuttall said of the group. “I think that’s kind of what Fayette County is.”

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